Watani’s last issue came out on Sunday 12 January carrying the headline: “Demonstration of love at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ on Christmas Eve”. The headline marked Watani’s full coverage of the visit paid by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ on Coptic Christmas Eve’s Midnight Mass to wish Copts and Pope Tawadros II a happy Christmas. Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January.
The President’s gesture of love and appreciation was met by an effusive demonstration of Coptic love for the President, demonstrated by jubilant ululations and applause from the congregation. President Sisi reciprocated by saying: “This country belongs to all of us [Muslims and Copts], and will always remain so, no one less or more than the other in this regard. You should always rest assured of that. We should be vigilant to any attempts to sow division or sedition among us, and never allow this to happen.” The coverage, which was given a full page, carried the remark: “At the time President Sisi was sending a message of love and peace to all Egyptians from the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, churches all over Egypt were reiterating the chant: “Glory to God in the Highest, on Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men”.
Another full page in Watani, however, ran the heading: “Copts in Fao Bahari in Qena banned from worship, [Coptic-owned] house set on fire”. The coverage began with: “There was no peace on New Year Eve for the Copts in Fao Bahari in Deshna, Qena, some 600km south of Cairo. Security forces banned the Copts from worship, and banned any priest from setting foot in the village. Despite tight security in Fao, a house owned by a Copt was set on fire.”
In 2018, Anba Takla, Bishop of Deshna, had applied to the relevant authorities for licence to build a church in Fao, according to the 2016 Law of Building and Restoring Churches. The church would serve some 4,000 Copts in the village who have to travel around 10km on foot to worship in the nearest church in the Monastery of Anba Balamoun. A full year passed without any reply from Qena authorities. Since the law stipulates that if no reply is given within four months of submitting an application it is automatically approved, Deshna Bishopric began to prepare a 400 sq.m-plot of land it owned in the village to build a church. A concrete foundation was built, but the police got wind of the matter, headed to the site, and halted construction. To date, the land remains unbuilt.
With nowhere to worship, and no hope of being able to build a licensed church any time soon, the Copts of Fao some four months ago resorted to using an old building in the village to hold clandestine prayer meetings and celebrate Mass every once in a while during weekdays. Again, the police got wind of the matter and closed the place down.
Fao Copts and Deshna diocese sent several messages to the presidency and Interior Minister demanding their right to hold prayers in their house church on New Year and Christmas Eves. No reply. So the Copts, assuming it would be all right to hold their religious celebrations, went into the house and decorated it for the upcoming festivities. The police, however, moved to Fao, closed down the de-facto church after evicting the persons inside, and banned any priest from entering Fao.
The contrast between the Fao scene and the one at the Cathedral on Christmas Eve struck me. I could not help wondering what if? What if there had occurred a different Christmas Eve scenario? What if the President would have cancelled his annual visit to the Cathedral and headed to Fao? He might have taken with him Qena Governor, the Interior Minister, and all officials concerned. They might have gone to the closed de-facto church now surrounded by security forces. He might have ordered it opened, allowed the Copts to celebrate Midnight Mass, and relayed his Happy Christmas wish from there. He might also have assured Fao Copts of their right to worship until the necessary permits are issued for their new church. In the meantime at the Cathedral, Pope Tawadros might have informed the Copts of the President’s good wishes for a Happy Christmas for all, and of his presence in Fao to wipe away the tears of the aged and children who could not make it on foot to the nearest church for Midnight Mass while their village church remained closed.
As this virtual scenario faded from my imagination, the other actual one of ululations and applause at the Cathedral was all too real.
15 January 2020