An Approaching Clash, or the Prevention Thereof?

(translation: I want my sister Camilia, before they kill her; We demand the release of Muslim women captive in the churches; Save us!)

Last Friday, April 29, thousands of Salafi Muslims marched through the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, demanding the release of Camilia Shehata, a Coptic woman believed to have converted to Islam but now allegedly held by the church in one of its monasteries. The rally proceeded from the Fath Mosque to the Noor Mosque, and no altercations were reported, to my knowledge.

During their march they passed by the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, residence of Pope Shenouda III, and chanted slogans against him.

On Monday a call went out to summon Copts to stage a protest in the cathedral on Friday, in anticipation of another Salafi march. Organizers insist their demonstration will be peaceful, but in light of believed security inadequacies these Copts believe their numbers will be necessary to guard the cathedral space against anticipated Salafi trespassing, or worse. The Coptic effort will alert police and military authorities, so that they might provide the necessary security.

In speaking with some Coptic friends who encourage this popular defense, they say that Salafis are dangerous, prone to violence, kidnap women, and believe the cathedral to be located on originally Muslim land. Yet have there been threats against the cathedral? Their testimony is yes.

I have no confirmation of this, but I have seen the power of rumor to wreak destruction. Only since the revolution, a church in Atfih, south of Cairo, was attacked, at least in part, when local residents believed those inside were casting spells against them. Later in the Muqattam neighborhood of Cairo during a Coptic protest against this attack, rumors spread they would burn a mosque in revenge. This, at least in part, led to gangs of Muslims coming to the area and attacking Copts, their shops, and factories.

Perhaps the Salafi demonstration will pass by the cathedral again, and perhaps they will cast insults and accusations on the Pope, and Christians in general. Last week, however, there were no assaults on church property; do they plan this now?

The problem is that Salafi protests have been escalating steadily since the revolution. Many make no secret of their distaste for democracy and a civil state, calling for the complete application of sharia law. They have had clashes with Sufi Muslims over the destruction of shrines at gravesites, and with the authorities over which imams speak from the mosque. Coptic fear for the cathedral is natural. When thousands of demonstrators are active and angry, it takes only a small spark to start a mob.

My fear is that in the presence of thousands of Copts, this small spark is all the more likely.

What if insults are traded back and forth? What if one side throws a stone? Rumors have been widespread that recent sectarian tension has been manufactured by remnants of the former regime looking to spread instability. What if both sides behave themselves but infiltrators make problems? I fear that despite their published intentions, Copts may bring about the tragedy they seek to avoid.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps a well controlled Coptic demonstration inside and outside the cathedral will fill the space otherwise able to be occupied by Salafis. Perhaps police and military security will provide an adequate cordon between the two sides, allowing a Salafi march to simply pass by, or linger, but with no altercations possible. Perhaps it is good that Copts are taking responsibility in their own hands, rather than simply deferring, as in the past, to the church and the state.

Perhaps all will be fine, but I fear otherwise. Even if there is no clash, would such a demonstration be conducive for better relations, or for the testimony of their faith? Alarmism is never useful, but if it engenders prayer, then good may prevail. May the Salafis pray as well, and may whatever justice resides in their cause come to pass. But may God guide both toward understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, and peace. The largely non-religious revolution exhibited national unity; may the powers of religion not tear it apart.

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