One of the challenges in coming back to the United States has been the way happenings in the Arab World are recorded by American media. Many of the “topics” in the news are similar… however, often U.S. based reports provoke further fear and discomfort in regard to the dynamics at play in the Middle East. During my recent travels, many family members and loved ones have expressed “fear” at my safety… particularly because “Muslims are killing Christians all over the Arab World”. These are some of the sentiments that have been expressed… and sadly, they are very untrue. There are instances of violence… but in general, particularly in Egypt, there is still an overall sense of religious solidarity and commonality… even bridging the often wide divides between Christians and Muslims. Here is a report from Paul-Gordon Chandler, Rector of St. John’s Church in Maadi, Cairo. He has been living in Egypt for more than ten years and I respect greatly his opinion and interpretation of what is happening there on the ground.
Recent religious sectarian conflict: Many of you have written about some of the recent sectarian conflict here in Cairo that the international media has reported on, and were concerned for our safety, for which we are most grateful. Writing about “persecution of Christians” can be difficult as can perhaps be imagined. Both sides are often at fault, to one degree or another, and also the contexts for any conflict are each so varied. Regretfully, both in Egypt and the West there are groups that tend to “exaggerate” the tensions and the gravity of the situation, thereby sadly hurting the legitimacy of some of the true problems that do exist here and that need to be seriously addressed. In short, our experience is that the general inter-religious solidarity within the majority of the populace is deeper than it ever has been. And many wonderful and encouraging things are taking place, in the midst of some of the recent tensions, and I will share a few of them below.
The recent conflicts have largely involved the Salafis (a ultra conservative fundamentalist sect with Sunni Islam heavily influenced by Wahabism from Saudi Arabia, that even has a hard time accepting the Grand Imam of Al Azhar…who is the spiritual and intellectual leader of Sunni Islam, the majority of Muslims in the world) and who are known here as “counter-revolutionary thugs”…those wanting to create conflict to destabilize the country for their own gain. Both can be dangerous groups. However, thankfully, both are minorities in terms of the population. The most recent major conflict (May 7) was the burning of two churches (St. Mina and Church of the Holy Virgin) here in Cairo in an area within the Giza governorate called Imbaba, It is an extremely poor neighborhood and one of the country’s hottest spots of Islamic militancy. The reasons for the conflict are complex. It is important to understand that the Coptic Orthodox Church does not allow divorce. So it is quite common for Coptic women to convert to Islam in order to get out of abusive marriages. Recently this happened with two spouses of Coptic priests. This is of course something the Coptic Church doesn’t acknowledge, but it is common knowledge here. This was the initial reason for the conflict; a Coptic women, married to a priest, left to live with a Muslim man, then left the Muslim man to return to the Coptic husband, and the Muslim man shared publicly that his “wife” had left him and was being held hostage by the Christians. Obviously, this caused a lot of tension in the neighborhood. It was believed the Copts where holding the woman in the Church of St. Mina, and so Salafis Muslims came to “free” her. It is also known that sometime the Copts do “hold” women at times who do this, or want to do this type of thing. Just weeks before this recent church burning incident for example, some Coptic brothers killed their sister and her son over her alleged conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim man.
In regard to the recent conflict, in fear of the Muslim mob gathering in front of the church, and most were Salafis, a gun went off…said by the investigation team to have been fired first by a Coptic Christian from the nearby roof, so the Salafists and thug mob went to get guns themselves and then returned and eventually burned the church and another one nearby. Tragically, seven Christians and five Muslims died, most by gunshot, and hundreds were injured, some seriously. The subsequent investigation team learned that the Salafi mob, mixed with counter-revolutionary “thugs” believed there was a cache of guns in the church. It is also important to remember that these kinds of tension almost exclusively take place in highly uneducated areas and hence rumors quickly become “factual truth,” and then can become “threats” very quickly.
One thing that is helpful to understand when hearing about religious conflict here in Egypt is often the Copts (the historic Christians in Egypt) see themselves here as a “different people,” and not just a different religion, and therefore one has to see the their pope (the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church) as not just a religious figure, but also as a political one…quite similar in many ways to a “king” of the Copts. The Copts see themselves as the descendents of the ancient Egyptians prior to the Islamic incursion in the 7th century. This of course further complicates any tensions that surface. In reality, in today’s context both the Copts and Muslims are considered “Arabs”. And of course one cannot therefore tell the difference between them. It is this perception of themselves that can often heighten the tensions.
Positive outcomes to the tragedy: The reaction by the Egyptian masses was again one of shock and deep sadness. It resulted once again in proactive mass demonstrations of religious solidarity and unity, which in our experience here, is the true heart of the majority of the Egyptian people. It was quite moving to see veiled Muslim women with the cross painted on their niqab (face veil) parading throughout the streets…saying “we are all ‘one hand’–Muslim and Christian.” Additionally, as a result of this most recent tragedy, some very encouraging developments have taken place.
1) The transitional government, also in shock about this recent conflict, with a desire to ease the sectarian tensions, promised within 30 days to draft both a unified law for building houses of worship and a law criminalizing the use of religious slogans in electoral campaigns (to keep religious propaganda out of the political sphere by fundamentalist groups on both sides). Regarding the new houses of worship building law, in the past, Christians have been discriminated against (under the Mubarak regime) in obtaining the right to build new churches or restore current churches. It was very difficult to get permission to do so. However, mosques did not have the same constraints. Now the government is planning to equalize it. This was unheard of pre-revolution.
2) The Cabinet (the transitional Prime Minister’s Council) announced that they will reopen churches which were closed for “security reasons” under the Mubarak regime. Faithful to their promise, within one week’s time, the Prime Minister Esam Sharaf, in his first ruling on this subject, issued a decree to have 16 churches re-opened, scattered around six governorates. This was most encouraging news and a wonderful sign.
There are of course some really amazing stories. For example, those that are currently restoring the icons within the churches in Imbaba, Cairo that were recently burned are largely Muslim. It is seen by them as an act of love and solidarity. That is a brief overview of the quite complex recent conflict. In short, yes, there are real tensions…with some tragic consequences, especially in some slum areas. However, everyday there is more and more encouraging news.
See also my recent article in Prism magazine (of Evangelicals for Social Action):
Mae Elise Cannon. “A Revolution Unites: Will Interfaith Harmony Be Part of the Liberation of Egypt’s People.” Prism. Vol. 18. No. 3. (May-June 2011):20-23; 44.