Monday, January 03, 2011

Egyptian officialdom and Coptic Christians: a mixed record

The anti-Muslim hate-mongering that rightwingers in America and Europe are currently promoting is largely fact-free. But that shouldn't stop the rest of us from looking realistically at the variety of relationships between Christians and Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.

In the face of a bomb attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on January 1, the Egyptian government has prominently defended the Christian and condemned the attack, as Juan Cole explains in Mubarak: We will Cut off the Head of the Snake; Al-Azhar: This was an Attack on all Egyptian Informed Comment 01/02/2010:

The foremost seat of Islamic learning in Egypt, Al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, issued a plea for Egyptians to maintain their national unity the face of this bombing. In a statement, al-Azhar urged all Egyptians to rise above their anguish and perceive that the criminal hand that attacked the church in Alexandria is not an Egyptian hand. It added that "The brotherhood that has united them across centuries cannot be affected by a cowardly, criminal act perpetrated by enemies of the nation and of the [Muslim] community."

The invocation of both watan (the secular nation-state) and umma (the Muslim community or nation) refers to the two major political identities of Egypt. It is the secular nation-state or watan to which the Coptic Christians belong, and which was sinned against by the bombing of the church, but the al-Azhar is going further, and saying that the Muslim community was also harmed by this attack.
His Excellency the Rector of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyib, expressed his utmost regret and pain at the criminal incident and sent his condolences to the families of the victims. Al-Tayyib said in his official statement that the criminal action is prohibited in Islamic law, since Islam obliges Muslims to protect churches the same way they protect mosques. He said, "The targets of this attack are not the Christians alone, but rather all Egyptians." He said that the bombers were seeking to destabilize Egypt by dividing it.

The Rector of al-Azhar is among the most respected Sunni Muslim leaders in the world, and many Egyptian believers take his rulings or fatwas very seriously.
This is a 24-minute video on the attack and the aftermath from Al Jazeera English 01/02/2011. Note that the Al Jazerra interviewer makes it a point to report on instances of official discrimination against Christians by the Egyptian government. He also does something that may seem exotic to American TV news viewers: he actually corrects a mention of an event by one guest to make sure viewers understand that it's an unsubstantiaed rumor.

As this Al Jazeera report makes clear, Egypt is scarcely an ecumenical paradise for Christians. But it's important to note the real nature of incidents like this.

Al-Ahram, which Cole describes as a "semi-official Egyptian newspaper", has numerous articles and features on the attack at its English-language site:

Ekram Ibrahim, Citizen initiatives against anti-Coptic attacks 01/03/2011: "One of the main initiatives is a call for Muslims to attend the Orthodox Christmas Eve mass on January 6 as a sign of solidarity."

Ekram Ibrahim, More Egypt pro-Coptic protests today 01/03/2011: "Yesterday, thousands of outraged Copts conducted at least five protests throughout Cairo. Fifty seven were reported injured and Cairo traffic was jammed as a result of the protests."

Gamal Essam El-Din, Egypt MPs urge Coptic restraint after church attack 01/03/2011: "Fathi Sorour, speaker of the People's Assembly, said 'the attack against the Alexandria church of Al-Qiddisin is a cowardly act, and is by no means aimed to strike at Copts only, but all Egyptians, Copts and Muslims, in order to spark a civil war.'"

Ekram Ibrahim, Cairo boils as Copts protest 01/02/2011: "Friday night's explosion outside Saints Church in Alexandria during New Year's midnight mass killed 21 and left more than 96 injured and stirred Copts out of their docile 'pigeon attitude.'"

Hani Shukralla, J’accuse 01/01/2011. He argues that general social intolerance against Christians in Egypt has been increasing. This is an important point: "I accuse those state bodies who believe that by bolstering the Salafi trend they are undermining the Muslim Brotherhood, and who like to occasionally play to bigoted anti-Coptic sentiments, presumably as an excellent distraction from other more serious issues of government."

Abdel Moneim Said, Our national unity 01/02/2011: "What appears obvious is that a malicious campaign is afoot to stir sectarian strife in the country using terrorism, hate-mongering and other expressions of fanaticism, and generally trying to reproduce conditions that prevail in certain other nearby countries."

Sadly, this diversity of response reflected in the above reports finds little echo in this Los Angeles Times story on the event: Amro Hassan and Borzou Daragahi, Egypt calls for calm as church bombing toll rises to 25 01/03/2011. The second-to-last paragraph mentions, for the readers who get that far into the story: "The bombing drew widespread condemnation across the Middle East, including from Islamist political groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon." But then the story concludes with a clash-of-civilizations spin: "It was the latest in a series of violent attacks in the Muslim world targeting Christian communities, already shrinking because of emigration."

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