The recent mounting attack by Muslim fundamentalists on the Coptic Church and its head Pope Shenouda III, accusing him of causing sectarian tensions and calling for his “disposal”, is seen by some as a sign that matters “got out of hand” and that Egypt is heading towards a catastrophe, while others see the “steady hand of the State Security agents” directing all players like marionettes in a play written and directed by them, to target the Christian minority and achieve political gains for the Regime at the same time.
In the last month various fundamentalist groups held ten demonstrations, each after coming out of mosques following Friday prayers, against the 86-year-old ailing Coptic Pontiff, in which he was accused of being a US agent, an abductor and torturer of female Muslim converts from Christianity, of stockpiling weapons in monasteries and churches to carry out war against Muslims, and of plans to divide Egypt to create a Coptic State.
The latest in the series of demonstrations was on October 8, when nearly 500 Salafis (those who follow the ways of the first Muslims) staged a protest in front of the Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, after Friday prayers. They called again for the release of Muslim women allegedly held against their will by churches and also for the trial of Father Bishoy, secretary of the Holy Synod, for his comments questioning the authenticity of the Quran. Their litany of demands included calls for searching monasteries and churches to look for weapons, as well issuing threats such as “Shenouda, just wait, we will dig your grave with our own hands” and “Islamic, Islamic, Egypt will remain Islamic.” They called on Christians to dispose of Shenouda before things get worse and for a boycott of Coptic businesses. Photos of the Pope were burnt in effigy and hit with shoes.
The mounting tensions between Muslims and Christians aim to foment havoc ahead of crucial political landmarks, from the People’s Assembly elections slated for November 29 to the presidential elections next year. Many recall the demonstrations staged against the Coptic Church in Alexandria in advance of 2005 parliamentary elections, allegedly instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood to spoil the chances of Coptic candidates of being elected.
The role of state security during these demonstrations was widely criticized. Outspoken government critic, Ibrahim Eissa, who was editor of the independent al-Dustour newspaper until he was sacked last week, criticized the role of the State Security. In an article dated September 27, Eissa said that thousands of Salafi Muslims go out demonstrating against the Coptic Pope and the Church believing they are on a Jihadi mission for the sake of Allah and at the same time “knowing quite well that State Security will not touch them, since demonstrations are directed against the Pope and not the President, the Church and not the inheritance issue [Gamal Mubarak as successor of his father]. “Those who go out in Jihad against ‘inheritance’, democracy and election fraud are beaten mercilessly by security forces but those who go out to incite sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians believe that Allah is with them, and that they are the friends and ‘buddies’ of the police and the State Security.”
In an interview with state-owned TV Channel “Al Hayat el Yom” on September 27, Pope Shenouda expressed his concern about the ongoing situation. “Matters have become very, very, very sensitive,” He said. “I try to pacify my people, but I fear they may lose this peace, because of too many incitements.” The defiant Pope lashed out at the role played by the media and the instigators, who have an effect on the masses, causing hatred between Muslims and Christians and between the Church and the State. He defended his silence by saying: “Our silence does not mean that we do not have an answer to what is said about us, we have a strong response. But we do not want to add fuel to the fire, and we prefer silence. However our silence should not be used to cause more incitement and insults. No. this matter is unacceptable and is not for the good of the country and its image.”
Enraged Copts vowed to stage sit-ins to protest the fabricated accusations levied against their Pope and the church, “which have gone beyond description and imagination and has never happened before in the history of Egypt,” said Coptic activist Dr. Fawzy Hermina. A demonstration was organized for October 6 in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo during the Pope’s weekly Wednesday sermon.
On October 3rd a statement issued by an unknown organization naming itself “Front of Islamic Egypt” warned Copts to stay at home with their wives and children as their would be a bloody confrontation on Wednesday. This organization’s statement was the second in the series, the first of which promised the Copts a blood bath.
The Coptic Church issued a statement asking for no sit-ins inside the Cathedral. The Wednesday sermon was attended by more than 10,000 Copts “to show support to our Pope and to show fundamentalists that we are not cowards, and they cannot intimidate us,” said a Coptic family who attended the sermon. State Security was present around the Cathedral and blocked all roads leading to the venue.
According to Magdi Khalil, head of the Middle East Freedom Forum, who is an authority on Fundamentalist movements, “Fundamentalist movements have a deep-rooted hatred to all that is non-Muslim, and they are ready to do anything and commit any crime against non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians.” Security and intelligence agencies managed these movements before and after President Sadat’s assassination by them, and used them for violence against the Copts in the seventies, are using the same mechanisms to steer their anger in the same direction again.”
He believes that security authorities are ‘killing two birds with one stone’ namely directing, under their guidance, the excess violence present in these movements towards the Copts, away from the Regime as Sadat did, secondly to distract the Egyptians away from certain important issues such as preparation for transfer of power (between Mubarak and his son) and the upcoming elections. “Besides they want to discipline the Copts, whose voices became louder from the standpoint of security services” according to Khalil.
“The Pope hinted in his recent interviews with state-owned TV that Copts understand the game played by security and he wondered out loud where the national security is from all what is happening,” Khalil said, “which is a clear accusation that the security and intelligence services run the whole game.”
Also implicating security was Coptic activist Dr. Hermina, who said “The Regime is presenting the Church and the Pope as a scapegoat on a gold platter to these neo-Wahhabis in order to appease them.”
Outspoken Activist Wagih Yacoub confirmed the complicity of security in these demonstrations. “If they want, they can stop these demonstrations immediately as they did with oppositions groups of ‘Kefaya’ and ‘6th April’,” he said. “Besides, Security wants to sew fear in Copts of what could come if fundamentalists took over control of the country, which puts them in a good bargaining position with the Church regarding support for future election and succession plans.”
On October 5, in a jaddress to the Nation on the occasion of 37th anniversary of the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, Mubarak spoke about preserving national unity among both Muslims and Christians. “National unity constitutes a red line that I will allow no one to cross,” Mubarak warned. “Those who incite sectarian division must know they are not above the law. They must know we will thwart their attempts to drag religious and intellectual symbols into their conspiracies.” But only three days later, despite the President’s warnings, the tenth demonstration was held in Alexandria with the presence of the head of Alexandria State Security.