Problems on hold

Shame on reconciliation!

Youssef Sidhom
The repercussions of the sectarian violence which erupted on Friday 11 May in the village of Bemha in Ayaat, Giza, are still reverberating around. That fateful Friday, a mosque imam’s call for jihad to defend Islam against the threat of the Christian villagers’ intention to build a church,

worked up a fanatic mob. Armed with white weapons and carrying kerosene flasks, roaring Islamic slogans, they marched onto the Christians’ homes and property, attacking, looting, plundering, and burning. Ten Copts were injured and 70 houses set on fire. Thirty-five Muslims were detained, charged with provoking sedition, looting, arson, and assault, and seven Copts charged with beating. On Wednesday, a “reconciliation meeting” was arranged by the local authorities, with the MPs and local politicians presiding over some 90 Muslims and 60 Copts. The Copts gave up every right to compensation, and were allowed to use the house they had previously used for prayers, but only for Sunday school purposes. The reconciliation terms angered the Coptic community at large.

The so-called national media attempted to imply that the reconciliation succeeded in turning grief into rejoicing. But this only served to provoke the fury of the readers, since anyone who followed the proceedings of the meeting could not help feeling disgusted at the honeyed rhetoric which oozed so freely following the savage assault the Copts had sustained. The words rang hollow while the victims licked their physical and moral bruises.

Since covering up reality has become a shameless routine invariably practised by the authorities, it came as no surprise that one of those who took part in the deplorable theatrics of the reconciliation process should stand up and announce, boldly and publicly, his conditions for reconciliation. In order, he said, for the Copts to build a place of worship—I do not term it a church because the conditions he stipulated make it in no way close to a church—it should have no cross outside and no altar inside, no minaret, no dome, and no bell.

The catastrophe is not that he had the cheek to utter these words, but that after he voiced them, no Muslim or Christian objected; they went on and proceeded with the reconciliation meeting. The farce went on, and the most prestigious Cairo daily Al-Ahram printed the incident the following day under the headline: “The children of Bemha make it up and turn over a new leaf”. Al-Ahram wrote of the sugary rhetoric and fake rejoicing, but nothing of the slain citizenship rights, the humiliation of the Copts and their coercion into accepting the conditions stipulated by fanatics.
The inanity of the situation defies reason.

The venerable al-Azhar—the highest Islamic authority—appears unable to restrain the aggression of fanatics. Egypt’s Parliament appears to be holding captive the unified law of places of worship, preventing it from seeing light. We boast that citizenship concepts are now at the forefront of our Constitution, while the Copts are placed under sequestration where their prayers and worship are concerned.

Would it be acceptable for a fanatic Copt to call for the construction of a mosque only if it is built with no qibla (niche facing Mecca), no crescent, no minaret and no azan (call to prayer)? The hostility and evil come within the context of houses of prayer to the one God we all worship. It should be very clear that churches are not something to be hidden; the sight of them is not an offence, nor is the sound of their bells some sound pollution.

Even though I know that the humiliating terms of the Bemha reconciliation do not reflect the actual opinion of moderate Muslims, I register my protest against the official and popular silence towards these terms. I have strong hopes that Egyptians will all unite to isolate the fanatics between them, so that Egypt would go back to being the motherland of all her children, regardless of race, gender, colour, or religion.

Many Muslims wrote rejecting the atrocity of the Bemha incident, and demanding a courageous and candid treatment of fanaticism. They called for full citizenship rights for Copts, especially where their places of worship are concerned. I feel under an obligation to give credit where credit is due: the first two donations in Watani’s campaign to help the Bemha victims came from Muslims, and were donated with heartfelt warmth.

In this context, I found comfort in the words of a letter I received from a reader who frequently writes in support of the issues tackled by Watani. Under the title “Christian Brothers, we apologise” Sheikh Ali Habroush al-Sufi from Qoussiya, Assiut, wrote: “The attack by some confused terrorists on the churches of our Christian brothers is deplorable.

The Ayaat incident indicates that the government is out of touch and the clergy unaware. Instead of demanding that the government works at making people’s lives better, controls spiralling prices and creates job opportunities, senseless young men go and attack Christian places of worship.

You fanatic, what harm can there be of a church that stands beside a mosque? Both church and mosque perform the same role, that of education and guidance. President Mubarak has decreed freedom of worship to Christians, and has eased the building and restoration of churches, why is not this put into action? God and our prophet commanded us to do good to Christians, why do not we obey?

Only recently, we all lived together in peace, with no difference between Muslims and Christians; now hearts are full of hatred and fanaticism. We all live through the same problems and difficulties; why should you disregard our problems and waste your energy ruining churches? Will ruining a church solve our problems? Fanatic actions should not go unnoticed, and our government should not be a silent devil who disregards rights.

We should all embrace love and tolerance, so that good may prevail instead of misery and damnation.”

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