Divided on combating sectarianism
The call of Pope Shenouda for the Maspero sit-in to end has sparked much debate, and differences in opinion, in Egypt's Christian community and beyond, reports Nader Habib
When the 34-year-old Gaston Maspero came to Egypt on 5 January 1881, in order to assume the posts of director of Egyptian antiquities and curator of the Egyptian Museum in Boulaq, he would scarcely have imagined that one of Cairo's major thoroughfares would be named after him and that, much later, his name would become affixed to one of the capital's best known and most strategic buildings. The Radio and Television Broadcasting Centre, known in short as the Maspero Building, has riveted the attention of people in Egypt and around the world for nearly two weeks, the duration -- so far -- of a mass sit-in protest against attacks on Coptic churches in Imbaba, although at a profounder level it is a cry for the preservation of civil rights and liberties, most notably the right to equal citizenship and the right to freedom of worship. It is as though the demonstrators are calling upon Maspero to rewrite the history of Egypt.
On the 10th day of the sit-in that Egyptian Christians and Muslims have staged since the events in Imbaba two weeks ago, and that they vow to sustain until their demands -- or rights, as some put it -- are met, there were dozens of buses parked on either side of the Corniche near the Maspero Building. They have come from places ranging from Alexandria in the north to governorates in the south, their passengers determined to demonstrate their solidarity with their Cairene counterparts, but also to take their cause directly to the capital, even as colleagues and sympathisers in their hometowns continue parallel sit-ins, such as those in front of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and in front of the governorate building in Minya. The demonstrators maintain that it is not their intention to defy the dictum of Pope Shenouda III. Delivered by Bishop Ioannis on Sunday, it addressed the demonstrators in Maspero and stated, "The matter has gone beyond the question of the free expression of opinion. You have been infiltrated by persons who use methods that are different from yours, as a consequence of which there has been fighting and shooting. Such violence harms the reputation of Egypt and harms you, too. Therefore, you must halt this sit-in immediately, for what has happened pleases no one and the patience of the rulers has worn thin. You have only to lose if you persist in your strike."
The Pope's appeal met with sharply divergent responses among the Christian community in Egypt following its publication on the Bishop Jeremiah page on Facebook and which, in turn, features a good sampling of reactions. Fady Shaker was disturbed and angered by what he described as a curious and unconvincing way for the Pope to issue a threat. "This is actually a message from the army, which has failed by other means to disperse a peaceful demonstration," he said. "I wish the Church would stop meddling in politics and trying to force its views on us, as though we were not adults. If we do not demand our rights now, we will be the losers." Jacob Keryakes agreed, although he couched his opinion in sarcasm: "I would like to congratulate the Church and its bishops on their relationship with the Higher Council of the Armed Forces... I caution you, however, that you will lose your followers by taking this position. This is not wisdom; it is an unmitigated farce."
A more sceptical reaction came from Mariam Mourad, who held that the Facebook page in question did not really belong to Bishop Jeremiah or to the Church. "When the Pope issues an edict, he publicises it in the form of a document carrying his seal or by a video appearance. He does not make statements on some Internet site."
Boutros Abdel-Sayed and Nader Nazer, on the other hand, did not believe in the sit-in to begin with. As Nader put it, "As the Christian faith instructs us, we should be conducting nightlong prayer vigils in the church until the Lord bestows His compassion on us, not all-night sit-ins in front of the Television Building until the military council bestows its compassion on us."
In a similar vein, Gigi Che writes: "With all due respect to the commentators, if rights are to be obtained by our own efforts they are worthless. At that point, we might as well say goodbye to 'The Lord will defend you when you are silent' and 'Stand and await the Lord's redemption.' It is our Lord who needs to hear your appeals. He is the one who can save you, if He so wishes. Enough of these insults to our Lord, by seeking our rights in the world using worldly means, including the means of the virtual world, which differs little from the world on the ground."
One of the demonstrators in front of Maspero, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to himself only as "a child of Christ", said: "After the demonstrators were shot at by a number of thugs, who resorted to the same methods they used when they attacked the churches in Imbaba, the police began to protect us in order to avert further injuries. But after the Pope issued that statement some of the demonstrators left, as a kind of display of their obedience to the Pope. Among these were several priests and monks. However, this did not affect the other portion of demonstrators, many of whom believe that that statement did not really come from the Pope and that it was a kind of plot to sew division between Copts and the Pope... We are Egyptian citizens and we have rights. If we are to demand the rights of the Church, we must feel secure. I should not be insulted in my own country or fear for the safety of my wife and children when they go to a house of worship. The police and the army should defend us. I am not a soldier or a policeman. I should not have to carry a gun in order to defend myself and my family. That is the government's job. But when the government is not doing that job, then I'm being deprived of my full rights as a citizen."
Hani Hanna Aziz, the "preacher of the revolution" and a member of the revolution's Committee of the Wise is a general manager in the Ministry of State for Antiquities. He is taken aback by the insistence of the Copts at Maspero on continuing their sit-in. "How can those Copts claim that they are defending the Church at the very time they are defying the order of the head of the Church to decamp?" he asks. "They need to do as they are told and leave, because what they are doing now is wrong. They have turned against the Church, saying that it has sold them out. Their behaviour is totally contradictory. They can't make up their mind whether they're out there for a religious reason or for a national cause in which the Church has no business. My advice to them is this: Leave and join the revolution and its activities. Take refuge with your brothers and let your brothers take refuge with you. Join hands with all the Egyptian people. Many of you were with us in Tahrir Square. Come back so that we can all support each other again. Why are you swallowing the bait of those who want to destroy Egypt?"
In a curious development, the day after the papal exhortation to call off the sit-in was broadcast, a rumour circulated to the effect that, prompted by his fear of division between Christians or that some would break away from the Church, the Pope issued a second statement saying, "I would never put that kind of pressure on my children. I just wanted to express my anxiety for them." That rumour, too, sparked considerable debate.
Again on Bishop Jeremiah's Facebook page, Sameh Sobhi observes: "The remarks that have been made on many chat channels suggesting that the papal statement read by Bishop Ioannis lacked credibility combined with the scandalous reports broadcast on Al-Haqiqa (The Truth) Channel saying Bishop Ioannis's behaviour towards the Pope and the Church have produced an effect counter to the intention of that statement. The numbers of participants in the sit-in have increased many times over." Yet according to Bishop Moussa, bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church youth, in a statement to Al-Dostour newspaper, Pope Shenouda III, pope of Alexandria and bishop of the See of St Mark, has not retracted his demand that the Copts demonstrating in front of the Maspero Building halt their sit-in and that the declarations issued by Father Matthias Nasr, priest of Ezbat Al-Nakhl Church, over a loudspeaker in front of the Maspero Building were not true. Bishop Moussa explained that Father Matthias had met the Pope, who expressed his opposition to the sit-in and issued afterwards an official proclamation calling for an end to the sit-in in order to avert possible harm to his children. Moussa added, "Perhaps there was a misunderstanding leading Father Matthias to believe that the Pope had changed his mind, which is incorrect." Bishop Ioannis confirmed this in a brief letter addressed to the Copts at Maspero: "I know full well that you are the victims. But the [papal] decree is genuine and you must obey it. May the Lord be with you and reward you for your pains."
Towards a solution to the problem, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announced that 16 churches would be reopened in six governorates. According to Amir Ramzi, in a statement to Al-Masry Al-Youm, this marks the first outcome of the activities of the Committee for National Justice, of which he is a member. The committee was formed specifically to resolve sectarian problems. Ramzi added that Minister of Interior Mansour El-Eissawi has already issued instructions to his assistants to implement the decision as quickly as possible. Prior to this, Sharaf met with representatives of the Coptic protesters at Maspero and promised them that he would reopen churches that had been closed down by the former regime.
In a tangential development, Midhat Qalada, chairman of the Federation of Coptic Organisations in Europe, also appealed to the Copts at Maspero to disband, even though he rejected the papal decree on the grounds that a sit-in is a political action. He believes that the Pope should remain above politics, which by no means diminishes the veneration that all Copts feel for their supreme spiritual leader. In justifying his call for an end to the sit-in, he argued that the Egyptian authorities have already met many of the protesters' demands. For example, he said, many of those responsible for the attacks on the churches in Imbaba have been arrested, including, most recently, 11 Salafi leaders. Also, he said, the recent Higher Council of the Armed Forces communiqué No 51 regarding trials before military courts opens the possibility of the release of the 18 Coptic youths who have been arrested since the first flare-up of violence in Maspero.
Father Flopater Gamil, priest at the Church of the Virgin and St Mark in Giza, is not of the same mind. He argues that the pledge made by the prime minister to the protesters at Maspero to meet their demands within 30 days has not yet been fulfilled. The ringleaders of the attacks on the Mar Mina Church and Church of the Virgin in Imbaba have yet to be brought to justice and the complaint that Coptic leaders submitted to the prosecutor-general's office calling for an immediate investigation into those events has not been acted upon. He added, "The Copts received an object lesson on promises following the attacks on the churches in Sol and Alexandria. They will not end their sit-in until they see the pledges fulfilled on the ground." To Father Flopater, what adds urgency to these demands is the sudden and inexplicable resurgence of the Salafist trend following the 25 January Revolution. "What are their ends and why are their leaders seemingly untouchable?" he asks.
Debate erupted again amongst the demonstrators after Father Flopater Gamil read out Prime Minister Sharaf's statement announcing the creation of a committee to address the demonstrators' demands and to resolve sectarian problems. The chief tasks of the National Justice Committee are to study the reopening of closed down churches, to propose solutions to sectarian problems, to draft a unified law for houses of worship and another law prohibiting religious discrimination and incitement, to reopen investigations into the attacks on churches in Alexandria, Sol, Moqattam, Imbaba and Abu Qurqas, and to restore the Church of the Virgin and the Church of the Maghagha Diocese. While all welcomed the statement, the question now was whether or not to call off the sit-in. Some argued that since the persons responsible for the attacks against churches had yet to be brought to justice, and since the Copts arrested in those attacks and the violence in Maspero had not yet been released, the sit-in should continue.
According to the investigations being conducted by Central Cairo Prosecution-General chiefs Wael Shibl and Ahmed Rushdi, under the supervision of the first attorney for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Counsellor Amr Fawzi, 22 persons have been charged for instigating violence at Maspero that led to 78 wounded and considerable material damage. The officers report that the suspects, two of whom are still at large, used pellet guns that they fired at random, injuring 36 people of whom two are in critical condition. The suspects have been charged with thuggery, sectarian incitement, assault, fomenting chaos and rioting, and causing the destruction of public and private property. The latter included setting fire to 11 cars and vandalising three others. Many others were arrested during the violent incidents. Of these, the Prosecutor-General's Office released 46, held 16 for questioning and detained two persons for four days pending investigation. The investigations revealed that the brawls were not sectarian in nature and, also, that the wounded had not been active participants. Most who sustained injuries from rubber bullets had been in the area by pure coincidence and have been released by the Prosecutor-General's Office. Evidently, the brawl erupted when two arguments flared out of control. The first was between a tea vendor and an itinerant vendor, in which several demonstrators tried to intervene. The second, occurring minutes later, was sparked by a motorcycle driver passing through the crowd. Again, several demonstrators became involved, but not on a sectarian basis.
The Armed Forces have formed a large security cordon around the Maspero area, closing off all traffic on the portion of the Corniche between 6 October Bridge and 15 May Bridge. Security teams from the police and Armed Forces are patrolling the area and checking the identities of pedestrians passing through in order to avert a repetition of rioting that broke out last Saturday evening and that is widely suspected to have been instigated by hired thugs.
Also in the interest of sustaining calm, Committee of the Wise member Hani Aziz issued a statement declaring that an "iron fist" must be brought down on all who jeopardise national security by inciting or plotting sectarian violence. At the same time, he reiterated his opposition to the continuation of the sit-in. "While I appreciate the pain and anger of the demonstrators at Maspero, I disagree with them in form and substance on this sit-in. Whether they are aware of it or not, this sit-in is part of the sectarian events, and one of the games being played by the former regime in order to undermine the revolution." He further holds that in engaging in political action on a sectarian basis, the demonstrators risk engendering a sectarian response. They should not complain of sectarianism and act in a sectarian way at the same time. Such paradoxical behaviour only produces a vicious cycle.
He continues: "In March, I was a fervent supporter of the stance at Maspero, which I then described on international television as a communal action between Copts and Muslims and part of the 25 January Revolution. However, that is not what we see today. The attitude of the demonstrators at Maspero now is not the same as it was in Tahrir Square, where there was no difference between Muslims and Christians. In Tahrir, we did not raise the cross and the Quran as sectarian gestures, but to reaffirm that the revolution embraced all the Egyptian people regardless of their faith, and the two emblems have since been used, alongside the Egyptian flag, to affirm our common national bond. This was not an Islamic revolution. Christians and Muslims stood side- by-side and fought together throughout. Since there was no sectarianism at the time that the former regime was deploying its tools of repression we never once heard of an attack on a church, nor was there a sense of a need to protect these houses of worship from attack. Today, however, especially since the trials of the heads of the former regime began, its agents are playing dirty games."
Aziz suspects that the elites of the former regime are bent on mobilising forces that are still at their command in order to sew anarchy so that they can escape justice. Towards this end, they need either to trigger a civil war or an uprising of the hungry. "Right now, therefore, they are pursuing a two-pronged campaign to incite sectarian warfare and to sabotage the economy, thereby creating a climate that will enable them to flee the country with their ill-gotten riches that they sucked from the blood of the people." At the same time, Aziz is deeply disturbed by the "mad notions" that have gained currency among some Coptic protesters, such as appealing for help from abroad or for international protection. "I personally do not understand what has gotten into their heads. Look what international protection has done to Iraq and other countries," he said. Equally bad, if not worse, were the "deranged fools" who suggested partitioning Egypt into petty states, one in the Sinai to be given to the Palestinians, another for Muslims, a third for Copts and a fourth in the south for the Nubians.
The demonstrator calling himself "a child of Christ" does not see the situation in quite the same way. "The youth of the revolution reproach us for brandishing religious slogans. They have no right to do so. We are staging this demonstration in protest against religious persecution and the consequent abuse of the human rights of Christians. We are also demanding a civic state at a time when a big question mark hangs over the future of our country, which we fear may turn into a theocracy. There is no inconsistency between this and the spirit of the revolution. During the revolution, I campaigned together with the rest of the revolutionary youth to demand our rights as citizens. Today, I carry the cross because the events in Imbaba targeted a church, but it is for the same cause. We have not separated ourselves from the revolution; we are following through on what the revolution began. As was the case in Tahrir, our sit-in is very civilised and you will find university professors, Al-Azhar sheikhs and Christian priests alongside the youth here, who are both Christian and Muslim, but Egyptians above all. This is not a question of Christian or Muslim. It is a question of the civic state, which can only be realised by striking at sectarian strife with an iron fist. We need to find the sources of that evil weed and uproot it from our cherished land."
Speaking at a graduation ceremony of police officers, the head of the Higher Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said: "We will not allow sectarian strife to take a grip in Egypt. We will strike with an iron fist against all who attempt to sew strife or undermine the potential of this nation. The media must bear Egypt's higher interests in mind. Most members of the press are honourable people and what we need at this stage is a truthful media." Commenting on this statement, the "child of Christ" said: "We fully support Field Marshal Tantawi and his decisions. That is exactly what we demand: an iron fist against anyone who stirs sectarian strife. Such people have to be brought to account in public trials conducted in accordance with the principles of law and transparency." He added: "We look to God first and then to Tantawi, who we regard as the top man in Egypt and, hence, our father. We tried to speak to him several times. He answered us, today, in that ceremony and he gave us hope. Also, we are heartened by that graduating class of police officers. They are a tangible sign that security will return and that the injured giant, called the police, will be restored to health."
Regardless of the fact that demonstrators at Maspero have proclaimed their rejection of foreign intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs and regard any appeals for outside support as a form of treason, it has been reported that Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini met with Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone to discuss "possible actions for protecting Christians" in Egypt and the region. According to Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican is deeply disturbed by the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East and this was the focus of the "working meeting" between Bertone and Frattini. He added that the two officials spent more than an hour discussing "the instances of violence against Christians and possible ways of protecting them".
So far, the Vatican itself has remained silent on the subject, but it has taken several opportunities to express itself through statements by bishops and other clergymen to the press. These convey deep anxiety at mounting discrimination, marginalisation and danger facing Christian minorities, especially in Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria. Vatican sources state that relations between the Holy See in Rome and Egyptian political and religious authorities are passing through a difficult phase. They fear that some Islamist circles might attempt to exploit any criticism by portraying it as an attack on Islam.
Last week the Catholic Pope called upon all countries to promote greater respect for and protection of religious minorities. Mary-Ann Gelindon, director of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, estimates that "70 per cent of the world's population live in countries in which religious freedoms are severely restricted." This applies, she added, in particular to some Islamic countries, along with China and India.