Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Egypt: Riots, threats and a stabbing in Alexandria.

Date: Wednesday 26 October 2005
Subj: Egypt: Riots, threats and a stabbing in Alexandria.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


Massive Muslim riots, Islamist web threats, and the stabbing of a Coptic nun have forced Egyptian authorities to place an armed guard around St George (St Girgis) Coptic Orthodox Church in Muharram Bik, Alexandria on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. The sudden eruption of aggression against the Church demonstrates the extremely fragile nature of religious harmony in Egypt where Muslim hostility and contempt towards the Christian minority simmers just below the surface and very little provocation is required to make the volcano blow. In this case, the provocation consisted of totally unsubstantiated reports that a theatrical production performed in St George Coptic Orthodox Church had defamed Islam.

As the Egyptian weekly 'Al-Ahram' explains, "...the sectarian tension in Alexandria began in much the same way previous Muslim-Christian disputes had: with the publication of a tabloid story. This time, the newspaper in question -- Al-Midan -- published an article about a church play that defamed Islam." (Link 1)

According to Al-Ahram, "Waleed Orabi, the journalist who wrote the Al-Midan story, said he had obtained a CD of the performance from a source inside the Alexandria church where the play took place. He refused to provide any other details on the matter." Orabi goes on to describe Muharram Bek, where the protests took place, as "a hotbed of Islamism".

INCITEMENT

On Friday 14 October, the day after the article was published, a group of Muslims allegedly from Cairo entered the neighbouring mosque with copies of the article and incited the worshippers to protest. Al-Ahram describes what happened: "An angry crowd of about 100 people promptly marched towards the neighbouring church. As word spread around, the crowd got bigger, with some 3,000 people eventually taking part. Some were there to support the demonstrators' demands, while others were just curious about the goings on. Local police were quickly deployed in the hundreds; and by three in the morning, had dispersed the angry demonstrators."

Adnkronos International (AKI) reports that the protesters shouted slogans such as, "Oh Islam, we will defend you with our body and soul!", and "Christians and Jews, the army of Mohammed will return". Jihad groups linked to al-Qaeda posted video footage of the protest on their websites along with exhortations to follow this example and attack Christians. (Link 2)

On 18 October, the Islamist group "mujahadeen of Egypt", which claimed responsibility for the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, posted a notice on the Internet inciting Muslims to take action against Christians in revenge for the alleged offence against Mohammed.

AKI reports, the mujadadeen described their posting on the Internet as, "an urgent message to the followers of the cross living in Egypt". The message made specific reference to the "crusaders' church", which it deemed guilty of staging a theatre performance offending the Prophet Muhammed. According to AKI, the "mujahadeen of Egypt" decided to destroy the church, but found the security too tight to perpetrate an attack. As the militants explain in their Internet statement: "After hearing this news, we had decided without hesitation to destroy that church. The mujahadeen prepared themselves but found what they were expecting. The ... police, secret services and internal security forces had surrounded the area of Muharram Bik, protecting the church. If those responsible for the offence do not admit their guilt, then every Christian holding a sermon in the incriminated church will become a target of the mujahadeen." (Link 3)

NUN STABBED

On 19 October, the day after the incitement from "mujahadeen of Egypt", a Muslim student in his early 20s entered St George Church as a prayer service was finishing. He shouted "Allah akbar" (God is great) and stabbed a novitiate nun in the chest with a knife. The nun, aged in her mid-40s, required surgery for her wounds. One other worshipper, Ali al-Jani, was wounded as he intervened to protect the nun. Father Augustinous, head of St George Church was not present during the attack. However, it was reported to him by eye witnesses that after stabbing the nun, the attacker knelt and prayed "as if he was thanking God for finishing a task". (Link 4)

MASSIVE DEMONSTRATION AND MOUNTING ANGER

Following Friday prayers on 21 October, after the ultimatum demanding an apology from Coptic Pope Shenouda III had expired, more than 5,000 angry Muslims demonstrated outside the front of St George Church. They brandished sticks and threw rocks. Around 90 people were injured as police fired tear gas and fought to disperse the angry crowd. Twenty police officers were amongst those injured. Two protesters and two policemen died in the violence – one protester being trampled to death. Nine cars and seven Christian-owned businesses were torched and a gold store was looted. (Link 5)

Seven churches in Alexandria were attacked by a violent mob of Muslim youths that Friday evening. Reports are coming from Alexandria that tell of significant damage to church property, including broken gates, doors, windows, and furniture. Pews were reportedly burned and Bibles were thrown into the street to be trampled by angry crowds. Families, especially pastoral families who live in the churches, have been traumatised. Many from the congregations were too afraid to meet on Sunday.

New York Times (NYT) reports, "In Alexandria, several shopkeepers and pedestrians spoke of their waning patience for their Christian neighbors, and of a sense that their tolerance has been taken for granted and abused." (Link 6)

Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, 25, a pharmacist whose shop is opposite St George's Coptic Orthodox Church told the NYT , "People are very, very provoked. They are boiling. Did we make plays that insult the Christians? They will pay the price in terms of their security, comfort, and now no priest will be able to walk in the streets."

NYT also spoke to a shoemaker who said his name was Muhammad Abdo. He said that police first fired tear gas into the crowd, which only served to anger those in the streets. They then went wild, turning over cars and setting them on fire, smashing storefronts and looting a gold shop. " 'No one will stop until they give a formal apology,' Mr. Abdo said, adding that he heard the play denied a central tenet of the Islamic faith - that Muhammad was God's prophet."

THE PLAY

The play which Muslims allege defamed Islam is called, "I Was Blind but Now I See". It was based on a 1990s movie called The Terrorist, which starred Egyptian comedian Adel Imam. It is the story of a poor Coptic University student who converts to Islam after a group of Muslim men offer him money to do so. However, the young convert becomes disillusioned after the local sheikh exhorts him to kill priests and destroy churches. Abused and maltreated by the sheikh and his group, the young man eventually abandons Islam and returns to Christianity. His apostasy enrages the Islamists who then seek to kill him. His life, however, is ultimately saved by his faithful Muslim friend.

According to Coptic leaders, the play was a statement against extremism and radicalism. However, Islamic voices are claiming that the play "defamed" Islam. Osama Gado, of the Muslim Brotherhood claimed the play "clearly harms the image of Islam". Tamer Harfush also lambasted the play saying, "The play compares Islam and Christianity, Jesus and Prophet Muhammad, presenting the first as a man who sacrificed his life and the second as more preoccupied with earthly pleasures." (Link 7)

The most critical thing about this play is that it was performed once, TWO YEARS AGO!

QUESTIONS

Apart from the standard questions: "Does this defame Islam?" (the dictionary defines "defame" as: To damage the reputation, character, or good name of by slander or libel), and "Why riot?", the most obvious question is: Why now? Considering the play was performed once, TWO YEARS AGO, why is this sectarian hatred, specifically anti-Copt hatred, being whipped up now?

1) ELECTIONS
Legislative elections commence on 9 November. Already the trouble in Alexandria has driven Maher Khella, the local Coptic candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), to withdraw from the parliamentary race "to defuse tensions". Maher Khella was one of only two Copts amongst the 444 candidates fielded by the ruling NDP. (Link 7)

According to Al-Ahram, Al-Midan is not the only newspaper inflaming Islamic sentiments. Al-Ahram reports, "Sameh Fawzi, the editor of Watani (My Nation), a prominent Coptic newspaper, says that 'reading a number of tabloid newspapers will clearly reveal how a sensitive topic like religion is often manipulated to pit Muslims and Christians against each other.' Several newspapers, for instance, have recently been running stories claiming that churches are doing intensive missionary work among university students across the country."

On Thursday 20 October, supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood marched in Cairo in an effort to encourage Egyptians to vote for their Islamist candidates in next month's parliamentary elections. As noted by Reuters, the Muslim Brotherhood sidesteps its ban by fielding candidates as independents. As they marched they chanted "Islam is the Solution" as well as other slogans such as "We make the pledge and guard the dhimma...".(Link 8)

  • (Dhimmis are second-class citizens in historic, orthodox Islam, with limited rights and no equality before the law. Dhimmitude (see http://www.dhimmitude.org/ ) is based on Islamic theology and is an Islamic form of religious apartheid. Historically, in the context of Islamic imperialism, it has permitted the preservation of Jews and Christians for the purpose of exploitation. To receive and maintain "protection"/right to life, dhimmis must live in subjugation and submission, eternally grateful for and humbled by the "protection" afforded them.)
These religious issues – "defamation" of Islam, Christian evangelism, and dhimmis abusing Muslim tolerance and taking it for granted (NYT) – will ensure that Islamic zeal and anger are running high. This should give the Islamists a boost at the polls at the expense of Copts, other Christians, and secularists. Many observers suspect that political Islamists, who can gain political mileage from sectarian tensions, are behind the Alexandria riots.

2) COPTIC CONFERENCE IN WASHINGTON
Al Ahram reports, "A US-government sponsored conference on Coptic grievances in Egypt is scheduled for 16 November in Washington. Participants will reportedly press for the Egyptian government to provide more freedoms for Copts. They will also demand the amendment of a constitutional article that considers Islam 'Egypt's official religion and main source of legislation'. The meeting is seen as a means for Washington to exercise more pressure on the Egyptian government, and for Copts to extract more concessions at home."

Some analysts believe that State Security Forces have orchestrated the Alexandria protests in order to embarrass and discredit the Copts at home and abroad before the Washington Conference so as to limit, or even cripple, its effectiveness.

INCENDIARY SITUATION

Even though more than one hundred rioters have been detained for 15 days pending investigations, Christians in Alexandria are afraid and are staying home indoors.

Several facts indicate that this situation has potential to escalate and spread like wildfire:
  • The approaching legislative elections will arouse further sectarian zeal and tension, especially as media provocation and the Alexandria riots have already ignited hostility and fractured unity.
  • In the light of the troubles and controversies in Alexandria, the Washington Conference on Coptic grievances will doubtless now receive more attention on the street in Egypt than it otherwise might have, and the Muslim response will probably be further anger and resentment.
  • The involvement of al-Qaeda linked organisations with their calls for jihad against Christians and churches is extremely worrying.
  • and Ramadan, which because of the fasting and restrictions required can tend to raise Islamic zeal and cause frustration and irritability to overpower tolerance, is not over yet!

Elizabeth Kendal

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For an excellent and most insightful comment, see:
Alexandria, Yesterday and Today
By Mona Eltahawy, 25 October 2005
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Links

1) One step forward, two steps back
Mustafa El-Menshawy, in Alexandria
Al-Ahram Weekly 20 - 26 October 2005. Issue No. 765
http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/765/eg6.htm

2) Web video incites attacks against Christians. 21 October 2005.
http://www.adnki.com/index_2Level.php?cat=Terrorism&loid=8.0.221749664&par=0

3) New Threats Against Coptic Community. Cairo, 18 October 2005.
(AKI)http://www.adnki.com/index_2Level.php?cat=Religion&loid=8.0.220123440&par=0

4) Stabbing of nun sparks tension in Alexandria
By Maamoun Youssef, 20 October 2005
http://www.int.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=85&art_id=qw1129782066324B221

5) Christian DVD sparks riot. Saturday, 22 October 2005
http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/africa/10/21/egypt.church.riot.ap/index.html
ALSO
Three killed in Egypt church riot. Saturday, 22 October 2005.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4366232.stm

6) Egyptian Police Guard Coptic Church Attacked by Muslims
By. Michael Slackman in Alexandria, Egypt. 22 October 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/23/international/africa/23egypt.html

7) Coptic Play Shadows Egypt’s Legislative Polls
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, 23 October 2005
http://www.islam-online.net/English/News/2005-10/23/article05.shtml
SEE ALSO
Deadly protest adds to grievances of Egypt's
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=19561

8) Islamists hit streets in Egypt election campaign
By Tom Perry in Cairo. REUTERS. 24 October 2005
http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=1&id=2348