Pope Shenoudas El Kosheh Declaration (1998)
- The village of El-Kosheh is a very quiet village at the far end of Upper Egypt. Most of its inhabitants are Copts. Sectarian trouble did not take place there and there are no disputes between Muslims and Christians there, but the relations between them is very good.
- The crime, which took place in this village on 14th August 1998, during which two Christians were killed, was an ordinary crime of murder. It has nothing whatsoever to do with national unity.
- All that happened is that some of the police force exceeded their limits and committed aggressions during investigation of the crime. The Minister of the Interior has taken firm action against them and the court continues its investigations.
- All that has been published in the foreign media is very greatly exaggerated and will damage the reputation of Egypt, which we do not want.
- It will be prudent if this matter should end at this stage and we do not agree with escalating the situation. Continued escalation will not help anything.
- We do not accept foreign interference in our internal affairs, which we resolve quietly with the authorities in our country. I have made this clear many times in the past.
- Lastly, we beseech everyone to quieten the situation, rather than inflaming it. May Egypt and all of you be in goodness and peace.
Shenouda III 5th November 1998
WISE AND PRUDENT
On 5th November His Holiness Pope Shenouda III issued a short statement dealing with recent events in El-Kosheh, a quiet village at the far end of Upper Egypt.
The sequence of events leading to the Pope’s statement began on 14th August when two young Copts were murdered, but the situation soon escalated into an international cause célèbre. The normally unsensational Sunday Telegraph, in its issue of 25th October, carried an article by Christina Lamb under the headline “Egyptian police ‘crucify’ and rape Christians” and stated
“Egyptian Christians have been subjected to horrific crucifixion rituals, raped and tortured by the security forces during a crackdown on the ancient Coptic community, according to international human rights and Christian groups”.
After the first press releases had been issued by the Centre for Human Rights and National Unity in Cairo, human rights and Christian groups throughout the Western world took up the issue and events were now portrayed in terms of Islamic persecution of a Christian minority. If the Western press responded intemperately, they were certainly outdone by their Egyptian and Middle Eastern counterparts. Al Wafd (3rd November) wrote of the “Jewish made British media” and drew attention to the significant role played by only half a million Jews who “dominate the biggest and most important British media” whilst Al-Sha’ab (30th October) saw even bigger machinations:
“The obvious answer is that these are anti-Egypt conspiracies from abroad, which are increasing by the day, because Egypt is now regaining its leadership position in the Arab World. Egypt is the main country leading the confrontation against the British-American Zionist alliance that try to appease all those who confront its occupation and oppression. If such confrontations lead to the implementation of sanctions against Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan, how can Egypt be safe from these conspiracies of appeasement.
So this hostile satanic alliance now uses sectarianism to invoke internal unrest in Egypt by creating a gap between Muslims and Christians. Their media, then the Congress, and the extended network of agents consisting of some Copts living abroad who have strong internal roots have induced this hostile campaign”.
Sectarian trouble did not take place
El-Kosheh is a small town with a population of 35,000. About 70% of the population are Christian and there are five churches and five mosques. There is no history of Christian-Muslim strife and although an inordinately large number of those arrested by the police in the course of their “investigations” were Christian, there were also seventeen Muslims arrested, a fact which the Western media chose to ignore.
Bishop Wissa of Baliana, in an interview with Al-Wafd, (29 October) stated, “I have to confirm that there has not been sectarian strife, neither in the village nor in the Governorate. As for the murder, it occurred on August 14, and it was an incident that could have happened in any Egyptian village or town.”
When asked to comment on the British paper’s claims of crucifying Christians and raping girls on the village’s streets, the Bishop replied, “It never happened and I have no idea where these allegations came from. In Al-Kosheh, Muslims and Christians are brothers. When I go to the village, Muslims host me in their houses. It is a fact that cannot be denied by anyone.”
Nothing whatsoever to do with national unity
Concern for the situation naturally increased when Bishop Wissa and two of the local priests, who had appealed to the Centre for Human Rights, were subsequently charged with a number of offences relating to the use of religion to incite strife, damage national unity and social peace and attempting to cover up evidence of a crime. The Bishop’s involvement was at root pastoral, “My heart is burning with anguish over my children who have been tortured” he said. “My case is defending people who have been tortured. I don’t know anything about politics. I am only talking about the suffering of my people, without any reason”.
The police committed aggressions
It would be naïve to imagine that police in Egypt use the same measures as those in Western countries, especially when we know that British and American policemen do not always follow regular methods of interrogation in the course of their investigations. The Egyptian press has admitted as much. Al-Akhbar (28 October), somewhat apologetically suggested: “It is possible that some violations happened while the police were looking for the real murderers because the police wanted to avoid media and political use of such a crime relating it to terrorism, which has been lately controlled by police.”
Al-Wafd (29 October) offered a balanced explanation: “The problem started when the police expanded the scale of random arrest of the villagers which was not normal. Although the police humiliated some of them, the foreign papers’ claims of Christian girls being raped and Christians crucified are false and perverted”. Al-Ahram (30 October), generally regarded as a mouthpiece of the government, was quite candid in stating: “There might be some malpractices by the police, but it did not specifically target Copts. It is a matter of fact that many Muslims and Christians find dealing with police difficult.”
Exaggeration by Foreign Media
Dr. Cornelis Hulsman, a Dutch journalist working in Cairo since 1975, issued a statement on 5th November, criticising the police in El-Kosheh for its torture and lack of response to Bishop Wissa’s complaints, but also criticised the Sunday Telegraph for its “highly exaggerated reporting”. He had written to both the Sunday Telegraph and Al-Ahram, but both newspapers, had edited out comments which did not suit them. Christina Lamb was unable to offer any evidence of “crucifixion rituals” and probably drew her own conclusions from one of a series of photographs given to her in which one of the Christians is shown demonstrating how he was manacled to a wall. Dr. Hulsman stated, “After the publishing of the Sunday Telegraph article I called Bishop Wissa who strongly denied what was published regarding crucifixion and rapes. What happened was that some of the younger officers tortured the villagers, in order to reach the person responsible for the killings of the two Christian youths.”
The reputation of Egypt
Egypt in recent years has undergone many changes and is still a country in transition, faced with serious economic and social problems. Under President Mubarek it has taken a lead in trying to resolve some of the intractable political issues facing the Middle East. It has established good relations with both the West and the Arab world.
The present administration has firmly opposed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and for its pains has been engaged in a lengthy battle with terrorist groups seeking to undermine its authority. It may not always have responded to this rising tide of Islamicisation in the way that Christians may have wished, but the Christian community has been able to grow and flourish. President Mubarek’s administration does have its limitations, but those who would see it undermined or replaced must realise that it is a powerful bulwark against fanaticism in the entire region and its fall would unleash a tidal wave of oppression in which the Christians would be engulfed.
There can be no doubt that the threat of foreign intervention into the internal affairs of Egypt is seen as unwarranted interference and a threat to its sovereignty. Recent legislation concerning human rights enacted by the United States Senate contains a variety of measures for penalising defaulters. Westerners are sometimes surprised by the amount of support in the Middle East for the present Iraqi régime, but there is a real and justified resentment for the West’s double standards. On the one hand it asserts the necessity to uphold U.N. measures against President Hussein, but on the other hand overlooks and tolerates Israel’s repeated disregard for such measures and issues of human rights.
It is natural for Copts living in the diaspora to be concerned about their brethren in Egypt and the Sudan. To label them as “persons who deny their national belonging and work for the interests of their country’s enemies” is neither just nor accurate. Many developing countries have wisely learned to cherish their sons and daughters living abroad who, in turn, have demonstrated love for their ancestral home by acts of notable generosity. Expatriates need not become enemies. Those of us who live in Western democracies, however, must accept the reality that our cultures are very different and that the inalienable “rights” we now enjoy are relatively recent and, in many instances, still subject to challenge. When in Britain we feel smugly secure in our religious tolerance, let us not forget those last traces of anti-Catholic feeling which still linger on in odd corners of our legislation, such as forbidding the Sovereign or the Heir to the Throne from being Catholics.
Pope Shenouda and other Coptic leaders have always resisted the designation of a minority. Numerically Christians may be less than Muslims, but the Copts are indigenous to Egypt and require no special treatment from a Constitution which professes the equality of all its citizens, regardless of their religion in article 46. During the struggle by Egyptian nationalists to overthrow British colonialism, Copts and Muslims worked side by side in the national interest. For Copts to invoke the aid of foreign powers would not only be contrary to their national pride but would single them out as betrayers of their country and its honour. History teaches us that their lot then would be at the least unenviable and that in the end the very powers which spoke loudest of their “sufferings” might be reluctant translating rhetoric into action. When international human rights agencies have addressed the situation of the Copts in society it is unfair for this to be labelled as intervention by foreigners. The Egyptian government is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and, like all other nations, must accept scrutiny of its record. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the United Kingdom’s actions in Northern Ireland have been monitored and challenged and there should be no exceptions.
Sadly article 2 of the same Constitution recognises Islam as the state religion and the Shariaa as the source of legislation, which the courts have interpreted as having primacy over other articles. For some this is seen as the root source of a problem underpinning a preferential place in society for one set of believers over another.
Different causes have different agendas and a degree of circumspection about the sources of support should not be set aside lightly. If Jews and Protestant support the cause of Christians for humanity’s sake we must rejoice, but some may have purposes of a different nature which should counsel caution on our part. To see a Zionist backer behind every criticism made of Egyptian policy is foolish and smacks of paranoia, but if the Egyptian government can be discredited in the eyes of the international community, it will be to the comfort of certain of its opponents.
Continued escalation will not help
It is a painful fact that intemperate statements have been made on all sides. The labelling of Bishop Wissa as a man of “extreme religious views” with a “previous record in stirring sectarianism” by the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States, neither diminishes the good bishop nor resolves the crisis. Equally those expressing concerns about the actions of the Egyptian government must show respect and courtesy for her President, which has sometimes been lacking. We have seen how quickly matters have escalated and the Pope’s declaration calls for this to end so that the process of healing may take place.
Resolving affairs quietly
In the twenty-seven years of Pope Shenouda’s pontificate the Coptic Church has flourished, both spiritually and materially. The Pope has shown himself to be a man of uncompromising principle and integrity for which he has earned the respect not only of all sections of Egyptian society, but from the international community as well. He has, however, consistently eschewed the role of a politician and, if political events have sometimes surrounded him, it has not been of his choosing. In his fidelity to the Christian and monastic tradition of martyrdom he has shown how we should rise above and overcome the sufferings of this life. Egyptian politicians have come to trust him and through quiet diplomacy he has doubtless already resolved problems which might easily have remained intractable to others.
May Egypt be in goodness and peace
The Pope is a patriot and demonstrates his love for Egypt in many ways. His patriotism is not of an exclusive or imperialist tone, where other nations need be denigrated, and by his pastoral care for non-Egyptian members of his flock he has shown his freedom from ethnic narrowness.
Although the Coptic diaspora has grown markedly in the last two decades, the homeland of the Coptic Church is still Egypt. “Blessed be my people Egypt” is a divine promise, which is still cherished by the Copts, and surely we must wish to see this too. Pope Shenouda has once again shown his wisdom in handling a difficult and distressing situation. May the grace of God continue to guide him so that peace and harmony may prevail throughout the land of Egypt.
The Glastonbury Bulletin No. 99 (December 1998)