Confessional conflict across the country scars the 25 January Revolution as authorities rally to assuage Coptic fears and anger, writes Gamal Nkrumah
The Higher Council of the Armed Forces in conjunction with the cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf are currently coordinating with representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Christian laypersons to allay fears after a spate of violent clashes between Copts and Muslims after unascertained attackers destroyed a church in the village of Sol in Helwan governorate, 30 kilometres south of Cairo.
Another confessional fracas broke out in the sprawling shantytown of Mansheyet Nasser, east of Cairo. Copts took to the streets in peaceful protests in Maspero, Cairo, in front of the state television headquarters, and in other suburbs of Cairo. The Coptic question has risen to the fore in the run-up to the referendum on constitutional amendments scheduled for 19 March.
"I suspect that counter-revolutionaries, in conjunction with reactionary forces, both at home and abroad, are behind the religious strife rocking the country at this particular historical juncture. I would not exclude a vexatious hidden foreign agenda fanning the flames of confessional conflict," Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the Arab world's foremost political writer, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The country's Coptic clergy concurred. "Let us not forget that there were Muslim and Christian martyrs that were gunned down by the state security services and the hooligans of the former ruling regime during the 25 January Revolution. What has changed, perhaps, is that people now are free of fear; Muslims and Christians speak their mind freely. Nobody is afraid to voice his or her opinion," Anba Basanti, the bishop of Helwan, told the Weekly. "This new-found freedom of expression, however, is a double-edged sword," he cautioned.
Basanti noted that he was elated when he saw the banner of the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross, the Bible and the Quran, hoisted high together during the pro- democracy demonstrations of the 25 January Revolution. Christians shielded Muslims performing Friday prayers in the face of police brutality in Tahrir Square. "That was an exhilarating sight. Thousands of Muslims attended Christian services in an unprecedented show of solidarity with their Christian compatriots after the New Year's Eve suicide bombing that killed some 25 Coptic parishioners celebrating mass in the Two Saints Church in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria. This gesture was heartening," Basanti remarked.
Bishop Basanti also stressed that the regime of ex-president Hosni Mubarak ignored longstanding Coptic concerns and grievances. "Many Christians, especially those residing in impoverished and disadvantaged urban slums and rural areas, lived in utter terror of the state security forces and the police who often stood idly by watching Muslim mobs and thugs butchering their Christian compatriots. They knew that they could not call on the police for help because the police was not impartial," Basanti said.
"Christians were initially hopeful of the dawning of a new future, a civil society and a fully-fledged democracy that guarantees the rights of religious minorities. Then the unfortunate incidents occurred and Copts were sorely disappointed. People must understand what partnership and participation in the decision-making process actually means. We know that Egyptian Christians are religious and conservative by and large, and so are Muslims. However, in a democratic and secular state we do not want to see either Muslim religious leaders or Christian clergy ruling us. Religious leaders have other duties and responsibilities, but indulging in political intrigue is not the prerogative of religious leaders, Christian or Muslim," Basanti insisted.
The current spate of confessional conflict is a dark cloud on an otherwise bright horizon, Basanti pointed out. "It is for this reason that I support radical reforms in the national educational curricula. If the current syllabi are not altered to match the democracy of these changing times then we will revert back to the old religious strife," the bishop warned.
The main job in the immediate post- revolutionary situation is to direct the legitimate feeling of entitlement, especially of historically marginalised groups like the country's Christians, towards civic engagement, which the Coptic Church contends must shirk away from militancy and radicalism. One cause for the bishop's optimism is that more Egyptians are embracing a multiculturalism that has come to denote tolerating the other.
Concerning the torched church in Sol, the bishop of Helwan noted that blaming public unruliness is simplistic. He stressed that the Coptic Church does not encourage separateness, but said that the assertiveness of the Copts must not be seen as a dangerous and disagreeable development. "Our demands were crystal clear. We wanted the church built in its precise location and we want it constructed before Easter. We want our Coptic Christian congregation to celebrate our Easter inside the newly rebuilt Church of Saint Mina and Saint George's Church," Basanti explained.
The demolished church comes under the bishopric of Helwan and Maasara headed by Basanti. The neighbourhood of Sol has a sizeable Christian population.
The head of the Higher Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi pledged that the perpetrators of the outrage would be brought to book and that the Armed Forces and well-to-do Muslim philanthropists would cover the costs of the reconstruction of the church.
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, and Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, visited Pope Shenouda III to express their condolences. Representatives of Christian youth and clergy met with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in Tahrir Square at the height of the tensions and he assured them that their rights would be protected by the law. They also met with Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal on Saturday.
Hooligans in the pay of bigwigs of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) are suspected of instigating the confessional violence. Yet blaming the religious confrontation on the ousted regime is prosaic. The deliberate distancing of Copts from the decision- making process has been systematic for the past four decades, since the time of late president Anwar El-Sadat.
"It is clear that the confessional conflict is instigated by remnants of the routed regime with a vested interest in social chaos. Dismayed businessmen, perhaps? They are determined to delay the course of the democratic revolution," internationally acclaimed author, economist and intellectual Galal Amin told the Weekly.
"Sadat encouraged religious tensions and manipulated Islamist militancy. Angry Muslims, poor, disfranchised and disadvantaged Muslims have traditionally vented their frustration on Coptic Christians as an easy target. The social and economic climate is corruptive."
"Coptic Christians, meanwhile, are resentful that there are only two Copts in the cabinet and both hold minor ministerial portfolios. Copts often phone me and are fearful. They are fearful that the Muslim Brotherhood or even more militant Islamist political parties will be formed and win a substantial number of seats in parliament, denying Copts of their citizenship rights and even imposing the long- abandoned jizya poll tax levied on non- Muslims. The recent release of incarcerated militant Islamists exacerbated the fears of the Copts," Amin noted.
"Coptic Christians complain that they are underrepresented in law enforcement and public office. They feel especially vulnerable in a politically unstable situation. They now say that with instability, they are the first to suffer. This was not the case in the 1950s and 1960s. There was no confessional conflict then. Everyone was optimistic and there was no unemployment."
Essam El-Erian, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly denied that the Brotherhood, if it came to power, would persecute or discriminate against Copts. "Religious conflicts are often sparked by romantic relationships between Christian men and Muslim women," he said.
The incident in Sol was triggered when Muslims strongly objected to the alleged illicit liaison between Ashraf Iskandar, a 40- year-old Coptic Christian married man, and a Muslim married woman. After the church in question was burned down, Muslims allegedly looted Christian homes in the town of Atfeeh, particularly the neighbourhood of Sol. Molotov cocktails and pencil guns, knives and daggers were used to terrorise Copts.
Shehata El-Meadis, former parliamentary candidate of Mansheyet Nasser, whose house is at the entrance of Zabaleen overlooking the Autostrade highway, said that poverty and unemployment are the chief reasons for the sectarian violence. The Zabaleen, rubbish collectors' quarters -- a predominantly Coptic Christian preoccupation -- and nearby Mansheyet Nasser is yet another rundown Cairene district where conflict between Copts and Muslims is rife.
Thousands of Copts congregated on Samaan El-Kharraz Church in Moqattam to commemorate the martyrdom and attend the funeral of the Copts killed in cold blood in Mansheyet Nasser. The massacre occurred when allegedly a microbus driver from neighbouring Sayeda Aisha, after a verbal spat with a Christian, lobbied fellow Muslim drivers to attack Christians.
"People in poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns face terrible social and economic conditions. And let's face it; power and wealth are in the hands of a select few. As long as there are marked income differentials and social injustice, we will witness religious violence," Hussein Abdel-Razek, a leading member of the leftist Tagammu Party, observed.
"The problem in Atfeeh as I see it is that the torching of the Sol Church was unprecedented in the sense that this is the first time a church was razed to the ground. There have been attacks on churches in Egypt before, but not this blatant conversion of a demolished church into a mosque, or at least a prayer space for Muslims. This is a dangerous precedent," said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in- chief of Egypt's leading Coptic weekly publication Watani.
Amin, for his part, recalled the famous saying of the late Coptic nationalist leader Makram Ebeid: "I am Coptic by religious conviction, and Muslim by patriotic persuasion and national affiliation. That sums up the way forward for Copts, I presume."