Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

2013: The year the Cathedral was attacked

Intimidated, victimised and manipulated, Egypt’s Christians had a hard year, writes Dina Ezzat

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copts1
Al-Ahram Weekly

‘We owe our children — the most vulnerable citizens in any society — a life free from violence and fear’
— Nelson Mandela

‘To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time’
— Susan Sontag


In the few days that remain of 2013 Egypt’s Coptic, Catholic and Evangelical churches will be encouraging members to turn out in January and vote for the new constitution.
Unlike the 2012 constitution, endorsed in a public referendum by slightly more than 65 per cent of those who turned out to vote despite a walk out from the constituent assembly that drafted the charter by representatives of secular political forces and Egypt’s churches, the new constitution mostly avoids language that had ignited non-Islamist fears over its impact on minorities’ rights.
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s constitution opened the door to the re-introduction of ultra-radical Islamic interpretations of the kind that once forced Coptic Egyptians to walk on a particular side of the street,” says Coptic activist Marceiliano Youssef. “It was impossible for us to sit and watch this in a country that had rid its legal texts, if not entirely societal norms, of openly discriminatory pretexts.”
Article 219 of the 2012 constitution expanded the qualification of Islamic Sharia, which since 1971 has been the main source of legislation, to include radical interpretations of the Quranic text and of Islamic principles.
Youssef worked with many groups, predominantly though not exclusively Christian, to remove this controversial article.
Lawyer and human rights activist Mahmoud Kandil points out that offensive as some of the provisions of the 2012 constitution were, “they were never actually transformed legislation; they remained as they were, an offensive and intimidating text.”
Youssef, like many Coptic activists, believes that it was only Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster that prevented the introduction of shockingly discriminatory legislation.

LEGITIMATE FEARS: “It was not for no reason they included these provisions and entered into confrontation not just with Christians but with the secular Muslims over them; they did so because they wanted to introduce legislation, they just didn’t have the time to do so,” says Rami Kamil, another Coptic activist.
Kamil is convinced that the full-force discrimination was heading the way of Copts had Morsi remained in power. “I am not guessing, no, they said it; they openly said that we were the only force opposed to ‘the Islamic project’. On TV channels associated with the Muslim Brotherhood people were saying Christians had to be confronted, contained or else forced to emigrate.”
Following the 25 January Revolution Copts faced a series of attacks. Even before then — on New Year’s Eve of 2011 — the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was the target of a shocking deadly attack. At the time Mubarak’s minister of interior Habib Al-Adli attributed the attack to radical Islamists. Those charges were reversed after the 25 January Revolution as leaks emerged suggesting the security forces had orchestrated the attack as part of a scheme to spread fear among Christians and prevent them from taking part in the growing number of anti-Mubarak demonstrations.
Mina Danial, the Coptic activist killed in a demonstration only a few months after the ouster of Mubarak, challenged the ruling regime’s attempts to nuetralise Coptic dissent by holding up the spectre of life under the Islamists. Mina’s sister Mary Daniel tells how he would argue the state had no real interest in ending anti-Coptic discrimination. “He was always telling me that discrimination is a function of authoritarian rule and that the end of anti-Copt discrimination will happen only when Egypt becomes a democracy,” she says.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was in power on 9 October 2011, when Mina Daniel, along with other 20 Coptic protesters, was killed. On the same day Eveline Shenouda, an elderly Coptic resident of Heliopolis, concluded the injustice faced by Copts required much more than Copts and Muslims standing side by side in Tahrir Square for 18 days to demand an end to the Mubarak regime. She may have believed “the true enemy of Copts and of other Christians and minorities is not the Islamists but autocracy,” but by June 2012 she was queuing to vote for Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who was running against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi in the second round of presidential elections.
“In the first round I voted for Amr Moussa despite the fact that I was encouraged by the Church to vote for Ahmed Shafik who it was claimed was the one candidate who was capable of stopping the Islamists,” she says.
Shenouda was tempted to boycott the second round but “to tell you the truth there came a moment when I was really afraid; I was afraid of the things that many people, Muslims and Christians alike, kept telling me we as Christians would face if Morsi won; I was afraid that there would be intense discrimination against Copts and that this might prompt the only son I have left in Egypt to join his brothers who have left for Canada and Australia.”
When Morsi was elected Shenouda and her 28-year old house-companion Ghalia Girgis prayed their fears would be proven wrong. “We watched his inauguration speech when he said Copts had nothing to fear and we said maybe he will prove us wrong. Unfortunately, what came was worse than we feared.”
Girgis, whose family in Minya has been “terrorised by those who support the Muslim Brotherhood”, nods in silence.

MORSI’S MISCALCULATION: Morsi, says Ibrahim Ishak, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “not only failed to dispel the fears of Christians of Egypt but compounded them, allowing anyone who wanted to exploit them to do so easily.”
“The fears were not easy to remove but it was not an impossible mission either. It was not inevitable that they should be made worse. A few gestures could have helped; for example he had promised to assign a Coptic vice president but never did. Instead, he assigned an assistant whose job description amounted to a contract of invisibility.”
“A visit to the new pope of the Coptic Church”, even after the mass in which he was enthroned, or an order to approve a request for the construction of a church or the repair of another would all have been welcome gestures, says Ishak.
“It was no secret that Morsi, who visited the Coptic Cathedral prior to the presidential elections in an attempt to reassure Copts, was now turning his back to them to accommodate the more radical members of his own group and the Salafis, most of whom are open about their view of Christians as second class citizens.”
As opposition to Morsi in moderate Muslim and Coptic quarters grew, a fallout between the president and Copts grew ever closer. When the Church declined to bow to a request from the presidency to ask its followers to refrain from taking part in the series of anti-Morsi demonstrations that began in the autumn of 2012, the rupture became inevitable.
“Leading figures from Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party began to accuse Christians of orchestrating the demonstrations in order to abort the ‘Islamic scheme’. There was endless incitement against Copts and other Christians from Islamic channels,” says Ishak.
It is important to remember, says Youssef, that anti-Christian incitement in religious sermons, public speech and on TV did not start with Morsi. And it is unlikely that Egypt’s Copts will forget any time soon the notorious incident on 9 October 2011 when an Egyptian TV anchor openly accused Christians of attacking members of the Armed Forces.
Even so, Youssef argues, what happened before “never came close to what we had to put up with under the rule of Morsi, especially during the first months of this year.”

APRIL TO AUGUST – AND BEYOND: The extent to which the security apparatus used the growing concerns of Copts to fan anti-Morsi sentiment in general remains unclear. That it did so is not in question. According to Coptic activists senior police officials were regularly in touch with Church leaders. Yet when push came to shove, says activist Nader Shokri, the police failed to protect Egyptian Christians when they were attacked.
On 7 April the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya was the target of an angry pro-Morsi mob.
It was a horrifying moment, says one Western diplomat in Cairo. “I know that there was no love lost between Morsi and the Copts but I never thought things would reach a point where supporters of the president would attack the Cathedral as the police stood by and watched.”
“Pope Tawadros called the Armed Forces to ask for help after repeatedly calling the president and failing to get through. The Cathedral had been under attack for hours before the police began to arrive,” says a source close to the Coptic patriarch. “That was the moment when it became crystal clear the president cared only for his fellow Islamists and that for everyone else things could only get worse.”
“Churches and monasteries had been attacked before anyone had heard of Morsi. But this time it was the Cathedral that was being besieged. These were not just the worst days for Copts in 2013 but the worst time I have seen as an Egyptian Christian during 70 years,” says retired banker Girgis Ghali.
The watershed moment fort historian Suleiman Shafik came later in the year. “The worst day,” he says, “was 14 August when the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins were forcibly dispersed. We knew then that Christians would become the scapegoats and attacks on Christians and their places of worship would begin in earnest.”  
In the aftermath of the dispersals, says the Egyptian Initiative for Private Rights, more than 30 Christian institutions, including churches, monasteries, schools and old people’s and children’s homes were attacked.
Abanoub Reda, a student from Minya — scene of much anti-Coptic violence — says “there is no doubt that it was the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrating the attacks.”
“Not everyone who attacked our house was a member of the group,” he says, “but they were all responding to calls issued during the sit-ins where Brotherhood leaders repeatedly warned that if their protests were dispersed Copts would pay the price.”
Reda, whose uncle’s house was completely destroyed and whose own home was half-burned, says “the police could have stopped at least half of the attacks.”
“We called them but they refused to deploy. They kept saying their presence would make the attackers angrier.”  
Some of the churches attacked, says Ishak, were next to police stations and in one case the local security headquarters. Even so, the police took no action.
Activist Shokri sees little difference in the attitude of police on 7 April and 14 August and beyond. “Attacks against Copts continue unchecked. The police turn a blind eye. At best they are complacent, though more often they seem actively hostile.”  
Having spent the best part of the year documenting attacks Shokri says there is a single common factor. While the media laments the attacks on Copts “the police do nothing, and nobody orders them to behave differently.”  
The discrepancy between official statements and the “reluctance of the state to act to stop attacks can only be seen as a deliberate attempt by the authorities to use violence against Christians to justify to the world their mass arrest of Islamists” says a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

A SECURITY FILE BY DEFINITION: “The so-called Coptic file has always been a security one by definition,” says Ishak. “Under Mubarak state security used to follow up everything that has to do with Copts. The recommendation of security was needed to allow a church to be constructed or repaired. Their approval was even required for a Coptic professor to be promoted.”
Because this has been the case for so long “the root causes of the problem have never been addressed.”
“There would be an attack on a church and the police would hesitate but eventually get there after the church was mostly destroyed. There would be promises to rebuild what had been burned but the reconstruction never happened.
“The authorities have never taken serious measures to address Coptic grievances,” says Sally Azmi, a teacher in a public school. “Everything done during and after Morsi was done to further the state’s own agenda. Copts are just pawns in this game.”  
But the tough times Copts endured under Morsi and following his ouster, says Ishak, offer an opportunity to bring their grievances to the fore. According to Suleiman the sacrifices that Egypt’s Christians made “on the road to the 30 June Revolution and beyond” gave them an inalienable right to participate in the drafting of a new constitution.

SMALL STEPS: The new constitution, says Kandil, not only eliminated anti-Coptic provisions but in its transitional articles makes clear reference to some basic Coptic rights “including a direct reference to the need for fair representation in parliament and for the next parliament to promptly issue a law on the construction of churches”.
The establishment of an anti-discrimination commission “is also a good development”, argues Kandil. “But these provisions will mean very little if the state does not act upon them. Unfortunately for decades we have been accustomed to the state making promises and then dragging its feet over their implementation.”
“A more important gain this year,” says Shafik, “is that Copts secured a place among the public despite the attempt of Islamists, those in power and those who supported the ones in power, to push them back behind the walls of the Church and force the patriarch of the Church to urge them to withdraw from politics.”
“Coptic participation, especially in the 30 June Revolution, went beyond the usual presence of the well-off and intellectuals. It included not just the middle classes but those belonging to lower socio-economic brackets. This might not have happened had it not been for the massive fear which the rule of Morsi engendered.”

THE FEAR CONTINUES: Copts are hoping the new year brings less violence and that long-standing demands for equity will be accommodated by both the state and wider society.
“We are leaving a painful old year but I have great hopes for the new,” says Laila Nazmi, an engineer in her late 40s.
One of her greatest hopes is that Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi “who acted on the collective will of the Egyptian people to rid the country of Mohamed Morsi and his group” will be nominated and elected as president.
“I pray for him. I believe that he is strong enough to continue the battle with the Muslim Brotherhood and overcome the serious political, economic and societal challenges that were thrown up during the Brotherhood’s year in power.”
Nazmi sees no real alternative to Al-Sisi.
“He is the only one under whom I would feel safe and secure. Others are not strong enough to stand up to the Muslim Brotherhood — certainly not the way Al-Sisi can because he is supported by the military and other state bodies.”
She discounts Shafik, who lost to Morsi in the summer of 2012. “If he did not know how to win when he faced the Brotherhood then it means he cannot beat them. We hope and pray for Al-Sisi so Egypt’s Copts will not have to migrate out of fear.”
Nazmi says she knows “many people who left this year to escape the rule of Morsi” and knows many others who were planning to leave. “Thank God and thanks to Al-Sisi we can now stay in our country.”
Accounts of a mass Coptic exit in 2013 are dismissed by key host countries. Officials at the concerned embassies say the level of migration has been above average but it does not amount to an exodus.
“There was a considerable increase in the pursuit of long-stays visas that could have allowed the well-off to spend a couple of years overseas and of course an increase in the demand for immigration opportunities,” says one, “but that increase was not much higher than our expectations in view of the economic decline Egypt is facing.”
The embassy official added that “many wanted to know they had a safe exit if they needed it but they were not actively planning to leave.”
A similar account is offered by the Coptic Church. Sources say a far more concrete sign of the fear people felt was their reluctance to bank savings for fear they would be sequestrated by the Islamist regime.
Political commentator Samer Attallah notes the damage done between Copts and political Islam is too huge to be repaired any time soon.
“Part of this has to do with actual errors that the Morsi regime committed either for reasons of ideology or out of political miscalculation. Another part has to do with deliberate media exaggeration of mistakes that were committed or even the projection of mistakes that were not actually committed.”
“It will take Copts who have seen their churches burned and their houses attacked a great deal of time to get over the scars and it is by no means clear the media will allow them the space in which such wounds can heal.”
Adli Mansour, whose house is a walking distance from Rabaa Al-Adawiya, site of the Brotherhood’s largest, more than a month long sit-in, says he will “never be able to forget the horrible insults and threats that were made against Christians from the podium of the sit-in”.
“I was really hurt and very scared. How am I supposed to forget, let alone forgive being called a traitor and a third-class Egyptian.”
Mansour, a doctor in his early 50s, agrees with Nazmi that the only way Copts can start to overcome their fear is to have Al-Sisi as president.
“Al-Sisi will crush the Brotherhood if they try to come back. I never thought I’d say I wanted to see somebody crushed and believe me, it is not my choice. But they left us with no other option.”
Ishak is not perplexed by the fact that the Copts who had to mourn the killing of over 20 activists in the autumn of 2011 at the hands of the military under the rule of SCAF are now praying that Al-Sisi, who was a member of SCAF at the time, becomes head of state.
“People are willing to move beyond one crime, brutal as it was, out of their fear that much worse would have come to pass if the Islamists had continued to rule or if they ever ruled again”.
According to Attallah, it will be a decade or more before fears start to recede and Copts could again “believe that not every Islamist is going to attack them and undermine their rights”.
“Some Copts were willing to give it a chance,” he says, referring to political Islam. Attallah voted for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the first round of the presidential elections, and for Morsi in the second round.
“I am not the only one who did this, though it is unlikely to happen again. Morsi made big mistakes when it came to matters related to Copts and everyone who wanted to get rid of him from the beginning made sure to use those mistakes to the full.”

 

‘Everywhere around me there were houses on fire’

She is a 16-year-old high school girl who is hoping to be a doctor. Her name, Mariam, does not single her out as a Christian. That she does not cover her hair in a Middle Egyptian village does.
“They stare at my braid then they look at my wrist and stare at the cross tattooed there. It always happens, almost as if they are seeing me for the first time. This does not mean that they are all unkind to me. Some are unkind, of course, and I hear them behind my back saying she is a ‘blue bone’; well, yes I am a blue bone but I don’t harm anyone and if people don’t want to talk to me then fine, but that is one thing and burning down my house is another.”
She always sensed that her Christianity was “different” — something that prevented her from being able to fully integrate and made her subject not just to unpleasant remarks from fellow school girls but hostility from teachers.
The last academic year was particularly bad. She had to ignore taunts from students and some teachers who told her “soon you will all be veiled” because Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi “would apply Islamic rules and your nudity will come to an end”.
“I am not nude. My mother and my sister are not nude. We just don’t cover our hair. My grandmother covers her hair though.”
When she told her mother what was happening at school the advice she received was to “stick to lessons and not talk to anyone, not even Coptic students, about anything to do with politics.”
“It was not easy. Not just in school but all across the village the presidential elections were what people were talking about. We were told over and over again that because we voted for Ahmed Shafik we hated Islam. People threatened that we would pay.”
Remarks became more aggressive. Islamist villagers were openly cursing Copts. “But nothing was like what we saw on the day of 30 June,” she says.
Mariam and her mother were watching news of the demonstrations against Morsi on TV.
“We did not do anything. We were just hoping the demonstrations would force him to go because our lives were becoming horrible. We were being insulted like never before by men with beards whose numbers had increased all of a sudden.”
Later that day “the bearded men started shouting and swearing; they kept shouting ‘dirty Christians have to go; this village has to be cleaned’; we did not know what would happen to us. We stayed in the house, frightened and praying.”
The shouting grew louder. Her mother closed the shutters. When her father returned home he left immediately to look for Mariam’s two brothers. When the family was together they realised that an attack was imminent.
Throughout the afternoon and early evening Mariam’s father made repeated calls to the village priest who told him he had called both the police and army and told them what was happening. Neither sent forces to the village.
The church was the target of the first attack, and a number of adjacent houses. “We felt the fire would spread to our house. We could hear people shooting at Copts inside their houses telling them ‘Morsi will not go but you will go’. The police were nowhere to be seen.”
Mariam and her family packed a few clothes and what money and jewellery they possessed and rushed out of the house as the flames spread from a neighbouring house. “Everywhere I looked there were houses on fire.”
The police did not arrive for several more hours.
Mariam’s family was able to return to their damaged home yet their ordeal was far from over. For four weeks they were harassed by “the bearded ones who kept screaming ‘down with the Copts; Morsi is coming back’.”
And it was only towards the end of August that any action was taken to “free us from the endless harassment”.
Today things are still hard for Mariam. She is still called names like the ‘blue bone’.
“Well, ‘blue bone’ stands for the torture that the Copts of Egypt were subjected to centuries ago; yes, we are ‘blue bone’ because we continue to be tortured but nothing that I know compares to what we have seen this year.”

 

‘But there I will not be Christian. I will be an immigrant, and eventually a citizen’

“I’m hoping to go to Australia. Many of my friends and relatives are already there and they are doing very well.”
Sameh, a doctor in his early 50s, has made up his mind that the time has come for him to “leave the country that I love but which does not love me back”.
A third generation resident of Heliopolis, Sameh lived the best part of his life uninhibited about the fact he was Christian.
It was during his university years that he first heard the name “Sameh the Christian”. It was used to distinguish him from other students in the same class called Sameh and who were all Muslims. He never understood why his classmates never used Samir, his last name. “It seemed to me less a way of distinguishing me than telling everyone I was non-Muslim.”
“Small incidents that occurred every now and then” annoyed Sameh, but when he related them to his parents they were shocked. Neither had experienced any faith-related issues during their own student days at the schools of medicine and pharmacology.
“But it is only in the last few years when determining who is Muslim and who is Christian became such a big thing,” he says.
When, in 2006, Coptic Christmas was declared a national holiday Sameh was not impressed. It was a gesture of little significance at a time when society was becoming increasingly segregated along sectarian lines.
“I don’t really care for all this talk about Muslim-Christian fraternity when I am basically ignored by some of my co-workers at the hospital because I happen to be Christian.”
The 18 days of the 25 January Revolution that came right after “the terrifying attack” on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria gave Sameh hope things might change and he could once again “be Sameh Samir not Sameh the Christian”.
A few months later he was rushing downtown to help Coptic demonstrators crushed beneath military armoured vehicles. Sameh decided Egypt was no longer a country where he could be “just a citizen”.
When his son Maher returned home in tears after a volleyball game during which he overheard team members referring to him as “the Christian boy” Sameh decided it was time to go.
“This has nothing to do with Morsi. Maher doesn’t frequent any Islamist quarters. The boys he plays with are all from upper middle class families.”
But, he adds, towards the end Morsi increasingly espoused “anti-Coptic sentiments”.
“It is one thing when the state discriminates against you because you are Christian and it is another when it openly says that it does not like you because of your faith.”
Sameh was equally shocked when his daughter Sally reported some of the “horrible things that the Muslim Brotherhood people were saying about Christians from the podium of their sit-in of Rabaa Al-Adaweya”.
One day Sally was talking to her father and he suddenly told her, “it’s alright because we are going to leave this country and find another country just like uncle Hamdi”. His mind had been made up.
Hamdi, a lifelong friend, emigrated in 2009 in search of better opportunities and a more integrated society.
“In some respects we are still Egyptians but in the larger context we are the Christians. Under Morsi this was exacerbated further. I think his rule accentuated — or more accurately, perhaps, revealed — the sectarianism that has for years and years been embedded in our society.”
“Morsi made things worse but he did not start the process. He would not have been elected president had we not been already living in a sectarian society willing to vote for the candidate that claimed he was the most Islamic.”
Like his father Fekri, Sameh believes the rot set in with president Anwar Al-Sadat who “decided to label himself the pious Muslim leader and who removed the head of the Coptic Church. Sadat used to say things like ‘I am the Muslim president of a Muslim country’.”
“We are reaping the harvest of what Sadat began to sow in 1980. It’s a bitter harvest, essentially because Mubarak didn’t care to attend to the problems beyond a few empty statements every now and then.”
A successful medical doctor, Sameh says he “cannot complain” about his life but still he hopes for better.
“I am not saying I want to leave only because of the sense of hostility which I hate for my children more than myself. I also want to have more opportunities.”
“And I want to leave when I can still think of positive aspects to my life here, before the dominant image becomes one of burning churches and women mourning children who were killed just because they were born Christians.”
Sameh knows that there is much he will miss about Egypt, including the Ramadan Iftar at the house of his wife’s best friend and the Christmas Eve dinner that his mother hosts for him and his friends, Muslims and Christians.
One thing that Sameh will take with him when he goes is the little box in which is kept a copy of the Quran, given by a patient with “lots of blessings” after he helped her through a difficult illness.
“For sure there is much that I will miss. This is where I was born and brought up and where I lived for 52 years but then again I want to go to a country where I will no longer be ‘the Christian’ but just Sameh, maybe for a while the new immigrant but eventually just a citizen.”

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