Beyond the Surface of Egypt’s Sectarian Clashes

I am confident that Islam prohibits attacking churches and harming innocent civilians, and hence Egyptian Muslims should not be put forced to defend themselves or their religion.

The sectarian tensions in Egypt, which were highlighted on Saturday by the violence that left 12 Muslims and Christians dead and hundreds wounded in clashes in front of Marmena Church in Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood, are broader and more complicated than the inaccurate, narrow context portrayed by many Western media outlets and human rights entities following similar incidents: That Egypt's Christian minority is being persecuted and Christians' rights are infringed upon only because of the religion they espouse.

A comprehensive, objective look at the latest incidents should examine all the parties to the clashes and the background behind them, besides the details of how they started and have evolved.

On Saturday, hundreds — reported in Egyptian and international media as, vaguely, “Salafis” — gathered outside a Church in protest over what they said was yet another Christian woman who was “abducted” and “held by the church” after she converted to Islam and married a Muslim. Confrontations began with an exchange of shouting and slogans between protesters and people from the church, and developed into stone throwing, fire bombs and gunfire. Neighboring buildings and a church about two kilometers away were set on fire.

An approach that tackles the problem only by blaming and punishing the protesters, who indeed deserve punishment, only scratches the surface and ignores other critical factors, likely to further fuel the tensions and cause worse escalations.

Neither the toppled regime nor the current authorities in Egypt got to the bottom of protesters' objection over the alleged iron grip of the Coptic Orthodox Church on Christian women who attempt to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. Regardless of the recent clamor over Kamelia Shehata as one case, much evidence in a series of cases points to a reality of fatal restrictions exercised by Christian entities against Christian women who decide to become Muslim.

Weeks before the Imbaba clashes, three brothers mercilessly slew their sister and her 5-year-old son, and injured her husband and daughter, over her conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim. The Church and Pope Shenouda remained silent, making no public condemnation of the Christian brothers responsible for the crime.

Several reputable intellectuals and human rights organizations in Egypt have made valid accusations against the Church for abducing converts against their will.

Renowned novelist Alaa El-Aswani wrote in a September 21, 2010 blog post on the World Affairs Journal website, “The Egyptian church, under the leadership of Pope Shenouda … has turned into a sectarian political party. The church has become the real state to which the Copts belong and whose orders, both spiritual and worldly, they obey. Politically the church speaks on behalf of the Copts, urges them to take particular political positions, suggests particular candidates for them and provides buses to take them to vote for those candidates.”

In the same context, several figures from the Church have made confrontational and offensive statements in the past two years — such as the remarks made by a Coptic Bishop (Metropolitan Bishoy) in which he described Egypt's Muslim majority as “guests” of the Christian minority. On another occasion, he cast doubt on the authenticity of some Quranic verses while Copts and the Church firmly reject casting doubt on the Coptic Orthodox faith by Egyptian Muslims. They have also called for banning books and movies for the same reason, and they have succeeded in imposing a ban on The Da Vinci Code novel.

In such a tense atmosphere, it is easy for disenchanted Muslim youth, angered by a series of incidents indicating that the Church is above the law, to get incited by calls for protests against the Church, just as it is easy to incite Christian youth in such charged times.

The solution is to impose the law and ensure its supremacy over all individuals and institutions, including both the Church and any Muslim groups and entities that might be involved in stirring hatred and violence. But certainly blaming one party for the clashes rather than solving the problem from its roots adds insult to injury, because if Muslim youth with conservative tendencies continue to feel that Muslims' rights are infringed upon by the Church, their suppressed anger will remain a time bomb — whereas the supremacy of the law over all, Muslims and Christians, will leave no room for any party to play roles that should be played only by official governmental institutions.

For the sectarian calamity to be resolved and calm restored, justice should prevail over all Egyptians, regardless of their religion, with no double standards.

Also the US and Western forces and pro-human rights bodies that often make statements about the Coptic Orthodox minority need to take all factors and facts on the ground into consideration when they refer to human rights and freedom of religion in Egypt.

Rather than only focusing on the problems that the Christian minority is facing, they should also take into consideration the reports on freedoms that are said to be suppressed by Christian entities. Otherwise, and if the West and the international community continue to declare their backing of the Christian minority's rights while ignoring possible human rights violations reportedly exercised by the Church, the West will come across for Egyptians as a predominantly Christian power, with a Christian culture and background, concerned about Christians, but not objectively concerned with human rights in general.

And in Egypt, the supremacy of the law must be imposed on all — Muslims who dare to attack Christians in defiance of the right of all Egyptians to be equal citizens before the law; and Christians who evade the state's authority by abducting women against their will. Moreover, for citizenship and tolerance to be maintained in the long term, a responsible religious discourse must be adopted by both Muslim and Christian opinion leaders inside and outside religious institutions.