Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2011
Issue No. 1047
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In search of religious unity

In the wake of riots between Muslims and Christians in the Giza district of Imbaba, effective policies must be found to help society deal with problems of inter-religious dialogue and find collective ways of solving them, writes Sameh Fawzi

Almost 100 days after the Egyptian revolution started on 25 January, a sectarian earthquake has struck Imbaba, a poor district of Giza. Over the past three months the world became fascinated by the democratic spirit, peaceful struggle and innovative tools used to bring down the Mubarak regime, but now the foreign media is showing less fascination and more fear for the future of Egypt in the light of images of sectarian clashes, the number of casualties, the widespread calls from religious extremists and the limited response from the state.

Similar to other such sectarian incidents, this one started with a rumour. According to this, a recent Christian convert to Islam, a young woman, had been kidnapped and held captive in a church. The rumour was spread by the man who was allegedly the young woman's Muslim husband, with whom she had lived after leaving her Christian family and a newly born child.

Acting on this rumour, a mob made up of Salafist groups went to the Saint Mina Church in Imbaba to look for this allegedly kidnapped woman. Clashes started, the security forces did not intervene, and 15 people were killed and close to 240 injured. Christian-owned shops and cars were looted and burned. Salafist groups then went to the nearby Saint Mary Church and set it on fire. The attackers walked the streets and alleys of Imbaba for almost an hour, vowing revenge on Copts without being stopped by the security forces.

This is not the first time that confrontations have taken place between Egypt's Copts and the Salafist groups, who appeared in the public sphere following the fall of the Mubarak regime on 11 February this year. They have reaped the fruits of the revolution, even though they had initially refused to join the uprising against the former president.

Salafi leaders appeared on television during the revolution to spread their narrow-minded religious discourse and to call on people not to participate in the revolution. One of them even called for the killing of Mohamed El-Baradei. Their position on the revolution was clear, as they had always allied themselves with the Mubarak regime and its security apparatus against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts and other opponents.

On 12 February, the day after the ousting of Mubarak and as Egyptians were still celebrating victory, demonstrations orchestrated by Salafist groups took place in a number of governorates calling for an Islamic state in Egypt. This was the first time that the Salafis had emerged in public in Egypt, though since then such groups have been taking control of mosques, threatening Islamic shrines, demolishing churches, attacking cafés and threatening people who are perceived to be liberals.

As a result, society has awakened to the Salafist challenge, and the country's grand mufti, the authorities at Al-Azhar, the intellectuals and the media have all expressed their fears that the Salafis will attempt to impose their ideas on Muslims and threaten Christians. Salafist groups have issued calls to "rescue" converts to Islam allegedly held captive by the church in monasteries, one Salafist leader threatening to raid the country's churches and monasteries in order to free Muslim captives. Salafist groups have surrounded the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, insulted Pope Shenouda, and threatened to destroy the church.

Camilia Shehata is one of the women that the Salafist groups claim was held captive by the church. The problem started last summer, when hundreds of Copts demonstrated after Shehata disappeared, claiming that she had been kidnapped by Muslims. The wife of a priest, Shehata was the object of particular concern on the part of the Coptic community, concern that evaporated five days later when it turned out that she had merely been staying with a relative. Nevertheless, a few days later the Salafis released another story claiming that Shehata had in fact converted to Islam, but that the security forces had returned her to the church.

Before the Mubarak regime collapsed, Salafist groups organised a number of demonstrations condemning the church's position towards Shehata in front of the main mosques in Cairo and Alexandria with the green light of the State Security apparatus. This had been given to put pressure on the Coptic Church to soften its criticisms of the regime when dealing with Coptic affairs.

This affair has now been reopened. Last week, Camilia Shehata appeared on an extremist Christian TV channel, and, addressing the relationship between Islam and Christianity, she said that she had never converted to Islam and that she would remain a Christian until she died. A few minutes after this interview, the Salafist groups started their assault on Copts and the churches in Imbaba.

The words "civil war" have been used in newspaper headlines reporting on the clashes in Imbaba, a worrying sign about how society is beginning to perceive the current predicament. Words or reconciliation meetings between Muslims and Christians are no longer enough, it seems, and photographs showing friendly relations between Pope Shenouda and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar do not do justice to the complicated situation between the religious communities.

Muslim-Christian relations can only be addressed through effective public policies. Coptic concerns, such as over the building and repair of churches, inadequate political representation and lack of access to key government positions, have to be settled, with transparent measures taken that help society as a whole debate such problems and find collective ways of solving them.

In addition, greater dialogue should be promoted between Muslims and Christians at grassroots level in which people can freely express their concerns, discuss the rumours they may have heard, and realise the extent to which being united is important for overcoming the country's socio-economic challenges.

We are now going through a transitional period, in which we have to make the choice of either applying the policies of the previous regime or of strictly applying the law.

The revolution introduced a good example in the shape of what happened in Tahrir Square, where Muslims and Christians were united. Unfortunately, this spirit of unity is not always the case. To a large extent, the country's Copts live their lives behind the doors of their churches. It would be good to see them playing a more active role in the public sphere, but this may be difficult in the absence of a state that is committed to development and one that meets people's social needs, not leaving them to go knocking on the doors of religious institutions in search of shelter, medical care and a sense of solidarity.

If we had such a state in Egypt, Muslims and Christians would still go to their mosques and churches in order to pray, but they would also interact more in society, depending as they would on publicly guaranteed utilities, equal opportunities and the right to make their voices heard in the public sphere and not only in the protected religious domain.

Otherwise, the situation that may be developing in Egypt may not be so far distant from other developments across the region. Christians almost lost their presence in Iraq after the collapse of the Saddam regime, and Syrian Christians worry at threats from demonstrators that they will be "transferred" to Lebanon.

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