On 7/8 September 2010 300 Soldiers, backed up with cars and armoured vehicles, attacked the Coptic Monastery at the Wadi Rayan in the western desert some 50 kilometres south of Fayoum. It was from here that the late Father Matta El Meskeen with twelve monks was sent in 1969 to the ancient Monastery of St. Makarius to restore its communal life.
The head of the police in Fayoum had seen three trucks loaded with limestone, which had been sent as a donation for the monks to build new cells. He had objected on the grounds that the monastery was a conservation area which the monks were ignoring and had removed the number plates from the trucks in an attempt to stop the delivery. He had followed this up by sending soldiers to confiscate the trucks and to remove such stones as had already been offloaded. When the monks sat on the stones to protect them they were assaulted with tear gas, batons and stones.
On 17 November 2010 the U.S. Department of State’s (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor) published its Report on International Religious Freedom for Egypt stressing that Christians face discrimination in Egypt, and that the Egyptian government bears responsibility for Egypt’s poor ranking because the government has ignored past criticism and failed to address legitimate concerns.
An unnamed bishop in the Orthodox Coptic Church confirmed that there is clear, explicit discrimination against Christians in Egypt, stating, “Because of the intensity of discrimination Copts face, Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Copts in Egypt, has refrained from comment on these events except for one sentence: our lord is present.” Other Christian leaders also confirmed that Christians in Egypt face discrimination. Al-Azhar attempted to persuade the Coptic Church to rebuff claims that Christians in Egypt were discriminated against.
The Islamic Research Academy, which is affiliated with Al-Azhar, held a meeting on 6 December to discuss the report following consultations with church representatives. An Al-Azhar spokesman called the report “unacceptable interference” in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
At the end of November 2010, in an unprecedented move, Pope Shenouda III, voted for the opposition Wafd Party candidate for Shubra/Mahmasha, businessman Ramy Lakkah, Coptic sources revealed.
“I came to cast my vote in order to proceed in our path to democracy. I urge Egyptians to go and select their representatives for a better future for our country, and I hope the next parliament will reflect the public will,” the Pope said. His appearance at Mohamed Farid School polling station saw intensive media coverage. In the past the Coptic church has been informally supportive of the NDP, a stance which observers say is intended to guarantee its security.
In the weeks before the New Year’s Day suicide bombing, the Salafis, an increasingly radicalized group of Islamic hard-liners, were especially vocal in Alexandria where, each Friday, they were holding weekly anti-Christian demonstrations, filled with venomous slogans against Copts and abuse against Pope Shenouda and the clergy. Only two or three days before the bombing, police arrested several Salafis distributing fliers in Alexandria calling for violence against Christians.
In the weeks before the attack, el-Qaeda militants on the Web called for “jihad,” or holy war, on Egypt’s Christians and published everything anyone would need to carry out a bombing. El-Qaeda-linked websites carried a how-to-do manual on “destroying the cross,” complete with videos showing an unidentified militant in a white lab coat and a black mask shown listing the ingredients to make TNT whilst mixing up the chemicals in beakers. Also given were the locations and phone numbers of churches to target — churches in Egypt, along with phone numbers and addresses — including Alexandria’s Saints Church. “Blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas or any other time when the churches are packed,” it proclaimed.
The motivation for these demonstrations was the cases of two Christian women who reportedly converted to Islam in order to divorce their husbands and the unsubstantiated accusation that church officials had forced these women to renounce Islam and return to Christianity, which the church denies. At these weekly protests hundreds of Salafis vowed vengeance and denounced Pope Shenouda as an “infidel,” and of alleged efforts by Copts to “Christianize” Egypt’s Muslims, at the same time stockpiling weapons in churches and monasteries. In September, one Salafi cleric, Ahmed Farid, wept as he told worshippers at an Alexandria mosque that Muslims were being “humiliated” by Christians, chiding them for “giving up jihad.” At a Salafi protest in Cairo in October, some raised the flag of al-Qaida in Iraq — a black banner emblazoned with the phrase “there is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s prophet.”
Two days later, el-Qaeda in Iraq attacked Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad in a siege that left 68 Christians dead, the worst attack ever against Iraq’s Christian minority. The group issued a statement vowing a campaign against Christians, especially in Egypt, unless the two women in Egypt were freed, and several other attacks on the community in Baghdad have followed. A statement posted with the videos decried the failure of Muslims to act to free the two women. “Will we keep on dreaming and dreaming, or is it time to wake up to the echoing boom and the flying torn limbs that will please the faithful and scare the infidels?” the statement reads. “Of course, it is better to act as a group, but that must not be an impediment between you and action. … Move forward on your own.” On 17 December, the radical Islamist e-journal Sawt Al-Jihad focused on the Copts and the lead article, by Abu ‘Abdallah Anis, described them as agents of “the global Crusade.” The ultimate goal of the Copts — shared by Christians everywhere — is, says Anis, to steer the Muslims away from their religion; they also collaborate with Israel, and aim to establish an autonomous entity separate from Egypt. At about the same time, an el-Qaeda-affiliated website published a “death list” naming 200 Coptic Christians, most of them living overseas, over half in Canada.
In the weeks prior to the Alexandria bombing, the Coptic community had been left feeling marginalized and irked by the government, which all but obliterated their voice in the parliament that was elected in December to serve a five-year term. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had fielded just 10 Coptic candidates out of its 780 nominees vying for the 508 available seats. Of a total 5,725 candidates running for election, just 81 – less than 2 percent – were Copts. Of those who ran, the majority were pulverized by the NDP in an election filled with vote rigging, corruption and violence at the hands of the government.
On New Year’s Eve, a suicide bomber exploded his device outside al-Qidiseen (St. Mark & St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs) Coptic Orthodox Church in Sidi Beshr, in Alexandria, as worshippers were leaving Mass, leaving at least 21 worshippers dead and more than 100 people wounded.
Commenting on these events, Abba Seraphim wrote, “Once again we have woken up to a new civil year with news of a horrifying and brutal attack on Coptic Orthodox Christians. Through the timing of this attack we are reminded that as the world celebrated a new millennium on the night of 31 December 1999, the Christians of El-Kosheh suffered the nightmare of a sectarian mob on the rampage, security forces which failed to intervene and inhuman and degrading treatment leaving many dead and wounded.
It is a matter of deep sadness that the intervening years have not seen any significant improvement in the lot of Coptic Christians but have instead been marked by sporadic and increasingly frequent outbursts of violence in which Christians have been clearly targeted. Those who perpetuate such crimes are heartless and cruel and act against the tenets of their religion which enjoins all who believe in the one God to develop peace in their relations with others. On the contrary, those who commit such wickedness follow in the footsteps of Satan.”
Because of the universal celebration of the new millennium, the atrocities in El-Kosheh just over a decade ago, took some time to attract the attention of the international media, whereas, these events hit the headlines throughout the world. President Barack Obama condemned “this barbaric and heinous act” and said those behind it had to be brought to justice. “The perpetrators of this attack were clearly targeting Christian worshippers, and have no respect for human life and dignity,” he said. “We are continuing to gather information regarding this terrible event, and are prepared to offer any necessary assistance to the government of Egypt in responding to it.” Pope Benedict called the attack “a vile act” and “an offense against God and all humanity”. He urged the leaders of the Middle East and Muslim states to ensure the safety for Christians. In response to this the Egyptian Foreign Ministry recalled its Vatican ambassador to Cairo for consultations on the Vatican’s statements “that touch on Egyptian affairs and which Egypt considers an unacceptable interference in its internal affairs.”
Despite professed assurances of security for all its citizens, the Egyptian government singularly failed to provide the protection which is its fundamental responsibility. Only the previous year, worshippers at Nag Hamadi were attacked and killed as they left church after the Christmas Eve Mass (6/7 January) and extremist groups had vociferously threatened further violence against Copts both in Egypt and abroad. history repeating itself ?
Hours after the attack, President Mubarak went on state television to express his shock and vow to track down those behind it. “This act of terrorism shook the country’s conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians … The blood of their martyrs in Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim … We are all in this together and will face up to terrorism and defeat it.” However, there was much disappointment when Mr Mubarak described the attack as a “terrorist operation which carries, within itself, the hallmark of foreign hands which want to turn Egypt into another scene of terrorism like elsewhere in the region and the wider world.”
The Ministry of Health and the Governorate of Alexandria provided rapid assistance for those wounded in the bombing by flying them to specialist hospitals in Cairo and reports spoke of Muslims donating blood. The Minister of Social Solidarity announced an exceptional decision to offer urgent financial assistance to the victims and their families: £5,000 to the family of each of those killed and £1,000 for each person injured.
The Dean of Al-Azhar University spoke of his pain and grief at “this criminal incident” which tried to undermine national unity. His Holiness Pope Shenouda echoed this theme, saying it was “aimed at destabilising the country’s stability and security” and that such criminals are “the enemies of Christians and Muslims alike and they do not want good for this country, and seek to foment sedition inside.”
The Coptic Church has always supported appeals to national unity and H.H. Pope Shenouda said it was too early to indict any of the powers, preferring to leave this matter to the investigating authorities. Whilst not accusing the government of complicity in such attacks, long standing and unresolved injustices had clearly been exploited by extremists, whose failure to achieve success in the recent elections does not mean they have gone away. Having promised to investigate thoroughly the attacks on al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria, both the current and any future Egyptian government still needs to decide whether any actions or failures on the part of Major-General Adel Aly Labib, who has been Governor of Alexandria since 2006, and the Minister of the Interior, General Habib Ibrahim El-Adly, contributed in any respect to this tragedy. Following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, El-Adly and two other former ministers were arrested on corruption charges; and in February a spokesman for Hamas said that the submission of a subpoena against El-Adly, linking him to the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria showed the extent of his, and other officials’ involvement in numerous unfair political accusations against the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip. On 5 May, 2011, El-Adly was found guilty of fraud and money laundering and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He still faces a trial and a possible death penalty for ordering police to use live ammunition on protesters.
Suspicions of, at the very least, collusion were aroused by the fact that Security forces withdrew from guarding the church one hour before the blast leaving only four policemen on guard; there were nochecks made on those entering or loitering near the church and the mosque adjacent to the bombed church began broadcasting comments congratulating the Mujahedeen for their great achievement until the Interior Ministry cut off the electricity supply. YouTube video footage shows that following the atrocity Muslims began chanting “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) which incited the distraught Copts who survived and led to clashes between them and Muslim extremists after the incident. It was only at this point that the Security forces reappeared and started firing rubber bullets at the crowd as well as using tear gas on them, including some of the wounded survivors. Later, when they prevented relations and friends from visiting some of the victims in hospital, many people wondered why they shouldexercise such tight security over hospital visits when nothing of the sort was put in place at the church ?
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III met with a small committee from the members of the Holy Synod on Tuesday morning 15th February 2011, and they released the following statement:
The Coptic Church salutes the honest Egyptian youth, the Youth of 25th January, who led Egypt in a strong peaceful revolution, in which precious blood was shed, the blood of the martyrs of the nation who were honoured by Egypt’s leaders and army, and also honoured by all the people and ourselves. We offer our condolences to their families and relatives.
The Coptic Church pays tribute to the valiant Egyptian army, and also to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for what it has issued of official statements regarding the security of Egypt both internally and externally. We support its decision in dissolving the Peoples’ Assembly and the Shura (Consultative) Council, and its call for security to reign.
We all believe that Egypt must be a democratic and civil nation, choosing members of its parliament through free and fair elections, having representatives from all facets of the people.
We support all of Egypt in its fight against poverty, corruption and unemployment, resisting anarchy and destruction, and for the foundation of security and safety, the principles of social justice and national unity and the curtailing of corrupt and unlawful people.
The Coptic Church prays for the great Egypt, which has a glorious history and ancient civilisation. We hope that the Lord to keep Egypt safe and spread in it calmness, stability, security and prosperity.
Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark
& Head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church
In an interview conducted by Father Daoud Lamei towards the end of February, His Holiness Pope Shenouda clarified points in the Statement which he issued on behalf of the Holy Synod and commented on aspects of the Egyptian Revolution.
A civil nation is defined as a non-religious and non-military nation.
Praising the army in the statement recalls a long history. While still a university student, I volunteered in the army and graduated from the school of Infantry in 1947.
I am not tending to talk about optimism but rather about hope in God. We are asked not to loose hope. This is an integral part of our relation to God. Our life, as well as the life of countries, abides not in the hands of people, but in the hands of God. There is no doubt, the authorities want good for the country whether on the internal level (unity, security and prosperity) or on the external level (events in surrounding Arab Countries, possible reactions of Israel…etc.). In these days, our priority should not be to put forward demands and exert pressure on the regime but to support the leadership to pass through this difficult phase and arrive to a safe haven.
In a TV interview with Amr Adeeb, some 6 months ago, I mentioned that the problems of the Copts can be summarized in one word ‘marginalization’. Copts are marginalized from high official positions, syndicates, legislative councils, university staff…etc. Another main element has been the frequent violent attacks targeting Copts. We remember the El Kosheh assassinations (21 dead and no sentence has been made against anyone by the court), Abu Korkas (9 people assassinated inside the church and no one has received death penalty – according to the law), Dayrout (14 killed including children), the Alexandria church this year (30 killed, 90 injured), Omraneya Church (where we were unjustly blamed for the events) but we thank the Lord for having people released before the Feast of Nativity early in January.
On the other hand, I cannot deny that we had good relations with President Mubarak as a person. That’s why I see it a personal obligation of loyalty not to mention bad points but rather to remember the good ones. The problems we suffered were mainly due to those surrounding him. Now after the revolution, they have been apprehended and are being prosecuted.
I had an interview at El-Horra TV Channel where I mentioned that our youth are generally peaceful and are not attracted to demonstrations. Also at the start of the revolution, things were not clear. It later proved to be a free and non-violent movement. Many Copts joined it in fact and many were martyred and wounded, some newspapers published names of 12 of those Coptic martyrs and the church did not object to their participation. On the other hand, we ask the Lord to give their families patience and we pay our deepest condolences to them. If I know their addresses, I would send personal condolences to each of them.
I always ask myself a question: should education be only for earning, or should it help people to find a job? May be it is both. What is the point of educating people to become unemployed. I remember a funny story of a woman seeing her child studying and asking him to leave education and play soccer where he would find a better future.
I would personally encourage having quality vocational training starting at preparatory schools (7-9 grades) to have a higher professional vocational training at the secondary level. The university may also have an advanced degree on vocational fields. In fact, foreign investors in Egypt seek highly trained vocational workers. Not finding them they have to import them from other countries at higher cost. I recall some twenty years ago, the electricity generator at the monastery had a problem; one of our sons was a senior engineer. I asked him if he could fix it. He said, I apologize I am only engineer on paper but I have no real experience. We need people who have both theoretical and practical knowledge. Sometimes we import sophisticated medical equipment, and find no expertise to use it properly or fix it. This kind of training is very important and missing much in Egypt. This does not mean eliminating general education but having both.
The Muslim Brotherhood recently created the Wassat, Hakk and Adala & Gamaa parties. Are the youth of 25 January intending to create parties ? I have no idea. Would some tolerant people install non-religious parties? Of course those are in addition to the old classical parties. For us we cannot and it would not be to our benefit to install a purely Christian party. It would be described as radical and would have very few members. I encourage Copts to join their Moslem brothers in a party they would judge as tolerant and achieving their hopes. One should properly study the aims, agenda and members of each party. In this respect we have to admit that we need to raise people’s political awareness.
I met with a member of the current committee and he said they would only amend the 5 articles previously decided and would not touch on article 2. The head of the committee publicly supported article 2, the Grand Sheikh of Azhar said it is an indispensable article, both the Salafists and the Muslim Brothers went in demonstrations to support that matter and they said that addressing this article may cause sectarian strife. I believe that at the current stage, it is difficult to oppose this article, especially for Christians. As a compromise I suggest the following, if it is essential to keep it, we may add a sentence “as for non-muslims, the commandments of their religion shall apply in personal statute and clergy matters”.
The church may participate in social building and help the country not by vandalism and demonstrations. A couple of days ago I was visited by the Minister of Interior and I suggested that we rebuild and refurbish the neigbourhood police station at our expense. Likewise, HG Bishop Morcos of Shoubra El Khema is rebuilding and refurbishing two police stations there.
There is a difference between being active politically and working in politics. For example in all elections I went to do my duty as a citizen by voting. As for Copts being politically passive, I must remark that most parties were not welcoming Copts among them and they were never allowed to go up the political scale except for a few well-known names. I encourage parties to give the chance to Copts and have trust. The behaviour of parties had a negative impact on both Muslims and Christians and this reflected in the extremely low participation in elections.
For example concerning Palestine, I gave my opinion and said that I would not go to Palestine except with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and this was highly praised by all authorities (except some few Copts) as a national act despite the fact that it was pure politics. The question is: should I be active only in matters that are supported by the government and show restraint in matters they reject? The church is giving its opinion in politics without working in politics. Yet for Copts, they are free to work in politics as they wish and they have to select the successful and right politics.
Unlike world politics that change from time to time, whether calmly or violently, the church uses a divine system that is described in the scriptures and detailed in the church canons. Copying the government system for the church is not acceptable by logic, religion and church canons.
As for the clerical council investigations for clergy, it was asked lately why they are not made public. In fact, those investigations are usually concerning financial, ethical or theological matters. We make the judgment public but do not give details of the investigations. The details are written in special memos and are signed and approved by the priest who is being judged. If anyone needs me to review his case, I may well request his file and review it.
Those surrounding President Mubarak were employees, but those around me are my sons and disciples. For example, Bishop Ermia, I knew him over many years, I consecrated him monk, then priest, then bishop and appointed him to the secretariat. Bishop Joannes is the same way. Another point is that those around Mubarak, may have found excuses for their mistakes: for example, they would support his son Gamal for the presidency so they would fabricate elections and possibly oppress people and so on…etc. Such an element is completely missing in the church. I would not recommend anyone to succeed me.
Do not judge before the time. We do not know anything concerning the future. The Lord said: Do not care for tomorrow, tomorrow cares for itself. The future is in the hands of God not ours. There are many political actors: the Higher Council of Armed Forces, the government, the youth of 25-Jan, the individual demonstrations, financial problems, some Coptic fathers who want to rule the church…etc. We leave it all in the hands of God, knowing for sure that the church is in the hands of God not people.
We trust that everything will go well, not because of our own prayers. It is true that God gives us what we ask for and beyond what we ask for, yet He also gives abundantly without us asking. Maybe Joseph had his ultimate hope to leave prison and return back home with his father and brothers. He never thought of ruling Egypt or having pharaoh’s seal under his authority. God gives without us asking and beyond it. He just wants us to be pure of heart and as He said ‘Return to me and I shall return to you’. Every morning, while praying the Agpeya I meditate the words ‘grant us O Lord to please you’. It is indeed a grant from the Lord not an effort of us.
[Translated by Shenouda Mamdouh]
On 7 May 2011 there were attacks against Coptic Christian churches in the poor working-class neighbourhood of Imbaba in Cairo, which has long been a stronghold of Muslim fundamentalists. The attacks began when the Salafis attacked the Coptic Orthodox church of Saint Mina, alleging that a Christian woman was being held there against her will because she wanted to convert to Islam.
After burning Saint Mina’s Church, the Salafis set fire to the neighbouring Church of the Virgin Mary. When soldiers later arrived to repel the Muslim protesters some Copts scuffled with them, blaming them for not doing enough to protect their community. The Copts then took to the streets to protest the attacks, chanting ‘Oh God! Oh Jesus!’, and ‘We sacrifice our souls and blood for the Holy Cross.’ The Salafis were also chanting, ‘We sacrifice our souls and blood for Islam.’ Other Muslims, especially those local to the area shouted, ‘Muslims and Christians are one hand’, with both Muslim and Christian residents of Imbaba attempting to protect the churches and stop the fires and violence. Many blamed the police and army forces for remaining as bystanders without intervening while the two groups were clashing together. In addition, many injured victims could not be transported to hospitals because the ambulance cars were prevented from entering the area of clashes. The attacks resulted in the burning of three Coptic churches, and the destruction of many Christian-owned houses and businesses. In addition, 15 people were killed in the attacks, and about 232 injured. Among those killed were four Christians and six Muslims, while two other bodies were still unidentified.
The newly-restored church of the Holy Virgin in Imbaba was re-opened on 5 June by order and at the expense of the ruling Military Council, the estimated cost being 6.5 million Egyptian pounds. “The church was restored in a record 25 days,” said Fr Matthias as he thanked the Armed Forces, Giza governorate, and the Arab Contractors Co for executing the renovation. “They have handed us the building even better than it originally was,” with new air-conditioning units installed. At the official opening, the Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, said:
“We celebrate today a miraculous feat of God’s, and a wonderful human achievement. Egypt has been through a lot in the last few months; we have lived through bitter chaos and fanaticism, and now we ought to walk the path of peace, love, and unity.”
The parish priest said he was delighted not only at the resumption of worship in the newly restored church, but more so at the love and solidarity offered by the neighbourhood Muslims who insisted on being there to share in the Copts’ happiness. The local mosque imams, he said, offered their congratulations for the church reopening, and expressed their deep regret at the violent attack against the Copts by hardline Islamists on those fateful days of 7 and 8 May. “It goes against all principles of tolerant Islam,” they said. The Copts greeted the reopening of the Holy Virgin’s with ululations and tears of joy. Scores of their Muslim neighbours joined in the general rejoicing.
For eighteen days in May hundreds of Copts sat in front of the National TV building in Maspero, Cairo, to protest at the longstanding discrimination and injustice against them. This followed the violent attack by hardline Islamists against the Copts at Imbaba. During the first week of this sit-in, a group of men of unknown affiliation attacked the Coptic protestors and the ensuing skirmishes resulted in some fifty people being injured and eleven cars owned by Copts were damaged. At first the police failed to intervene but later fired live ammunition into the air and used tear gas to bring matters under control, arresting forty-eight suspects. Among the crowd were two Coptic priests, Abuna Philopater Jamil of Giza and Abuna Matthias Nasr Manqarious of Ezbet Al-Nakhl, Cairo. After eight days Pope Shenouda, concerned by the violence that had ensued, urged the protesters to return home, “To our children who are protesting in front of Maspero, the protest is now no longer about expressing your opinion and has been infiltrated by those who use different means than the ones you use,” the statement read. “Now there is fighting and hitting and that negatively affects Egypt’s reputation as well as your reputation. Therefore, you have to immediately end the protest.” The prosecution later released 32 and charged 16 with thuggery, assault with weapons and damaging property. Fourteen suspects were acquitted for lack of incriminating evidence, and two were handed a suspended sentence of two years in prison and a fine of E £500 each.
It was not until June that the Boulaq Misdemeanours court in Cairo ordered the release of 16 young men who had been detained during the violent skirmishes at Maspero.
The protest ended when the authorities promised to address their demands, which included renovating churches damaged by violence and re-opening a number of churches that were closed in the past by the authorities without explanation. The Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, also promised in a statement made on 11 May that a unified law for building houses of worship will be created within 30 days.