Time for dialogue
By Sameh Fawzi
Muslim-Christian relationships face increasing challenges on ground. Positive feelings between key Islamic imams and senior clergymen cannot conceal escalating tensions between Egyptians from both religious communities. This contradictory situation was exemplified when Pope Shenouda, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, invited officials, dignitaries, religious thinkers and public figures for Iftar during the holy month of Ramadan. The meal was held against a backdrop of almost daily demonstrations at mosques in Cairo and Alexandria calling for the "release" of an alleged Christian convert to Islam. The woman, claimed the angry demonstrators, was being held captive in a convent.
Was this just an example of the tensions that arise sporadically between Christians and Muslims? We have witnessed confrontations between the two religious communities before, and not always because of religious matters. Sometimes they are a result of economic disputes and social conflicts. This time, though, the dispute was different, and its consequences could be unpalatable.
In July hundreds of Copts travelled from Minya in Upper Egypt to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo to demonstrate against what they claimed was the kidnap of Camilia Shehata, a young schoolteacher who was also the wife of a priest. After five consecutive days of protest Shehata reappeared. The media told a single story, more or less: the priest's wife had left home following a clash with her husband. Copts who had spent the best part of a week condemning the silence of security agencies suddenly changed their tune, praising the police for bringing back the priest's wife.
Shehata, though, did not return home. She disappeared from the public eye, and her absence led to growing rumours. It was said that Camilia Shehata had converted to Islam, that she was kidnapped by the security agencies and returned to the church. New demonstrations erupted, this time at mosques, with protesters calling for the alleged Muslim woman to be freed.
The case bore similarities with that of Wafaa Costantine, another priest's wife in the governorate of Beheira who left her house and declared a desire to convert to Islam to divorce her husband. Then Copts demonstrated and eventually Costantine was sent to a monastery. She has lived there since 2004, and the church refuses to let her appear in public. The same rule does not apply to Shehata. In face of recent demonstrations the church released a videoed speech in which she stressed that she is still a Christian, staying in a church-run house of her own free will.
Shehata's reappearance did not defuse tensions. Some Muslims continue their protests against the church and its leadership. But for the church the file of Shehata is closed. She is still Christian, and nobody, Pope Shenouda said in a televised interview, should interfere in her private life.
Amid all the controversy a leading Coptic Orthodox bishop said in a press interview that Muslims in Egypt were "guests" who had been received with welcome by Copts, the original citizens. His statement added fuel to the conflagration. On the same day an Islamic intellectual, Mohamed Selim El-Awa, allegedly commented that Copts store weapons in their churches and monasteries, and that the head of the church had called for the territorial segregation of a part of Egypt for Copts. Church officials and some members of civil society denied El-Awa's accusations and sent a letter to President Hosni Mubarak. A Coptic Lawyer, Naguib Gabrael, declared that he would file a suit against El-Awa. Meanwhile, Muslim lawyers began a position supporting El-Awa's position, though El-Awa himself claims he was misquoted.
As the situation escalated government officials turned a deaf ear. Copts complain about discrimination while Muslims complain of the lenient approach the government adopts to "Coptic blackmail". This is an environment conducive for sectarian violence, made more complex by the fact that religious conflict often masks socio-economic and political disputes.
It is not enough to speak about national unity when demonstrators outside churches and mosques exchange accusations of kidnapping, thuggery and terrorist acts. Photos of Pope Shenouda and the grand imam together can no longer conceal the complicated situation between the two religious communities.
Muslim-Christian problems can only be addressed through effective public policies. Coptic concerns about restrictions on building and repairing churches, inadequate political representation and lack of access to key government positions have to be addressed by transparent measures that can help society as a whole debate its problems and seek ways to collectively solve them. Dialogue between Muslims and Christians needs to be encouraged at a grassroots level, with people freely expressing their concerns. Only then will people realise that unity is essential to overcoming the socio-economic challenges that both communities face.
The core problem is the openness of Copts. They still live their lives within the shadow of church buildings. It would be better to have them outside in civil organisations, though that implies the existence of a state that provides for their social needs rather than leaving them to turn to religious institutions to find food, shelter, medical care and a sense of solidarity.
Were such a state present then Muslims and Christians would continue to pray in their houses of worship after which they would interact with one another in a wider society where they both depend on public utilities, are both searching for equal opportunities, and might even join together in demonstrations that take place in the public sphere and not in a protected, religious domain.