News from the Mother Church

Pope Shenouda in Hungary

His Holiness Pope Shenouda, accompanied by a number of Coptic bishops, recently visited Budapest to receive an honorary doctorate from Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest for his outstanding academic work in humanities, especially in literature, philosophy and the history of sciences. On 19 August he was welcomed by the University’s President (György Fodor) and Cardinal Péter Erdő. The next day, at the invitation of the Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén, he attended celebrations for the Hungarian National Day. Mr Semjén, who is also responsible for religious affairs, said that the visit by Pope Shenouda was a landmark event in East-West religious dialogue. His Holiness participated in the official ceremony at the parliament building where he met President Pál Schmitt, who decorated him with the Hungarian medal of State. He then joined Zsolt Semjén to attend Mass in St Stephen’s Basilica. On 21 August His Holiness consecrated the first Coptic Orthodox inBudapest’s eighteenth district, during which he anointed and consecrated the altar and the icons.

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St. George’s Church El Marinab

On 1 October, following Friday prayers, a mob of several thousand Muslims from the village of Elmarinab in Edfu, Aswan province, demolished and torched St. George’s church, which was being renovated. The mob demolished the dome, walls and columns, then went to the church depot where the lumber to be used for construction was stored and torched it. The fire lasted two hours but the attack continued until 7 PM. In an interview on Coptic TV channel, Father Salib of St. George’s Church said “Sheikh Sabry, the Imam of one of the village mosques called on the people to take matter in their own hands the Muslims also torched a large depot of electrical goods owned by a Copt, a supermarket and four Coptic homes. Muslims prevented the fire brigade from entering the village. Security forces, which were present, stood there watching.

The Media denied the incident. Mostafa el Sayed, Governor of Aswan, appeared on State and denied any church being torched. He said it was a ‘guest home’ and not a church. El Sayed said he gave his permission for the building to be 9 meters high, but the church contractor made it 13 meters high. “The contractor was slow in removing the 4 meters, so the Muslim youths took the matter into their hand.” He said the fire was in a depot of the church which had the construction lumber. He said that both parties are at fault, the Christians for exceeding the height and the Muslims for taking matters into their own hands. He added that he had arranged for a “reconciliation” meeting to be held in the next two hours.

Father Salib refuted the governor of Aswan allegations that the torched construction was a guest home. He said St. George’s church was been built 100 years ago and as it was dilapidated, the diocese was given permission to renovate it completely. He said that the Governor of Aswan himself signed the license for the renovation in 2010. The renovation, although having all the necessary licenses from the government, prompted a crisis in Elmarinab village in the beginning of September. Islamists objected to the presence of a cross, bell and dome and prevented Copts from leaving their homes.

The Maspero Martyrs

Twenty-four Copts were killed and hundreds were injured in Cairo on Sunday, 9 October when police and armed forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at a peaceful march, beginning in the suburb of Shoubra, to protest at the recent destruction of St. George’s Coptic Church in El Marinab, Aswan. In addition to drawing attention to the attack on the church, the demonstrators were also requesting an effective conclusion to investigations into several sectarian attacks, and the passing of a new law governing the building of churches,

Members of the security forces surrounded and attacked the Cairo marchers as soon as they arrived at the state television station in Cairo’s Maspero suburb. The marchers claimed that they were pelted by people within the TV station itself. Most of the casualties suffered gunshot wounds. Others victims were severely beaten. However, several died or were seriously injured when members of the security forces deliberately drove at the 150,000-strong crowd in armoured vehicles.

In a worrying development, while the attack was underway, the security forces are reported to have forcibly closed at least two independent media sources, while state television broadcast statements inciting against “Coptic protesters”. These included claims that the security forces were protecting the TV station from “angry” Copts, that the allegedly armed marchers had killed one officer and injured 20 others, that “foreign agendas” were at work, and a call for people to take to the streets in order to “protect” the army. In a possible response to the latter, men in civilian clothing were later spotted amongst security personnel as they attacked protesters, and Cairo’s Coptic Hospital, which received most of the dead and injured, came under a two-hour attack by a group of men who approached the premises chanting “Islamiya, Islamiya”.

Despite the military denials, at a press conference held on 14 Octyober, forensic pathologist Dr. Magda Adly released a report stating that, of the 23 victims that doctors were able to examine post mortem, two had died of lacerations, 13 had been crushed by vehicles and two had been shot. Adly added that the doctors thought the calibre of the rounds found in the bodies of the victims were commonly used in the ammunition in Egyptian army sidearms. Doctors were unable to examine the four other victims.

The day after the attack, at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, chaired by Pope Shenouda III and attended by 70 metropolitans and bishops, the following statement was issued:

The Holy Synod was troubled by the incidents that happened yesterday, Sunday; the martyrdom of more than 24 Christians and the wounding of 200 during their peaceful march.

While stressing our Christian faith rejecting violence in all its forms, we cannot neglect that strangers might infiltrate among our sons and commit mistakes that are attributed to the latter.

Still Copts see that their problems are consistently repeated without punishment or legal action against their aggressors or implementation of radical solutions to these problems. The Holy Synod invites the Coptic people to pray and fast for three days starting tomorrow Tuesday so that the Lord dwells with His peace in our beloved country Egypt.

In solidarity with the Mother Church in Egypt, His Eminence Abba Seraphim, has commended this spiritual discipline to members of the British Orthodox Church and asked that services of commemoration for those who lost their lives in Cairo should be held in all churches and missions. “Our hearts go out to all the friends and families of the departed as well as for the many injured. As Christians we deplore all violence and under the wise guidance of H.H. Pope Shenouda we have been taught that our protests must always be peaceful. The Church respects the authorities but also asks that justice and the rule of law should be upheld. Without that it becomes increasingly difficult to rebuild a society in which all people of faith can co-exist harmoniously to ensure the stability and unity for which all decent people long.”

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Egypt’s Elections

The election for Egypt’s new parliament, the People’s Assembly of Egypt resulted in Islamic parties winning 65% of the votes. The largest group, with 235 seats, was the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, a coalition group of the Muslim Brotherhood led by the Freedom & Justice Party (37.5%), followed by an Islamist Block led by the Salafist Al-Nour Party with 123 seats (27.8%). The Church did not support any party but the social-liberal Egyptian Block, which included the Free Egyptian Party of Coptic business tycoon, Naguib Sawiris, was favoured by the majority of Christians. However, it obtained only 34 seats (8.9%). He is now facing trial for blasphemy after tweeting cartoons of Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing conservative Muslim attire, although subsequently apologised, saying he meant no offence.

The appointment by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of five Copts among the 10 appointed members in the new parliament angered many Coptic and political activists, because of these only the political activist and prominent revolutionary Hanna Greiss is known to the public. The other four can boast no political contribution that would make them eligible for the appointment. The five Coptic deputies are Tarek Makram Shaker, Vice President of the Egyptian House in the US; George Nagui Messiha, co-founder of Egyptians against Religious Discrimination (MARED); Suzy Adli Nashed, Professor of Economics at Alexandria University; Hanna Girgis Greiss, former member of the Cabinet’s committee for combating sectarianism; and Marianne Kamal Malak of CTV (Coptic TV).

Coptic Christmas celebrations

The first celebration of Christmas since the 2011 Revolution was marked by peaceful religious observances throughout Egypt. Heavy security had ringed churches around Egypt, with police and army troops manning streets leading to them. Volunteers from youth groups had also offered to provide security.

At St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo the Papal Liturgy on Christmas Eve was attended by prominent figures from across Egypt’s political spectrum. They included leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group whose associated political party has won nearly half the seats in Parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood has called on Egypt’s ruling military ‎council to provide security for Christian churches during Coptic ‎Christmas celebrations as it did for polling stations ‎during the first two rounds of parliamentary elections.‎

Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which has held power after President Mubarak relinquished power also attended, including the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sami Anan, as well as Jeffrey Feltman, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Pope Shenouda commended their presence and appealed for national unity,

“For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt,’’ His Holiness said. “They all agree . . . on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.’’

Some expressed dismay that the church should welcome military leaders, even though justice has yet to be meted against those responsible for the killing of Coptic protesters.

The presence of top military officers, who are held responsible for some for the Maspero massacre, angered some of the congregation, who briefly chanted “Down with military rule’’ before being silenced by others, just as the invitation extended to members of the Salafists’ Al-Nour party was objected to by others. As it happened they did not attend, stating that Islamic teachings contradict the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth, and that while his party respects Christian beliefs, its members cannot attend Christmas ceremonies or send Christmas greetings. The Muslim Brotherhood delegation left the cathedral before Mass began.

Later Pope Shenouda held a meeting with delegates of the evangelical communion headed by Pastor Safwat al Beyadi with the presence of a number of renowned pastors of the Orthodox Coptic church to look into the rise of Islamic forces in the parliament and how to build a bridge of communication between the Church and the Islamic forces that look poised to dominate Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament. The source emphasised the importance of respecting the choices of the majority and the lessons from the democratic experience. Those present at the meeting reportedly stressed the importance of citizenship and unity in moving through the crucial times that Egypt is going through.

Pope Shenouda signs Al-Azhar declaration

On 10 January 2012 Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib announced that al-Azhar, the topmost authority on Sunni Islam in the world, was issuing a document on basic freedoms to serve as the basis of the new Egyptian constitution. It had spent three months drafting the document in collaboration with secular and Islamist scholars.

The document lists freedom of belief, opinion, expression, scientific research, and art and literary creativity, which Sheikh Tayyeb said reflect al-Azhar’s vision for society. He explained that equality must be based on a solid foundation of citizenship, partnership, equal opportunity, rights and duties. He also stressed that freedom of belief goes against tendencies to label people as infidels, condemn other beliefs, or propensities to doubt the intentions of the faithful.

The al-Azhar document also guarantees the right to obtain the information necessary to express an opinion, while respecting the beliefs and rituals of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). Sheikh Tayyib said this was necessary to preserve the nation’s fabric and national security, as well as to prevent sectarian strife. He said the freedoms declared should apply to the media, political parties and civil society organisations, as well as to the arts, in order to allow for constructive criticism of society, while taking into account ethical values and religious sensitivities.

The following day the leaders of the various religious and political groups in Egypt met to respond to the declaration. Among those attending were the Prime Minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri; H.H. Pope Shenouda; the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb; the head of the Islamic Freedom and Justice party Ahmed Mursi; the head of the liberal Wafd party Sayed al-Badawi; the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, and Sheikh Muhammad Hassan of the Salafi stream. Presidential contenders Amr Moussa, Abdel-Muneim Abul-Fotouh, Selim al-Awwa and Hamdein Sabahi also attended.

Al-Tayyib and Badie both described Copts as partners in the homeland, and Hassan stressed the Copts’ rights, stating that they represent a crucial component of the community. Al-Azhar’s recently released Freedoms Documents, which stresses the freedoms of belief, expression and creativity, was unanimously approved by all present.

Following the meeting with youth, politicians, the premier and Pope Shenouda, Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb told reporters that in order to revive the spirit of 25 January, Al-Azhar urges an end to military trials for civilians, the release of all political detainees, securing the rights of the victims of the revolution, and eliminating oppressive policies and corruption.

It is known that Pope Shenouda has considerable respect for Sheikh Tayyib who has made moderate and respectful statements about Christianity and has stressed that preserving national unity among Muslims and Copts in Egypt was a religious duty, and that one of Al-Azhar’s missions was to review Muslim history sand faith and draw from them the wealth of Muslim traditions that encourage good relations with Copts.

Salafists attack Christians in Qena & Qaliubia

On 19 January a group of Muslim villagers attempted to seize Coptic-owned land in the village of Rahamaniya in Qena, Upper Egypt. Having waged an unsuccessful attack with weapons and firearms against Copts, who were attempting to defend it, they then went on a torching spree against other Coptic-owned property. This resulted in two houses being burnt down, a barn destroyed and several cars and motorbikes torched, all belonging to Copts. An eye-witness said that a straw hut belonging to a Copt was torched to clear the area for a mosque. There are more than 300 mosques in the village and one church. The attack went on for two hours in the evening before the police intervened with tear gas to disperse the crowds. Simultaneously, and in order to protect the Coptic worshippers from the violence which they feared might spread onto the village centre, the police cordoned off the Mar-Girgis (St George) church in the village, where Epiphany Mass was taking place.

These clashes came in the wake of skirmishes between the Muslim and Coptic villagers the week before when elections were taking place. Salafist supporters attempted to keep the Copts, who number more than half the residents, from voting for moderate Muslims; when the Copts insisted on voting violence erupted and one Copt was injured. Local political and security authorities in Qena, headed by Qena governor Adel Labib, are currently attempting to hold reconciliation meetings in order to avoid any more sectarian violence.

At the same time, a large number of Salafis and members of the Muslim Brotherhood entered the Abu Makkar church, in Bahteem, Shubra-el-Khayma, Qaliubia province, and told the congregation that as the church has no licence, no one should pray in it. One Muslim said the 1300 square metre church would be suitable for a mosque and a hospital.

Bishop Marcus of Shubra el Khayma was scheduled to inaugurate the incomplete church and celebrate the Epiphany mass in the evening. According to Coptic witnesses the Bishop cancelled the festivities, which angered the congregation, who were not informed of the reason.

Murder near Nagaa Hammadi

On 27 January two Coptic Christians were shot dead in an Upper Egyptian which resulted in an angry protest by more than 1,500 Copts in the nearby town of Nagaa Hammadi. Muwad Hassaad and his son Hassaad Muwad Hassaad were gunned down as they were seated in front of their shop in the village of Bahgura, 600 km from Cairo. The assailants fled the scene.

Army intervenes too late

On 30 January a riotous mob consisting of 3,000 extremist Muslim Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked unarmed Christian villagers in Egypt in Kobry el-Sharbat, before looting and burning a number of their homes and shops. The violence erupted when a rumour was spread that a Coptic man, Mourad Samy Guirgis, allegedly had an ‘intimate picture’ of an unnamed Muslim woman on his cell phone. Guirgis turned himself over to local police for his own protection.

Father Boktor Nashed from St. George’s Coptic Church in el-Nahdah stated, “We contacted security forces, but they arrived very, very late. Those who lost their home, left the village.” The fire brigade was prevented from going into the village by the Muslims and the fires were left to burn themselves out. According a Coptic witness, it took the army one hour to drive two kilometres to the village: “This happens every time. They wait outside the village until the Muslims have had enough violence, then they appear.”

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