On Sunday 13 September 2020, Watani printed on its Opinion Page and posted on its website an article written by its founder Antoun Sidhom (1915 – 1995), originally printed in the paper on 23 September 1979 under the title “Israel and the Deir as-Sultan predicament”. Watani’s weekly Opinion Page has been regularly dedicating space for editorials written by Mr Sidhom Sr and printed on the paper’s front page for 20 years, in 1975 – 1995. His editorials broached events and issues that concerned Egyptians in general and Copts in specific, as well as various international issues. When he passed away, they were compiled by Watani in a book that reveals how timely and fresh many of them remain. So much so that we now print them in our Opinion Page under the rubric: “How similar is today to yesterday”, a famous Arabic expression for déja vu or timeliness, in order to pinpoint the parallels between then and now, to benefit from the senior Mr Sidhom’s enlightened and well-informed thought, and to revive issues that still beg answers.
The most recent editorial by Mr Sidhom Sr published by Watani tackled the problem of the Coptic monastery in Jerusalem, Deir as-Sultan. It gave a brief history of the monastery and an overview of its predicament. The monastery is situated in a strategic location on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and was seized by Ethiopian monks who were centuries ago hosted by the Copts when they faced dire circumstances. But the guests overstayed their welcome and would not leave until they totally seized it. That was in 1970, in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day-War between Egypt and Israel. Back then, relations between the two countries brimmed with hostility, and Israeli intentions to humiliate Egypt were all too obvious. At the time, Anba Basilios, Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem took the case to the Israeli court, armed with all the historic documents that prove ownership of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Deir as-Sultan. In 1971, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Coptic Church, deciding that the Israeli government should hand the keys of Deir as-Sultan to the Copts. The ruling was tantamount to a slap in the face of the Israeli government which the court strongly blamed for its erroneous stance. The Israeli government, however issued a decision that defied the authority of the court; it suspended the execution of the ruling, claiming that the case carried political overtones. It ordered the formation of a committee to look into the matter, with the aim of procrastinating and freezing the situation.
Strained relations between Egypt and Israel persisted, and the Ethiopian monks persisted in their seizure of the monastery. But in 1973, the political stakes changed after the Egyptian victory in the October War; Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat paid a visit to Jerusalem, and a peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 in Camp David. Hostilities between Egypt and Israel came to an end, and relations were normalised. Mr Sidhom Sr wrote then calling on the Egyptian authorities to intervene with the Israeli authorities in order to execute the ruling of Israel’s Supreme Court, which had been put on hold, and to return Deir as-Sultan to its rightful owner. Unfortunately, however, nothing was done on that front, and the status quo remained.
Today, Watani uses the 41-year-old call by Mr Sidhom Sr to again highlight the problem. We call to invest in the recent positive political development between Egypt and Israel to defreeze the Deir as-Sultan issue and move forward with a solution. Watani printed the following note at the end of Mr Sidhom Sr’s editorial: “It is important to reprint this article in view of the current amelioration in Egyptian Israeli relations, highlighted by the recent phone call between President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. During that phone call, President Sisi stressed Egypt’s endorsement of the Emirati Israeli normalisation agreement, as well as its support of the lawful rights of the Palestinians. He also communicated Egypt’s keenness for resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. In this context, hopes are renewed that the Egyptian government would raise with the Israelis the issue of the rights of the Egyptian Church to Deir as-Sultan; a right that has been upheld by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem.”
Printing Mr Sidhom Sr’s article and the note that followed was no coincidence; it was driven by a realisation of the importance of the issue of Deir as-Sultan, the imperativeness of shedding light on it, awakening Egyptian public opinion to it, and urging the Egyptian leadership to work towards defreezing the situation and returning the monastery to the Coptic Church as its lawful right.
More than five years ago, a flicker of hope had appeared regarding this predicament, but soon faded; back then Egyptian Ethiopian relations witnessed a ‘historic conciliation’ in the wake of a summit held in 2015 in Addis Ababa between Egypt’s President and the Ethiopian and Sudanese Prime Ministers. Following that summit, the Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was signed between the three riparian States in Khartoum. At the time, the conciliatory climate drove me to write on 5 April 2015 under “Deir al-Sultan between Egypt and Ethiopia”: “Will the Coptic Church seize the opportunity of today’s mellow relations between Egypt and Ethiopia and work to regain Deir al-Sultan? The Church is now in the position where she enjoys courteous relations with the Egyptian authorities as well as excellent relations with the Ethiopian Church. The agreement signed by Egypt and Ethiopia stipulates that the rights of both should be honoured and respected, and that none should harm the other. Why then should the Coptic Church not be inspired by the agreement and work to open the Deir al-Sultan file with Ethiopia? As matters stand today, all conditions appear to point at a good chance of finally resolving the problem.”
I was then hopeful that the matter could be resolved with Ethiopia; little did I know that Ethiopia would resort to endless procrastination and falsification throughout the negotiation process over GERD, to the point of wiping out this hope. On the other hand, an encouraging, unexpected turn of events on the Israeli scene drives me today to call on the Egyptian Church and leadership to lobby Israel towards unfreezing the predicament of Deir as-Sultan.
For full story of Deir as-Sultan:
18 September 2020