Salafi Violence against Copts

The Salafi discourse toward the Copts after the 25th of January uprising was characterized by points of agreement and differences.

One point of agreement is providing assurances for Copts that they have security and equal rights in Egypt. In a video clip, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan says that presents proofs from the Sunna about how Islam stresses the protection of the lives of Copts, and non-Muslims generally, in the Muslim state. In another video, a Salafi scholar (unknown) says that Muslims love Christians in Egypt although they refuse their beliefs. He also stresses that Islam urges protecting Copts. He says that if someone attacks Islam, then the state should interfere, not Muslims through force. Nonetheless, some Salafi voices remained antagonistic and inflammatory toward Copts. In a video clip, Abu Ishaq Al-Huweini about jizya (taxes on non-Muslims) as a way to fight the financial problems that the state is facing.

Violence and harassment by some Salafists against Copts in Egypt has brought concern, as captured in a 2011 report by The Hudson Institute. For instance, in March of 2011 in Qena, a number of Salafsts, including an off-duty policeman, accused a Copt named Ayman Metri of renting an apartment to a prostitute. Salafists cut off one of his ears and mutilated the other. As was the case under Mubarak, the police did not interfere to implement the law, but rather called for reconciliation among the religious communities (Marshall, 2011).

Another incident occurred on March 23, when Salafists surrounded the St. George’s Church in Beni Ahmad and successfully demanded that the church expansion approved by the government be stopped. On March 27, they blockaded St. Marry Church in Giza, claiming that it did not have a permit. After yet other reconciliation attempts, services at the church were stopped until they obtain a new permit (Marshall, 2011).

On March 28, a group of Salafists attacked a liquor store that was owned by a Copt in Kasr El-Bassil. They destroyed the store and demanded that coffee shops in the neighborhood be closed. One villager was killed and 8 others injured (Marshall, 2011).

On April 5, around one thousand occupied St. John and the Beloved church and stopped the repairs on the Church. They told Copts that they were not allowed to pray there anymore. With further reconciliations, the Copts were told to build a church 200 meters away without a dome or any other external feature marking it as a church (Marshall, 2011).

Demonstrations against the appointment of Coptic governor Emad Mikhail to the governorate of Qena also raised concerns over the role of the Salafists. Some of the objections stemmed from a rejection of the traditional manner of hiring governors through the central government. Objections also stemmed from the new governor’s services to the old regime. The previous governor was also Coptic, and his appointment did not raise similar objections. But Salafist voices were strongly heard during the demonstrations which disrupted the main railroad to Upper Egypt for 8 days. The demonstrators chanted slogans complaining that “a Copt won’t implement Islamic law” and objecting to Qena being ruled by a Copt. The armed forces refused to interfere, and Prime Minister Sharaf had to surrender to the protestors demands. On April 25th, he said that he would freeze the appointment for 3 months (Marshall. 2011).

According to a report by Al-Masry Al-Youm, in Imbaba, a suburb of Cairo, two churches were burned and some 18 people were killed and many injured in May of 2011 when news spread that a Coptic woman converted to Islam and was detained by the Church. An Egyptian military prosecutor ordered the detention of Abeer Kakhry, the woman whose conversion to Islam and alleged captivity by the Church enticed sectarian violence.

Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood, some radical groups such as Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, and even a number of Salafi scholars attempted to ameliorate tensions. When the murder of a parish priest sparked violence between Muslims and Christians in Assyut, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya and Christian elders intervened to calm the situation. According to a May 13 report, investigations later found that the priest’s maid had planned the murder and robbery.

Famous Salafi scholar Mohamed Hassan also intervened through a number of speeches commenting on the events. In an episode on Al-Rahma Channel, Sheikh Hassan warned against the seriousness and gravity of the events of Imbaba, noting that the most dangerous threat facing Egypt with the possibility of division is religious strife. Religious tensions are especially serious, according to Hassan, because a number of Copts have started seeking foreign support from the United States and Europe. He noted that a number of Coptic youth have started to collect signature to call for outside intervention. Hassan stressed that Islam does not call for forced conversion and stresses the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims in Muslim countries. He argued that there is a need to address the roots of religious tensions, instead of using the traditional approaches which failed to address the roots, and led to the resurgence of religious violence in different places. These traditional approaches include pictures of Sheikhs and priests hugging, people carrying Quran and the Cross, etc. Hassan actually refused to carry the cross as something that contradicts Islamic beliefs. His main approach is based on stressing the respect of the state. A number of steps need to the takes. First, Muslim scholars should spread knowledge about the Islamic principles of dealing with ahl al-dimma (non-Muslims in a Muslim state), which should be based on equality and respect. Second, Church leaders spread knowledge of the concept of citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This concept stipulates that no one is above the authority of the state – neither the mosque nor the church. No Church, therefore, has the right to detain individuals for converting to Islam. The state, through the judicial system, should guarantee that the decision to convert is based on the individual’s belief and is not forced on him or her.

The roles played by such independent preachers and Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya drove some commentators to argue that this is a sign of the diminishing role of Al-Azhar institution. The call for Sheikh Mohamed Hassan to participate in the delegation sent to ameliorate the religious tension in the Atfeeh neighborhood of Helwan while Al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb left Cairo for his hometown of Luxor for a vacation and sent his representatives to address the problem send a message about Al-Azhar’s present and possibly future role.

The Egyptian government appeared weak in confronting violence, referring to tradition techniques of bringing Muslim and Coptic leaders together for reconciliation. In response to the rising violence, and fears of further persecution, Copts staged a sit-in in front of the Building of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union in Maspero following the deadly sectarian violence in Imbaba in May 2011. According to Al-Ahram Weekly, the protesters demanded the apprehension and trial of all those responsible.

The second day of the Maspero demonstrations turned violent, with clashes and Molotv cocktails thrown at protesters as they made their way toward the television building. Intense clashes started on May 14th, 2011, and dozens were injured on both sides. Al-Youm Al-Sabe’. Mina Magdy, head of the political committee for the Maspero Youth Union, said in a blog post that two were killed. According to reports by Al-Ahram Weekly, central security forces cordoned off the streets leading to the Corniche from behind the television building to protect the protesters, and to keep thugs and anyone else with concealed weapons from entering. On the Corniche itself, demonstrators erected barbed wire barriers with narrow openings that served as checkpoints to ascertain the identity of people wishing to participate and to check for concealed weapons—a tactic which was used in Tahrir Square and other public areas during the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

After two weeks of sit-ins and demonstrations in Maspero, the protestors finally went home after they were relatively appeased by the authorities. The appeasement included opening three churches which were closed due to objections regarding licensing issues. The Ain Shams Church was of significant importance. A Coptic website mentioned that Anpa Felopateir, one of the leading protestor in Maspero, vowed that Maspero demonstrations would continue until a written decree to open the Ain Shams Church was issued. The same website accused the Salafis of leading the campaign to obstruct the opening of the Ain Shams Church. The Ain Shams Church was also the center of violent confrontations some two and a half years ago. Again in May 2011, according to Al-Shorouk, hundreds of resident Muslims gathered around the Church refusing to reopen it, arguing that the land was originally set for a factory that had been closed. Other reports claimed that the land is registered as a retirement house, not a church. As reported by Al-Masry Al-Youm, Antonious Salah, the priest (Kahen) of the Church argued that the land is registered under the name of Pope Shenouda III. The reconciliation meeting between Muslim and Coptic leaders in Ain Shams allowed the opening of the Church on the condition that the church would not have a dome or a cross on top.

The Maspiro sit-in, demonstrations, and violence created a split and much debate within the Coptic community. Following the violent clashes, Pope Shenouda III called on the protestors to end their sit-in. The Pope’s appeal was met with divergent responses. One protestor in Maspero told a journalist in Al-Ahram Weekly: “… after the Pope issued that statement some of the demonstrators left, as a kind of display of their obedience to the Pope. Among these were several priests and monks. However, this did not affect the other portion of demonstrators, many of whom believe that that statement did not really come from the Pope and that it was a kind of plot to sew division between Copts and the Pope...”

The youth who staged the sit-in and demonstrations in front of Maspero created the Union of Maspero Youth. The Union, led by Ramy Kamelrepresents a merger of several Coptic organizations which organized following the attacks on a church in Atfih, to the south of Cairo. According to an account of the incident by Al-Ahram, the Union declared that they suspend the sit-in until July 8, calling for more concrete steps from the authorities. Responding to these pressures, the SCAF ordered the draft of laws that criminalize sectarian violence and ease restrictions on building churches. The cabinet also ordered the renovation churches damaged by violence and re-opened a number of churches that were closed in the past by authorities without explanation. The Union of Maspero Youth also called for bringing those responsible for crimes against Christians to justice. The Union warned that, should their demands not be met by July 8, they would restage their sit-in.

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