2010 has not been a good year for Egypt's Copts, and there are still three months to go. It actually began before Rass As Senna, the New Year, when Al Azhar University published an article in the December 09 edition of its monthly magazine entitled "A Scientific Report". The article, which I analyzed here, was an attack on the Taurat and the Injil, the Old and New Testaments, that was anything but scientific.
A few weeks afterwards, young Copts were gunned down in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi as they left church on Christmas Eve (I wrote about this here, questioning how the Muslims who murdered them could claim to worship the same Deity). I wonder if anyone even made the likely connection between the murders and the contents of the Al Azhar article as well as similar books such as Fitnat al-Takfir in which the author claimed that "the blood and the money of the Copts is fair game".
Two months later, 24 Copts were injured and 17 houses were looted and set afire in the Mediterranean coastal town of Marsa Matrouh after hundreds of Muslims stormed out of a local mosque inflamed by calls of jihad against the "enemies of Islam".
Fast forward to July, when a young woman named Camillia Shehata left home following a dispute with her husband, a Coptic priest. An Egyptian blogger gave the full story here and here (an excellent blog, by the way), and I wrote about it here. Another Mosque Imam (why do so many of these stories begin in mosques?) claimed she had converted to Islam and been forcibly kidnapped by the church. Thousands of Muslims with nothing better to do with their lives predictably went shouting on the streets. The situation only calmed down when Camillia herself produced this youtube video denying she had ever converted to Islam, although of course there were the inevitable Muslim claims that even the video was a fake.
Ahmed Mansour took advantage of the uproar to devote an entire September episode of his popular Al Jazeera TV progam Beyond the Borders to attacking and threatening the Copts. He accused them, among other things, of importing explosives from Israel and stockpiling weapons in churches. I thought the program significant enough to translate it in its entirety here.
Ahmed particularly attacked the number two official in the Coptic church, Father Bishoy, for daring to welcome Muslims "as guests in our churches" and suggesting Copts were willing to die "as martyrs for our faith". Ahmed was offended that Muslims could ever be described "as guests" in their own country and, like most Muslims, unable to conceive of martyrdom in any other but the Muslim sense of the Shaheed who is killed while engaged in Jihad.
Father Bishoy is still not off the hook. In late September Al Jazeera devoted yet another program, available here in Arabic, to crucify him (pardon the pun; the Quran denies Jesus died on the cross) for daring to suggest in a lecture not even given that some verses in the Quran most critical of Jews and Christians might have been inserted not by Muhammad but later by the Caliph Umar bin Khattab.
Comment: this calls for a historical note. The first copies of the Quran available today were written 150-200 years after the death of Muhammad. Although Muslims believe the Quran was preserved perfectly in its entirety as revealed to Muhammad, that is a matter of faith and not scholarly research (which Islam does not allow). Muhammad conducted treaties with the Jews of Khaybar and the Christians of Najran in which he allowed them to live on their land without converting to Islam. After his death, Umar bin Khattab abolished those treaties and expelled the "People of the Book" from Arabia. Some scholars have questioned whether some of the most anti-Christian and anti-Jewish passages of the Quran might have been added by Umar to justify those expulsions.
The guests on this Al Jazeera program were Coptic lawyer Naguib Gabriel and veteran Muslim writer Fahmy Howeidy. The host first asked Naguib whether the apology given that day by Pope Shenouda was enough (yes, the beleaguered Pope once again went on Egyptian TV to apologize to offended Muslims (sniff, sniff) whose oh-so-sensitive feelings had once again been hurt). Naguib replied he thought the apology was sufficient, but the host pressed on; did Naguib not believe that Father Bishoy should be removed from his position? Naguib responded that Copts were not the only ones saying offensive things, and quoted the claim of several recent Muslim authors that the Bible was corrupted.
It was now Fahmy's turn. His first sentence was, "This was a wise response from the Pope, one that we respect and appreciate."
Comment number two: I've learned something from the Arab media. Muslims either come out guns blazing or with honey-coated words of sweetness. When the guns are blazing, it is not to destroy the target but simply to distract you by the noise. When they begin with words of appreciation, as Fahmy did here, that is the time to be most careful because you can be sure they are sharpening the knives under the table.
Fahmy then launched into an tear-jerking story of how Father Bishoy was not just an ordinary man, he was number two in the church for God's sake, and how could the Pope think the wounded sentiments of Muslims would be assuaged by a simple apology? Naguib tried to respond that the Muslims who wrote that the Injil was corrupted and the blood of the Copts was Halal were also not just ordinary authors but members of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs whose books had been published by Egypt's Ministry of Religious Affairs. Fahmy would have none of it. Father Bishoy was a member of the Pope's inner circle, he argued, and how could he possibly remain there after saying such scandalous things?
The host next suggested to Naguib that dialogue should take place between Muslims and Copts to put an end to the "current impasse". Naguib responded, "I agree there is a place for constructive dialogue, but how can that take place when 15 million Egyptians feel they are living as second-class citizens? Are you happy that the law allowing us to build new churches has been stuck in Parliament for 15 years? We can't repair a leaking toilet without permission from the Governor, and it takes a Presidential decree to build a new church. Are you happy that Copts are marginalized on the sidelines of Egypt's political life? Let's be honest enough to admit that dialogue cannot take place when even rational Muslims admit the Copts are not given full human rights in Egypt. If you give me the rights that any other Egyptian enjoys, you won't have the problem of this impasse in the future."
Comment number three: Remember what I said about guns blazing? Not to shoot down a real target, but to construct a straw man you can dismiss with a lot of noise. Did you think for a minute that Fahmy was interested in a serious discussion about Coptic human rights in Egypt? If so, read on:
Fahmy was quick to respond, "I really don't think that a TV show is the place to discuss these details, and I have no idea where he came up with 15 million Copts! The ratio of the Copts has remained unchanged since the British occupation, and they are nowhere near 15 million. There's no need to exaggerate figures, and anyone who is interested can go to the Census Bureau and obtain the true figures. But the number of Copts is not the issue, the human being is the issue. If there were only five Copts in Egypt, they should have their full rights (WTF!!). That's the first thing. The second thing is that he is talking about the Copts not enjoying their rights. I say that the Muslims are not enjoying their rights! If both the Copts and the Muslims are not enjoying their rights, the problem is not a religious but a political issue. If Egypt was a true democracy with free and open elections, there would be no sectarian problems. But for him to complain about a leaking toilet requiring permission to fix is silly. Where does he come up with this?"
Comment number four: Ahmed Mansour complained in the Beyond the Borders program mentioned above that Father Bishoy had declined an invitation to appear on his show. Does anyone wonder why? The dice are thrown before the conversation even begins.
The host next asked Naguib why he was inserting human rights into a discussion about respecting Islam, especially since, as Fahmy had pointed out, the real problem in Egypt was political.
Naguib responded, "We do not refuse dialogue, and we respect the doctrines of Islam. The problem is that our religion is not respected by the Ulema. I am saying we should look at the root of the problem, not the branches. People always want to look at the symptoms and deny the reasons. Let's not just talk about something that Father Bishoy said, let's examine the problem in its fullness.
That of course was the end of the discussion. The last thing most Muslims are interested in is looking honestly at the root of the problem. That would require them to examine what the Quran and the Sunnah really say about the relationship between the Moumin and the Kafir, the Muslim and the non-Muslim, and to make any changes necessary to bring that relationship into the 21st century. It's much easier to riot in the streets and pontificate on Al Jazeera.