Sectarian Violence in Alexandria …Not the End of the Story! “A Position Paper ”

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Six months ago, sectarian violence erupted in Alexandria. According to journalists’ accounts, the reason for the hostility was because of a CD of a theatre play performed in one church two years ago that offends Islam the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Just recently, Alexandria was again the scene of a violent confrontation between Muslims and Copts, where the Koran was raised against the cross. Muslim demonstrators shouted slogans like, “We shall sacrifice our lives for Allah’s messenger;” whereas Copts were carrying banners imbued with feeling of oppression upon with phrases like “We are not leaving” were written. These events took place in the aftermath of a vicious assault on three churches on the 20th of April, just before the Easter celebration, and resulted in the death of one Copt and the injury of other worshippers who were inside and/or gathering outside the churches.

Before even investigating the assault, Security forces and the governor of Alexandria hastened to claim that the perpetrator was insane. This assault, however, demonstrated a gross negligence in relation to securing places of worship and protecting citizens’ souls. It brought to the charged Coptic mind numerous incidents where the State had failed to protect Christian citizens and where Copts’ properties and places of worship were an easy target for religious extremists’ bullets, knives and swords. In this context, one can easily recall the Dairout, Abo Qurqas, al Mahraq monastery massacres and the 2nd Kush massacre, which take place in Upper Egypt, in addition to the violent events witnessed in the Copts manor in Demiana village, el-Sharqyia governorate in the nineties.

Egypt has been also the scene of numerous incidents of sectarian violence, the most prominent of which was what Kafr Salama village witnessed last January. Some Muslim villagers set fire to the houses of 20 Coptic families after an ordinary fight between two Muslim and Coptic families resulting in the death of one Muslim. In el-Oudissat village as well, Muslim crowds attempted to set the village’s church to fire under the pretext that it was reconstructed without a license. This event resulted in the death of at least one Coptic citizen.

The Alexandria events disclose negligence, if not collusion, on the part of security forces that failed to withstand assaults on the properties, cars and shops of some Copts, in addition to assaults on the Asafra church. Clearly, sectarian and religious congestion has become highly serious. It is no longer possible to have religious tensions covered by continuing to reiterate futile claims of national unity and reconciliation of the two camps. Having this file exclusively dealt with by security forces can only escalate hatred, mutual distrust and lack of confidence between broad sectors of both Muslims and Copts. Official means of addressing sectarian crises as a whole have tended to simplify matters, circumvent reasons behind their frequent eruption and use temporary tranquillizers rather than deal with the roots of the problem. In this respect, it is important to note that:

1- The State has been extremely slow in addressing the problems that Coptic Egyptians face which is in fact closely related to enforcing principles of citizenship, equality and provision of equal opportunities to all. Having, for example, Copts’ right to construct, renovate or reconstruct their churches dependent on the “Hamayonic decree” dated back to the Ottoman era, is totally unreasonable. Transferring some of the “Sublime Porte” jurisdictions from the President of the Republic to governors makes such measures no less unreasonable.

Also, Copts have been feeling chronic injustice and discrimination with regard to their opportunity to hold public offices and senior state posts. Discrimination is clearly manifested as well in educational curricula. The Coptic era is intentionally dropped out from the study of Egyptian history. Also, Coptic students are forced to memorize a considerable amount of Quranic verses and prophetic sayings, whereas no focus is made on the common values that exist in all religions in general.

Furthermore, media seems to be Muslim-oriented. Religious programs are proliferating both in state-owned TV and independent satellite channels.

2- Official means of addressing sectarian crises, in particular crises of random and spontaneous social character, tend to favor political compromises and customary agreements and reconciliation councils at the expense of the law. Consequently, parties involved in violence or sectarian incitement are assured that they are immune from being held accountable or punished. The most prominent example of this is what recently took place in Kafr Salama village, Sharqia governorate. At the time, actors were intent to close the file by constituting a reconciliation council attended by the Secretary of the governorate and the Menya el-Qamh police commissioner. The Council decided to oblige the 20 Coptic families, whose houses were burnt down, to pay an amount of half million Egyptian pounds to the family of the murdered Muslim as blood money. Members of these families were also to be deported from the village because one of them is suspected of committing the murder. They were also forced to sell their owned real estates to the sons of the deceased.

All these measures were enforced rather than putting into force the rule of law through an impartial investigation and a fair trial with regard to the crimes of murder, setting fire to houses and assault on properties.

Political compromises are also clear in the incident where Mrs. Wafaa Konstantin, a wife of a Coptic clergyman, converted to Islam. After angry Coptic protests, security bodies extradited the lady to the Copts rather than recognize her right to freely choose her religion as long as no evidence is provided that she was forced to convert.

Such political compromises are shown to have a clear impact with regard to putting an end to the investigations into last October sectarian events in relation to the well-known CD. Public opinion was not given any real information about the parties who leaked the CD nor the newspapers that sparked the sedition nor about the parties responsible for the breakout of violence.

Lack of transparency in relation to means of addressing sectarian crises provides a favorable climate for rumor-mongering in relation to cases of people converting to Islam and vice versa. The best example of this is the case where two girls, Marian and Christine, disappeared for almost two years. They were claimed to have been kidnapped by some extremist groups and forced to convert to Islam. Security bodies kept silent on reports made to the police, and did not disclose the official account of the disappearance except one day after the President of the Republic intervened after the case was brought up by one of the satellite channels. A blackout of information for two years made the girls’ family and a broad sector of Copts skeptical of the provided official account claiming that the two girls had willingly got married to Muslims, converted to Islam and refused to go back to their family.

3- An important aspect of the manifestations of sectarian and religious congestion can be attributed to the structure and behavior of the despotic regime. Since 1952, the regime has been completely undermining freedoms and suppressing partisan and political life and civil mobility in general. As a result, citizens have been generally repulsive of participation in public affairs, and Copts in particular tended to withdraw from the cultural life. This was even aggravated by the intensified efforts of the ruling regime to employ religion, especially since the beginning of the seventies, in promoting its political legitimacy that had been eroded as a result of the 1967 defeat. Political Islam and religious groups were employed in undermining opposition or in striking political balance with opposing groups.

The employment of Islam, in its capacity as the religion of the majority, has contributed in the withdrawal of Copts from political participation. Copts were consequently led to further cocooning, and isolation resorting to Coptic religious institution and symbols. The Church has come to represent the general space for Coptic Egyptian activities. It has come to represent security, protection and the political mediator or representative of Coptic Egyptians before the State.

On the other side, State’s employment of religion resulted in the imbalance of political powers in favor of political Islam and Muslim brothers. The role of the Islamic religious institution, represented in al-Azhar, has increased, so did pressures to Islamize the Egyptian legal structure. This was particularly clear in the 1980 constitutional amendment where principles of Islamic shari’a have become the main source of legislation.

In the light of the enormous continued restrictions of partisan and political activities, and the pressures brought to bear on the civil society, the political space was gradually islamized in practice. Muslim brothers have also succeeded in gradually occupying this space. We have come at a stage where the legally banned Muslim brothers’ group has become the main, if not the sole, political opposition group under the parliament.

It is well-known that this continued escalation of political Islam and the Muslim Brothers’ group, and the increased employment of extremist Islamist discourse may lead to the emergence of an equally extremist discourse of the other non-Muslim camp. This is especially the case in the light of a realistic reading of the state of weakness through which the State is passing because of internal, regional and international pressure.

The despotic regime’s means of addressing sectarian crises has resulted in aggravated hatred between citizens of the same country that heralds unavoidable catastrophic consequences. Such hazards cannot be avoided except by adopting a comprehensive program for constitutional and political reform and respecting the principle of citizenship upon which equality between citizens in rights and responsibilities is based. In this respect, it is important:

First: To cancel the “Hamayonic decree” and the ten rules for building churches (known as el-Ezeby Basha rules) and to issue a unified law for the construction and maintenance of places of worship to safeguard equality between followers of different religions and creeds;

Second: To undertake political reform, in particular to lift restrictions on partisan political activity and formation of political parties, freedom of expression, and freedom of association and establishment of NGOs, and to put an end to the religionization of the political arena;

Third: To adopt a new electoral system to be based on non-conditioned quota-based lists of candidates. This is meant to encourage parties to nominate candidates from Copts and other marginalized categories, to restrict the use of religious slogans and blackmailing of voters in the name of religion, and to provide the chance so that the results of elections reflect the political, social, cultural and religious diversity of the Egyptian society;

Fourth: To enforce principles of equality, equal opportunities and non-discrimination with regard to occupying public posts that should only be subject to professional efficiency;

Fifth: To understand that confronting acts of sectarian violence shall not be achieved by their underestimation or black-out. Public opinion should be provided with full facts and reality. The law should also be strictly applied to various parties taking part in aggravating acts of sectarian violence;

Sixth: To undertake comprehensive revision of educational curricula and media policies with a view to upholding values of tolerance, promoting the culture of citizenship, freedom, non-violence and undermining fanaticism, extremism and religious hatred. Also efforts should be exerted to develop and enforce journalistic and media codes of honor in order to combat media renderings that violate professional ethics and aggravate sedition and extremism;

Finally, it remains to assert that the Copts’ concerns cannot be addressed in isolation. They have to be considered in the light of the deficient citizenship and non-respect of human rights that all Egyptians suffer from under political despotism and religious extremism. Unless a comprehensive reform program is adopted, and unless a political will to implement this program is secured, society will remain prey to sectarian discourses that consecrate its division, violate the rights of Copts and delay Egyptians’ emancipation from
enduring despotism.

*By Essam el-din Hassan, Editor-in-chief of Sawasiah (CIHRS’ bulletin)

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