This is part 2 of the translation of a recent Al Jazeera interview "Accusations the Coptic Church is Aggressively Encroaching Against Egypt and its Laws." Part 1 is available here. My own comments will come at the end of the interview.
Ahmad: In light of all this disturbing news, there is a scheduled referendum in the Sudan that will divide it into two countries, one in the north and another in the south. This plan has been hatched for 20 years, and maps have already been drawn to do the same thing in Egypt. Could it happen here?
Muhammad: There are indications of that in incidents taking place here and there throughout the country. These incidents seem small, but they are not random. Sometimes they are represented in monasteries agitating against the state about property rights and things like that. They represent a concentrated effort to prepare the way for the day when the Copts will demand that Egypt be divided so they can have their own country. There might even be demands for numerous states; the Nubians could demand their own state was well!
Ahmad: Invaders throughout history have tried to divide Egypt, but without success.
Muhammad: Egypt has always maintained its unity. For the first time a scientific, organized, ongoing effort is taking place. It has been continual since President Sadat first placed Pope Shenouda under arrest. We are facing a concentrated effort to prepare the way to divide Egypt into two countries.
Ahmad: Would it not be in the interest of the Copts to have their own country?
Muhammad: No, that would be the most dangerous thing they could do.
Muhammad: The Copts only represent, as you said, 6 % percent of the population. How could they have a country equivalent in size to 6 %? How would they access the Nile, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean? How could they remain in contact with the outside world? Where would this little country be located with its 6% of the population?
Ahmad: By the way, this 6% is taken from an old census. For years, neither the Copts nor the Egyptian government have officially announced the percentage.
Muhammad: The ratio has not changed. From the time of the British Empire until now, the percentage of Copts has ranged from 4-6%.
Ahmad: They say they are more than 12%!
Muhammad: They say that, but if it were true they would request the government to release the official census. I call upon any Copt to ask the government to do that. The reason they do not is that they know the official statistics are against them. It would not be in their interest to establish their own state.
Ahmad: Many articles have discussed the merger of power and wealth in Egypt, but the discussion is now the merger of power and the Copts. It is described as a marriage between the top officials in the government and the leaders of the church that plays a major role in the inability of the government to confront the church. The minority benefits at the expense of the majority. How do you see this?
Muhammad: I don't know who is marrying whom, since I don't have the marriage register at my fingertips, but I do know that the weakness of the government in confronting the church is greatly inciting the Muslims.
Ahmad: Why is the government so weak in confronting the Copts?
Muhammad: As I said before, the government is tyrannical. An oppressive government retains its strength by forming alliances with strong elements inside it, as this government has with the Copts. The government cannot oppress everyone, so it oppresses the weak and forms alliances with the powerful.
Ahmad: Are we heading into a dark tunnel? Are there not reasonable people in the church and the government who can stall this off?
Muhammad: There are reasonable people on both sides, but in a time of sectarian sedition no one listens to reason. When the loudest voices are those such as Father Bishoy calling for supremacy, no one listens to the voice of reason.
Ahmad: We invited Father Bishoy to appear on this show with you, but he declined.
Muhammad: I wish Pope Shenouda himself would come on.
Ahmad: I've been asking him ever since the program began, but he always refuses.
Muhammad: I would just like to hear him explain how he has the audacity to say repeatedly that he cannot be judged by the Egyptian judicial system. Once a woman asked him about the Islamic ruling that two women from the same family cannot nurse the same child. He had the gall to tell her that was a stupid prohibition! How can he say something like that and have it published in the press? The only people who reply to him are those the government considers extremists and terrorists. There is not a single official voice to confront them.
Ahmad: Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa recently issued a fatwa that it was imperative to turn over religious converts to the community they came from, because that is what the Prophet Muhammad did.
Muhammad: The Prophet never did that!
Ahmad: Are you aware of the fatwa?
Muhammad: No, but you are telling me he said the Prophet did that.
Ahmad: He was talking about turning Wafa Constantine over to the church.
Muhammad: OK, you are talking about Christians who convert to Islam, and he is saying the Prophet did that. That information is not correct; the Prophet never did that. The Grand Mufti was talking about the special terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah between Muhammad and the people of Mecca when he returned in victory to the city. Among the terms of the treaty was that if anyone converted to Islam in Mecca and then subsequently migrated to Medina, they would be returned to the people of Mecca.
But the Quran says in Surat Al-Mumtahanah (60:10), "When Muslim women come to you as immigrants, do not send them back to the unbelievers. The unbelievers are not allowed to marry them, but if they were previously engaged to unbelievers pay their dowry for them. You are then allowed to marry them." Not a single female convert to Islam was ever returned to her people in the entire history of Islam until Wafa Constantine was turned over to the church! For 11 days an intense debate took place on whether she should be rendered back to the Coptic church. May God reward the courageous men who argued she should not be, and may God judge those who forced them to do so. Not a single Muslim convert had been been turned over in 14 centuries, no matter what the Grand Mufti said.
Ahmad: I have an email suggesting that the Grand Mufti works for the Coptic church!
Muhammad: No, Ali Gomaa is an honorable man.
Ahmad: Why do the Grand Mufti and the Shaykh of Al Azhar not come out and make official statements against these things?
Muhammad: If the Grand Mufti said that the Prophet allowed Muslim converts to be turned over to their people, he should correct his mistake. The Prophet never said that.
Ahmad: Father Bishoy leads the church's Clerical Court that judges errant priests, and some people say he will succeed Pope Shenouda.
Muhammad: Coptic papal succession is determined by lot, and no one knows how the lot will be cast.
Ahmad: Egypt Today did an interview with Father Taklah, a priest exiled to a monastery in Wadi Natroun where priests who run afoul of the church are sentenced for years in small, cell-like rooms until they finally pardoned by Pope Shenouda. Father Taklah has been there for years. Is the church allowed to imprison people independent of a legal trial?
Muhammad: According to Egyptian law, if the problem is related to an infraction of church policy the church has the right to do that. Even government organizations provide disciplinary measures for people who break their laws. But if a crime is committed against the law of the land, the government must be informed. Father Bishoy said in his interview today that some people illegally exaggerate their church contributions for tax benefits, but they do not inform the government of this fraud because they do not want to embarrass those people. If people are doing that, it is a crime and the government must be informed.
In the Hadith the Prophet gave the order that Christian leaders of Yemen should not be replaced. In the same way, we are not calling for the replacement of Coptic officials, but we are saying that if crimes have been committed, the state must be called in to impose justice.
Ahmad: Father Taklah was asked in the interview what he would do if he met with Pope Shenouda. He replied that he would kneel at his feet and plead, "Forgive me, master, for I have sinned." Would the Pope allow him to do that?
Muhammad: Not only that, but the Pope might or might not forgive him. He has absolute power in this. The purpose of interviews like this is to terrorize the Christians, to make them ask, "If a priest who made a mistake was exiled for years and years, what might happen to me?" It was right of the newspaper to publish the interview, but we cannot just say this is an internal church matter that we Muslims have no right to talk about. This is a humanitarian and national issue, related to human dignity. That man was exiled to the desert for years, and I must defend his honor as a Christian just as I would defend the honor of a Muslim.
Ahmad: Last year the press reported that the church established its first institution to evangelize Muslims. It is called "Jesus Set Me Free", and is led by a female Egyptian lawyer named Nagla Imam who converted to Christianity from Islam. A former Al Azhar professor named Muhammmad Rahouma who also converted to Christianity said that the American army would not remain silent if those Muslims who wanted to become Christians were oppressed.
Muhammad: And Father Bishoy claims that the Church is not being strengthened from abroad! Is not announcing that the American army will support you an example of receiving strength from abroad? Where is this professor and this lawyer now? If they are living in Egypt, then Egypt must be a land of complete freedom. And if they are living abroad, Egypt gave them the passports to travel freely. Who are these people to claim that the American army would come to support a handful of recanters and converts?
Ahmad: Father Markos, who is the Coptic Minister of Information, said in an interview to the German media in 2008 that the Egyptian government does not allow Muslims to convert to Christianity.
Muhammad: Where are these converts? I wish they would present themselves one by one. I challenge the church to openly announce the names of those who convert to Christianity, just as we do with those who convert to Islam. Give me one example of someone who was oppressed or killed because they converted to Christianity! Let Nagdi Imam or Muhammad Rahouma come forward and tell us how they were persecuted! The real persecution is done by the Church to those Christians who accept Islam. I would like to have one single person tell me he or she was a Muslim and converted to Christianity!
Ahmad: What about those Christians who revert to Islam and are then turned over to the church?
Muhammad: Their rendition is a punishable crime because it infringes upon their freedom and the constitution does not allow it.
Ahmad: It is against their freedom of religious choice?
Muhammad: It is more than that, it is against their human rights. For the Pope or anyone else to exile or imprison anyone in violation of their human rights is a crime punishable by the constitution. Not only that, but the constitution does not place a statute of limitations upon these crimes. If our constitution remains as it is, perpetrators of these crimes can be judged even after 100 years. By the way, there is a complete file prepared of those Copts who have committed those crimes, and they will be judged!
Ahmad: We are facing some serious problems, not simply the rendition of a woman who converted to Islam!
Muhammad: Yes indeed, it is a matter of not respecting the constitution and destroying personal freedom. It is not just a matter of freedom of religious choice. Let anyone convert to Islam who wants to, and let anyone become an unbeliever who wants to! By the way, I proposed a solution to the problem of religious affiliation on our identity cards in a book I wrote that is being studied in universities today.
Ahmad: Just issue ID cards that do not mention religion at all?
Muhammad: No, that would not be a solution. How would we then know who can marry whom, or who can be buried where? The solution is simply to write the original religion, followed by the new religion and date of conversion. For a Christian convert to Islam, it would record the date of conversion, and for a Muslim it would record the date of apostasy. One of the Egyptian courts that agreed with my suggestion even took it a step further. It said that the ID card should represent the true identify of its bearer. If the person carrying that card had changed from one religion to another, their ID card should represent that change, because their current religion and the religion they were born into are both part of who they are. The MOI has begun this, but the backlash is from the Copts who do not want ID cards of converts to represent their former religion. They do not want the cards to indicate that these people jumped from one religion to another, or that they were not firm in their faith. A man whose ID card shows he changed his religion will find it more difficult to find a bride because people will think he is unstable. These people want to hide the true identify of the converts.
Ahmad: The MOI is always announcing the discovery of this or that extremist group, all Muslim of course. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes it is false. Now we learn of weapons being stored in churches and Coptic demonstration all over the place, but we never hear a word of any extremist Coptic organization in Egypt!
Muhammad: We don't even hear anything about Joseph Gabalwi and his father who smuggled explosives from Israel.
Ahmad: But if a Muslim is arrested for anything, all hell breaks loose!
Muhammad: Of course. Let a Muslim be arrested on a drugs or weapons or smuggling charge and see what happens.
Ahmad: And Israel is involved!
Muhammad: Israel is not only involved, it is at the heart of the matter. For a long time Israel has been at the heart of the Copt problem, the Nile water crisis, and Egyptian-Arab relations. The Egyptian people are aware of all this, but the government remains silent in the face of the enormous pressure being put upon it.
Ahmad: Why does Al Azhar University not respond to all this? Perhaps the late Shaykh Tantawi was right when he reportedly said he would be the last Shaykh of Al Azhar and it would die after him!
Muhammad: No, the newly-appointed Shaykh of Al Azhar Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb is a good man, a Sufi, and perhaps he will revive some (Sufi-related) courses some people have been wishing would be taught there. By the way, there is a second woman who converted to Islam and was turned over to the church by an Islamic organization, may God judge it! She was the wife of a priest and her name is Mariam Abdallah. To this day, no one knows where she is or what happened to her. There is also the recent story of Camellia Shahata (whose story is told here), but she did not convert to Islam. The first two women however, Wafa Constantine and Mariam Abdallah, did convert and what happened to them was a crime for which there is no statute of limitations.
Ahmad: The Copts are vocal and the Muslims are silent! Is there no solution apart from the demonstrations that could result in chaos no one has the power to stop? How can relations be restored to where they were for the past 14 centuries?
Muhammad: I call upon Coptic leaders to work for what is best for the Copts. I call them to the voice of reason. I call upon them to sit and discuss the calamity that will befall them if they continue their present course of action. I still remember Pope Shenouda saying to me in our first meeting years ago, "Dr. Muhammad, if the Muslims stop going to the Coptic grocers, barbers, doctors, and pharmacists, how will the Copts survive?
Ahmad: Twenty-five percent of Egypt's doctors and pharmacists are Copts.
Muhammad: He said to me, "How will those grocers, barbers, doctors, and pharmacists stay alive? We Copts can only survive in the midst of Muslims." He was correct. Where we are today, with Copts ignoring the rulings of judges, threatening martyrdom, storing weapons in their churches, and claiming that the 94% Muslims are the guests of the 6 % Copts, will start a fire that no one will be able to put out! The poem will come true that says:
When the voice of reason cannot extinguish the flame,
Its fuel will be the bodies of its victims.
1. Everything in Islam, including the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, goes back to Muhammad. Some of the Jewish women whom Muhammad expelled from Medina after beheading their male family members went to the agricultural region of Khaybar. As soon as Muhammad established a truce with the people of Mecca, thus eliminating his final enemy, he led his 10,000 soldier army to Khaybar and informed the farmers they could stay alive if they gave him 50% of all their produce. This was the first example of the dhimmi, the non-Muslims who are allowed to live in a Muslim society if they accept the restrictions placed upon them by the majority.
For 14 centuries in Egypt the Copts lived as good dhimmis. For the first time in their history, they are demanding all the rights and privileges granted the Muslim majority. This is what Ahmad and Muhammad are strenuously objecting to in the above interview.
2. Ahmad complained that Egypt's billionaires are all Copts, and that Copts own Egypt's main industrial and communications companies. There are, however, few if any Copts who are department heads in Egypt's government universities, directors of Egypt's government hospitals, and judges in Egypt's courts. The simple fact is that Muslims do not like Copts in positions of legal authority over them. It is impossible to imagine a Coptic President or Prime Minister of Egypt. Copts thrive in the areas in which they are allowed to grow.
3. Muhammad and Ahmad threw out unverified "facts", such as that of the Christians smuggling explosives into Egypt and stockpiling weapons in churches. According to one report I read, the explosives were simply fireworks. American forces in Iraq often found weapons stored in mosques, but I have never heard of a church in Egypt being used to store weapons.
4. Muslims have no understanding of Christian theology, and often impose a Muslim understanding on Christian history. Because martyrs in Islam are people killed in battle, Muhammad and Ahmad assume Christian martyrs are the same thing. They are totally unaware of the 2000 year Christian history of martyrs who die for their faith.
5. The burden of restoring Coptic-Muslim relations was presented in this interview as being solely upon the shoulders of the Christians. No awareness at all was expressed of what Muslims could do to improve these relations.
6. Perhaps the greatest irony of the interview was Muhammad's description of the arrogance of Pope Shenouda. What did the Pope do that Muhammad saw as extremely arrogant? Pope Shenouda dared to suggest that the ruling of a 7th century Arab warlord concerning who could or could not breastfeed a child was silly. Now that's Coptic arrogance for you!