One year after the massacre of Christians in Alexandria, Egypt seeks a way forward
by André Azzam
The persecution against Christians mingled with violence against the Arab revolution. In a year more than 1000 dead, thousands injured, 1200 have lost one or both eyes, because the police shoot at eye level. The interim government has not kept its many promises of equality between Christians and Muslims, but here and there are signs of growing alliances, mutual respect and friendship.
Cairo (AsiaNews) - One year has passed since the terrible massacre in the Church of the Two Saints, in Alexandria on New Year’s eve last year, which left more than twenty dead and a hundred wounded. One year later the facts regarding those responsible for committing this horrible crime are no clearer. There have been rumours which assert that it was the ministry of internal affairs who ordered the attack, but no investigation results have so far been published. Yesterday, the last Friday of the year, the protestant church called for a peaceful demonstration in Tahrir square to commemorate this anniversary, asking people to come with armed only with candles and no other religious symbol. A large demonstration led by Shaykh Mazhar Shaheen processed from Omar Makram mosque in Midan al Tahrir up to the Evangelical Church of Qasr al Doubara, one street behind Midan al Tahrir to celebrate the Chrismas and New Year’eve feasts.
Three weeks after last New Year’s eve attack the January 25 revolution exploded, and since then many difficult events have succeeded each other making it a hard time for the population, and mainly for Egyptian Christians. In fact, the Alexandria massacre took place less than a year after the violent attack at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt on the eve of the Coptic Christmas celebrations, on the 7th of January 2010, which left seven dead and many wounded. And less than two months after clashes over a church construction in the suburb of Giza, next to Cairo, that left two dead and many wounded.
Early in March 2011, the Church of the Two Martyrs in Sol, next to Helwan, in the southern suburb of Cairo, was set on fire killing two people died. The motive for the arson attack was a forbidden love affaire between a Christian young man and a Muslim girl. The two fathers died in a quarrel, then the Muslim population burned the church. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) decided to rebuild the church which was ready for Easter one month later.
During March the awful virginity test was imposed on young women arrested by the authorities.
On Saturday, March 7, two churches in Imbaba, in a western suburb of Cairo, were attacked by fundamentalist mobs, with the result of a dozen Christians killed and the burning of the two churches. This suburb had once been termed ‘the Islamic Republic of Imbaba’.
In June 2011 a long awaited draft bill on building permits for places of worship both for Islam and Christianity was brought before parliament. But still today, this law has not been implemented.
On June 29, a vast confrontation between demonstrators and police forces left more than one thousand wounded. Again, on July 23, another confrontation resulted in more than two hundred wounded.
On September 30th, a church in Marinab village, in Asswan governorate was raised by Muslim fundamentalists who had decided to eradicate the village church by first pretending it was a new construction, than demanding it remove its crosses and the domes and finally burning the church, and many households belonging to the Christian population, without any protection from the civil authorities, rather, on the contrary with the obvious blessing of Asswan governor.
On Sunday October 9, a Christian demonstration began in Cairo to demand equal rights for Christians and justice for the Marinab village church. Numerous Muslim demonstrators were joined their Christian compatriots. What took place was a veritable slaughter which has now become known as the ‘Maspero massacre’ : The army attacked demonstrators resulting in 25 people dead and 350 wounded, many of them crushed under the wheels of advancing armoured vehicles. The state television located on Maspero Avenue launched
an appeal that verged on a call to civil war appealing to the population to come and protect the armed forces ‘savagely attacked by Christian demonstrators’. Three soldiers were reported dead, but in the end revealed to be only lightly wounded.
On October 10, the culprit of Nag Hamadi attack of January 7, 2010, who had been sentenced to death, was executed.
Then came the protests of Mohammad Mahmoud Street on November 19 (see 21/11/2011 Egypt, toll rises from Tahrir Square clashes: 30 dead and thousands injured), and later in mid December, the demonstrations and sit-in around the Parliament and the Ministers Council buildings (see 17/12/2011 Egypt: clashes between the army and demonstrators continue in front of the Houses of Parliament), with a heavey toll of dead and wounded.
In just one year, more than one thousand people have died, thousands of more wounded, an estimated one thousand two hundred people lost one or both eyes, and probably twelve thousand demonstrators were arrested and judged by military courts. Many political personnalities and well-known journalists have also been summoned and mistreated.
It is reported that since last March, one hundred thousand Christian Egyptians have left the country emigrating to different destinations. Many people among the Christian community, and among the poorest of them, would now like to apply for religious asylum in countries like the USA, Canada, or Australia.
Recently many bishops reported to have received threatening letters to prevent them from celebrating the New Year and Christmas. Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church replied two days ago that ‘we do not fear any threats and we shall celebrate the feasts’, though everybody knows that the celebrations will be restricted inside churches and earlier than the usual midnight masses. The Catholic Church, which celebrates Christmas in Cairo, Alexandria and Lower Egypt on the December 25, had all the masses between 7 and 9p.m. All the churches were surrounded by police forces, which will be the same for the Orthodox Christmas on the eve of January 7.
‘Christmas is celebrated this year in Egypt in a state of ‘sad joy’ because of the general situation: sadness, because the year that passed has been a severe one not only for Christians but also for Muslims. From the massacre of the Two Saints’ church in Alexandria last year to the battle at the Ministers Council, through the Maspero massacre and the hard economic situation, all of this has left a wounded and suffering Egyptian society as Fr Rafic Greiche, official spokesman of the Catholic Church in Egypt, stated yesterday.
‘On the other hand, added Fr Greiche, we must preserve some joy, because every Egyptian is still full of hope that the difficulties and obstacles will be resolved little by little in building a new democratic state in this land that once sheltered Jesus and the Holy Family, where dignity, justice and equality should prevail for everyone’.
On this point, many political experts consider that the parliamentary elections have really attracted the majority of the population who felt for the first time they were really participating in their political duty and right. But many of them are still critical feeling that it was more a religious election than a democratic one, since no-one stopped the parties from using religious slogans when it was strictly forbidden.
An anecdotal gag was bandied about during the election campaign which went: ‘Women electors and men electors, whatever your religion, please vote for the salafist islamic party al-Noor. If you are Muslim, you shall go to Paradise. If you are Christian, you shall go [flee] to Canada!’
But there were also many positive reactions, mainly from the well known slogan of the 1919 revolution of the famous leader Saad Zaghloul, founder of the Wafd party that says ‘Religion is for God, and Homeland is for all’. The design of the Cross and the Crescent intertwined is more and more obviously brandished. Let us recall that in mid October the SCAF adopted a draft law incriminating discrimination and violence, which is usually aimed at Christians and women. But still, we have to see if this law is really being implemented in the daily life. On the other hand many people are reacting to Muslim preachers on Fridays correcting what they feel is an open attack against Christians, among whom, mainly Nawwara Negm, daughter of the famous anarchist poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, and strong activist since the beginning of the January revolution.
A young Christian student in the end of primary course, Myriam Armanios (11-12 years old) wrote two days ago on Facebook : ‘Like you, I have the right to celebrate my feasts’. More than 3 thousand pupils sustained her as well as the Maspero Youth Federation. A demonstration was organized in front of the ministry of education to protest against the fixed dates for midyear exams on the 1st and the 8th of January [the Coptic Christmas period]. The minister of education decided immediately to postpone the examinations for a couple of days later.
After the Lotus or Jasmin or Spring revolution, many promises were made by the government but none were achieved : like putting the minimum salary up to 750 Egyptian Pounds (a little less than 100 euros per month); offering a pension to the ‘martyrs’ of the revolution and the ‘martyrs’ of Maspero massacre; offering free medical care and treatment for all the wounded of the revolution and of Maspero massacre; an end to bringing civilians before military courts; adjusting the price of petrol to the standard prices in Spain, Turkey, Israel and Jordan; organizing impartial investigations into the Maspero, Mohammad Mahmoud street and Council of Minister massacres, as well as many other economic promises: until now none of these have been kept, provoking a general state of disillusionment.
Another point is the looming anniversary of the January 25th revolution: is the SCAF ready to let demonstrators gather? is the official press and media, as well as the interim government ready to stop accusing demonstrators of being agents and agitators manipulated by foreign powers? These last two days about twenty NGOs involved in human rights were raided, their computers seized and they were accused of being illegally financed by abroad.
Faced with this old approach to this important juncture, many observers express that the old regime is still active. As expressed by Pr Ezzeddine Shukry, professor of political science: ‘A regime that is not yet over, in front of a revolution that is not yet broken’.
We have to point out finally that the blogger Alaa Abd al Fattah, arrested in November and accused of criminal acts during Maspero massacre, has finally been released on probation in his flat, until a further judgement. Another positive act was the administrative court that stopped the virginity test imposed on young women arrested by the armed forces.
Pr Shukry perfecttly expresses the feeling among the general population when he says, ‘the situation is confused for the moment, but we must keep hope for the future, because the revolution movement has not been overcome, it is still active and will never be defeated’. He considers the many martyrs as a source of positive inspiration for the movement, and he brings as a symbol of hope of the dentist Ahmad Sharara, who lost one eye on the 28th of January and the second eye on 19th of November and who states : ‘Better to live blind with honour and dignity than to live with my sight despondent and blinkered’.
Demonstrators in Tahrir square yesterday refused to join an anti-protest march led by the army and the officials, thus refusing to join hands with the people hailing the expelled former president Mubarak. And still leaders of the political and youth movements have called for a huge gathering on this New Year's eve in Tahrir square from 8p.m. until 2 a.m. to respond to the appeal first launched by the woman journalist Gamila Ismaïl to celebrate the Christian New Year by candle light with Coptic Hymns and Muslim Soufi prayers animated by famous singers like male singer Ali al Haggar and the beautiful Azza Balbaa.