A garden of bi-sectarian hope
As sectarian harmony in Egypt comes under increasing threat, hope has not been lost of seeing peace return, says Nader Habib
Some people have been rising to the challenge presented by recent threats to sectarian harmony in Egypt, as became apparent on a recent visit to a park in Cairo's Al-Moqattam hills. The invitation to the Ramadan soiree had come from a Christian, eager to put events in Dahshour behind him, during which a fight between a Christian and a Muslim had escalated to a wider conflict, forcing Christian residents from their homes.
"Come and see for yourself," the host said, noting some initial hesitation.
The Al-Mashrabia coffeehouse is a family facility situated in the corner of a park. On entering, you can hear the sound of children playing in the farthest section of the coffeehouse, while grownups gather around plastic tables not far from the entrance.
As an oriental band played in the background, people stood up in greeting with the kind of warmth only to be found outside Cairo and as if newly arrived parties were made up of long-lost sons home from years of living abroad.
Medhat El-Moqaddem, the proud owner of the coffeehouse, used to be an accountant in a tourism company. When tourism went down after the Revolution, he thought he would try his hand at something else. One thing led to another, and El-Moqaddem, a long-time member of the Al-Moqattam Services Society, decided that a coffeehouse with a family flavour was just the thing the neighbourhood needed.
"After I took on this venue, I thought perhaps I would start a project similar to the Sakiet Al Sawi Cultural Wheel in Cairo. Together with my wife Shaza, we started to host seminars and other cultural events here as a result," El-Moqaddem said.
The idea the couple had was to turn the caf≥©'s garden into something that the entire neighbourhood could use “ê" a family haunt where children could be left to wander without their parents worrying.
"This place has a neighbourhood feel. I watch the people who come here to make sure that my family and others can feel at ease. I wanted a place that my daughters could enjoy without my worrying about their safety."
Since the beginning of Ramadan, El-Moqaddem and Shaza have been hosting music and folklore performances at their caf≥© on Thursdays and Fridays. "We started by hosting a young singer who I knew well and wanted to promote. He performed with a drummer and an oud player, all regulars of Al-Mashrabia," Medhat said.
Many members of the young crowd in the caf≥© seemed to be able to interact effortlessly with El-Moqaddem and Shaza, who in turn treated everyone as if they were their own children. It is a family place, indeed, but one that also has a mission to promote love and harmony.
After the Revolution, El-Moqaddem and other regulars at the Al-Mashrabia decided to form a group called "Amity Never Ends." Initially, the group consisted of only four people, including members of the Anglican church, but within months hundreds of others had joined it.
"We launched the group in a ceremony at the Anglican church in March 2011, and since then the group has grown to more than 1,500," El-Moqaddem noted. What El-Moqaddem likes most about the group is that it reminds him of the neighbourhood he grew up in.
"Originally I am from Shubra, and growing up we were very close to our neighbours, Muslims as well as Christians. That is the kind of neighbourhood I am used to," he said.
At school, he recalled, Christians and Muslims couldn't tell each other apart. It was only during religion classes that the school separated, so that the pupils could study their respective curricula. However, even then sometimes the pupils would all sit together in one room and discuss the things their religions had in common.
"Sometimes, when the Muslim religion teacher did not show up we would join the Christians in their religion class and chat amiably about the things the two religions had in common," Medhat said.
Last December, El-Moqaddem suffered a stroke that left him in a coma for three days. He was told later that the nurse was sure he was a Christian, because of all the clergymen who had come to see him.
"At one point, the nurse turned to Shaza and asked, was your husband Christian before he converted to Islam?"
Shaza, who works as a travel coordinator for Hamburg University in Germany, told the nurse that Muslims and Christians had every reason to be close, as they draw on the same source of divine love. Since the couple started the Al-Mashrabia caf≥©, dozens of young people have started calling her "Mama Shaza," a name she cherishes.
"I am blessed to have so many children around me, although biologically I am only the mother of two," she laughed. The couple feels a particular sense of moral responsibility towards young people of both sexes and both religions. "It is our duty to educate these young people and offer them a healthy atmosphere to grow up in," Shaza said.
When Shaza was young, her mother would go out to work and leave the children with their Christian neighbours, Shaza recalled. "I grew up in a Christian-Muslim milieu, and the joke around Al-Moqattam today is that Shaza is an 'Anglican Muslim' as a result," she said.
Shaza is particularly distressed at the violence and hate that seem to have affected inter-faith relations today. "Fanatics are trampling on our values with their sectarian bigotry. But their plans will fail because they run up against nature," she said.
Since the couple formed their inter-faith amity group, similar groups have been formed in Sweden, German, and Finland, Shaza said. The couple has arranged for Muslims and Christians to meet on the first Saturday of the month for a simple meal of bread and salt, a tradition that is replete with Biblical as well as local significance.
"We meet on the first Saturday of every month to eat bread and salt. The culture of bread and salt is part of our history in the south of Egypt. When I sit with a Christian brother and eat bread and salt with him, it is a message to young people to do the same," Shaza said.
The group's activities often go beyond the local scene. When Shaza arranged for German students, including students of theology, to come to Egypt, for example, she invited them to the bread and salt meal. The students were hesitant at first, especially when they were told that they were going to meet members of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
"The group was afraid to go because they assumed that the FJP was fanatical. After they had come, they changed their minds. As a result, we were able to change viewpoints both inside and outside Egypt," Shaza said.
Now the Germans say they will try to do the same thing back home, she continued. Apparently, there have been tensions between Muslims and Christians in Hamburg, and the group that came to Cairo has been inspired to tackle these problems in the same manner they experienced in Al-Moqattam.
"In our community, you will never see people telling their children not to play with children of a different religion. We are all one family here," Shaza remarked.
Father Nadi Labib, rector of the Anglican church in Al-Moqattam, is a founding member of the amity group. For him, Ramadan carries a message of love and fraternity. "As Christians, we don't fast in Ramadan, but we share the spirit of Ramadan and enjoy the love and fun of its evenings," Labib said
Labib knows that there are fanatics in Egypt who want to undermine good relations between Muslims and Christians, but he is convinced that their horrendous acts cannot defeat the love and decency embedded in the hearts of ordinary Egyptian people.
"Those fanatics may have power and act like thugs, but the Egyptian people disapprove of them. Nevertheless, we should not be blind to the fact that such fanatics exist and that tensions have risen since the Islamists came to power."
Egyptians, Labib said, cannot feel comfortable in a religious state, nor can they tolerate incidents such as those that occurred in Dahshour. Intolerance is an insult to all true religions, he said.
"Egypt's Christians are an integral part of this country. This is the country in which I was born, and I have rights here, as well as obligations. Egypt was blessed by Jesus. I always tell my flock that God will never take back the blessings He gave us when He said, 'Blessed be my people, Egypt,'" Labib said.