A quiet Coptic Christmas, but fundamentalism and anti-Christian discrimination must still be tackled
Cairo (AsiaNews) – Coptic Christmas is off without incidents thanks to massive police deployment around Egypt’s Coptic churches. At least 70,000 police and paramilitary forces, backed by armoured cars and special SWAT teams, are keeping Christian places of worship under a close watch. Roadblocks prevent vehicles from approaching churches and anyone entering a place of worship must show his or her identity papers.
Copts have defied the New Year Eve’s attack against one of their churches in Alexandria by going to church in great numbers. Even Alexandria’s al-Qiddissin (The Saints) Church, where 23 people were killed and 80 wounded, hundreds of worshippers gathered to pray.
In Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo’s Abbassiya district, Patriarch Shenouda III presided over Mass last night. During the ceremony, he remembered “the martyrdom of a great many innocents” in Alexandria.
Various government officials and President Mubarak’s two sons attended the service.
In Alexandria, a group of Muslims gathered near the church that was attacked to express their solidarity with their Coptic compatriots, victims of terrorism. They shouted, “Long live the cross and the crescent!”
In the meantime, police released a facial composite of the alleged suicide bomber who set off a 10-15 kg explosive belt, which included nails and shards. The likeness is based on remains collected at the scene of the attack.
According to rumours, DNA evidence would suggest that the bomber was from Afghanistan or Pakistan, which would back the government’s claim that “foreign hands” were involved in the incident.
Appeals indicating more attacks against Coptic churches in Egypt and abroad appeared on some Islamist sites. Christmas and other days on the calendar were indicated as potential dates for attacks because of the presence of large numbers of worshippers.
The attack against Alexandria’s Coptic community highlights the fate of Egyptian Christians who have to cope with daily discrimination and the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism in a country that once claimed to be secular and tolerant.
Here is the analysis of the situation by Egyptian expert André Azzam.
A few days after the terrible bomb attack on New Year’s Eve, against St Paul and St George Church (the Saints Church) in Alexandria, the whole country is still moved and deeply distressed.
All over the country, everybody has been condemning this terrible attack, starting from the head of state, the ministers, the press, religious leaders from both sides and the common people, as well as foreign Embassies and expatriates working in Egypt.
Many demonstrations have been organized every day in many places. In several universities, students demonstrated against terrorism. The same took place in many sporting clubs. Discussing the matter is commonplace in all streets and public gatherings.
There is a general feeling, and hope, that this terrible incident should be the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It is not a mere incident, one more, in a long chain of attempts and discrimination against the Copts, Christian Egyptians, whose name actually means Egyptian. Many people on radio and TV expressed sympathy to Copts, since for ordinary Egyptians the attack is seen as an attempt to destroy Egypt from the inside.
For the first time, we can hear radio speakers inviting all the Muslims to go to churches on Eastern Christmas on the eve of 7 January, to share the event with their Christian brothers and sisters and express to them their condolences for the death of more than 20 of them in this despicable attack.
Pope Shenouda III decided to celebrate Midnight Mass on Christmas in spite of the great bereavement, so as not to play the game of the fundamentalists and give up in front of the threats and danger. As stated by Pastor Bayadi, head of the Protestant churches in Egypt, “We must not give up praying on Sundays and on Christmas”. The official spokesman of the Catholic Church in Egypt said, “We fear no one, and nothing will prevent us from going to our churches in this country of the martyrs ». (The Coptic Calendar is called the ‘Calendar of the Martyrs’ and is based on Roman Emperor Diocletian persecutions against Christians on 303 AD. The Calendar starts in 284 AD, the year when Diocletian’s reign began).
All Catholic churches that celebrated Christmas on 25 December and celebrated Epiphany on 6 January have decided to remain open on Thursday night to share the sorrow and sadness of the Coptic Orthodox Church and people on this Nativity.
Still a lot of criticism has been expressed by many people. Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information consider that « the blood of tens of Christian is valuing the dismissal of the Home Minister ». Mohammad al Baradei, former director of International Atomic Energy Agency wrote on his blog, “A regime incapable of protecting its own citizens is a regime whose time is over.”
Mrs Georgette Qallini, a former Member of Parliament and a current member of the Coptic Church Council, stated that the official statements about the incident should have waited for an in-depth inquiry into all sides of the attack instead of immediately concluding that it was a bomb attack by a single person who died in the incident.
A leftwing party said that the crime has to be understood in terms of a crisis situation that concerns citizenship and human rights. It insisted that a law on religious buildings treat mosques and churches equally. A present, in order to build a new church, one has to get the written approbation of the head of state. Similarly, in order to repair or restore a church building or part of it, one needs the official permission of the local governor or a high rank official in charge of security.
For well-known thinker Tareq Higgy, “This attack marks a turning point in the process of fanaticism, which gave birth to violence and terrorism”. According to this philosopher, “there will be no human, efficient and final solution unless the people in charge of the country recognise the true reasons of the illness, which resides in a culture of fanaticism, hatred and rejection of the other, along with a rotten education system and religious institutions that put the seed of fire and conflagration by issuing fatwas like banning New Year’s Eve celebrations . . . .”
Recently, a fatwa was issued for the assassination of Mohammad al Baradei. The Sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Muslim authority for Sunni Muslims, denounced this fatwa. But many people consider that al-Azhar is weak in controlling outbursts, which are daily occurrence.
Fundamentalism has reached a peak and allowed an ugly atmosphere of fanaticism to prevail in the country. Some incidents happen every now and then; for instance, in the subway, when veiled women directly attack unveiled women, considered immediately as Christian, and treated as impious. Unveiled Muslim women are highly criticised by others. These are examples of incidents that happen currently in the streets. Recently, a Muslim woman vehemently quarrelled with some youngsters who were throwing stones at crosses from outside the walls of a Christian cemetery surrounded by billboards praising the ‘union of religions’. The graveyard is located in Old Cairo, a suburb that is rich in Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites and monuments. They all went to a police station, where the woman called on the youngster’s families to educate their children to respect everybody.
To conclude, let us quote the communiqué released by Fr Rafic Greiche, head of the Press Office of the Catholic Church in Egypt and spokesman of the seven Catholic denominations that are present in the country. After denouncing the awful start of the New Year, and recalling the death of many Christians in a Nag Hammadi, Upped Egypt on 7 January 2010, it listed nine demands and one suggestion.
1. The immediate arrest of the criminals and their judgment in court.
2. Dealing severely with all agitators and agents provocateurs that directly or indirectly encourage fanatic actions through the newspapers, the media or preaching.
3. The immediate adoption of a law for all religious buildings.
4. The immediate adoption of a personal status law for Christians.
5. The adoption of a law that forbids religious discrimination and severely punishes anyone who breaks this law.
6. Reassertion of the civic foundations of the state, based on equal citizenship.
7. Complete restructuring of the educational programme and curricula to purge them of what is related to discrimination.
8. In-depth action against negative attitudes from religious leaders to prevent them from encouraging sectarianism.
9. Encouragement by the state of democratic life and protection of freedom of expression and belief.
Finally, the spokesman for the Catholic Church suggested setting up a committee headed by the head of state that includes sociologists and legal experts in order to study the phenomenon of terrorism, which is threatening not only Christians but Muslim as well, and represents a real danger for the nation.
Finally, all the people of good will in Egypt, on all sides, hope that this horrible slaughter will open the door to a drastic solution and a strong command of the situation to start on the path to control definitively the terrible social problem of fanaticism and fundamentalism.