Fire put out but blazes elsewhere
One sectarian clash leads to another, reports Nader Habib
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Police and military forces cordone the building that Copts say is a church and others say is a clothes factory
As the majority of the Copts were ending their 14th day of protests in front of the TV station Maspero following the sectarian clashes in Imbaba, new clashes appeared in Ain Shams district, east of Cairo. The demonstrators postponed an end to their sit- in when reports reached them that hundreds said to be Salafis and thugs had marched on the Church of the Virgin in Ain Shams to protest against the prime minister's decision to reopen it. They claimed that the building was not originally a church but a clothes factory.
Father Matthias Nasr, priest of Ezbat Al-Nakhl Church, had just urged an end to the strike following the announcement by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) to take strict measures "against all who threaten the security and safety of Egypt."
The demonstrators had been further reassured by pledges on the part of the cabinet and the minister of interior to fulfil their promises to rebuild the Maghagha Church, to release 17 of the 18 persons detained during the first sit-in in March and 26 of these detained during the second sit-in, and to reopen three churches: Anba Wannas in Beni Mazar in Minya, the Church of the Virgin in Ain Shams (which has been closed for three years) and the Church of the Virgin in Sadfa in Assiut.
Sheikhs and priests of Ain Shams hastened to resolve the problem through the convention of the "fraternal council", an extension of the efforts set in motion several weeks ago when a group of religious leaders in eastern Ain Shams launched an initiative to condemn violence. The initiative, adopted by the Amin Al-Ummah Abu Obeida Bin Al-Garah Mosque, was approved by Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the area. Its basic idea, as conceived by Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Mohamed and Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Samie, is to employ traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes that erupt between Muslims and Christians. A Muslim or a Christian with a complaint involving a member of the other religious community would turn to his mosque or church, whose officials would then intercede and mediate on their behalf.
After the first initial success on a small scale, the initiative met its first real test, which involved the crisis over the church at Arab Al-Tawaila in Ain Shams and the question as to whether it was a legitimate church or a clothes factory. If, indeed, it had been a clothes factory and was subsequently converted to a church, did this follow the proper procedures and receive official approval?
Such were the type of questions that needed answers in the fraternal council that brought together such Muslim and Christian leaders as Sheikh Hassan Abul-Ashbal, a prominent Salafi proselytiser; the above-mentioned sheikhs Abdel-Rahman Mohamed and Mohamed Abdel-Samie; Hani Aziz, advisor to Pope Shenouda III; and Father Flopater, one of the leaders of the sit-in at Maspero, plus a number of other priests from the Ain Shams area. Participants also included Sheikh Shawqi Abdel-Latif, first deputy of the Ministry of Waqf (religious endowments), Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, Imam of the Omar Makram Mosque. Also present were the heads of families in the Arab Al-Tawaila area and several army and police leaders.
After five hours of secret deliberations, the participants emerged to deliver their findings to the crowd that had been waiting outside. Once the participants had assembled in front of the crowd, Sheikh Shawqi Abdel-Latif read out their agreement which stated that if the licensing bureau approves a permit for the church, then it will reopen and the rule of law shall prevail. In the opinion of some, this was a great success for it marked the first time a traditional council confirmed and unanimously upheld the rule of law.
Al-Ahram Weekly subsequently learned that in its secret session, participants discussed numerous alternatives. They considered, for example, converting the building into a hospital, a home for the elderly or another such philanthropic institution. They went so far as to deliberate the extent to which the family heads of the area would contribute to the construction costs. In the end, though, the decision to abide by the authority of the law won the day.
Justice Amir Ramzi, a member on the cabinet's National Justice Committee, phoned Minister of Local Development Mohsen El-Nomani, who informed him that the situation had been brought under control and that the government employee who had sparked the crisis had been punished.
In addition, the minister confirmed that the Anba Wannas Church in Beni Mazar in Minya had been reopened. Ramzi also appealed to Copts to remain calm and "not to be drawn in by tendentious rumours that aim to aggravate tensions and obstruct solutions." He said that 80 per cent of the problems have already been solved, and cautioned that the perpetuation of a confrontationist stance would only be counterproductive, yielding grave consequences not only for Copts but for all Egyptians.
A lecture given last Wednesday by Pope Shenouda may reverberate until he returns from the US for medical treatment: "Preserve the psalms and they will preserve you... You are accountable for everything you say, no matter how earnestly you apologise afterwards... A virtue that is not practised out of love is not a virtue... The body is fated to end. If only its end could be in the pursuit of a good deed... Put God between you and anguish. When you do, anguish vanishes and the love of God remains... The mighty are not those who defeat their enemies, but those who win their enemies over."