The Church of the Virgin Mary in Imbaba was burned deliberately by Salafi Muslims, in an effort to spread division in society and culminate ultimately in an Islamic state. This is the testimony of Fr. Mityas Eliyas, priest of the church, in an interview with Arab West Report.
The attack began at St. Mina Church, two kilometers away from the Church of the Virgin Mary. An originally small group of approximately thirty Salafi Muslims and their sheikhsarrived and demanded to search the church, looking for Abeer, a supposed Coptic convert to Islam held against her will. Church guards consulted by phone with the priests of St. Mina, who authorized the sheikhs to search the church. When they found nothing, they exited but protested further, asserting the church had secret rooms in which she was kept. From here, the basic narrative is known. Scuffles broke out between the armed group and eventually hundreds of local Copts, who had come to its defense making a human chain. The number of assailants multiplied rapidly, and the conflict resulted in twelve deaths and over 200 injuries.
Fr. Mityas then relates the particular story at the Church of the Virgin Mary, which was constructed in 1969, and where he has served since 1981. Approximately 50% of the population around the church is Christian, in his estimation. His testimony comes from eyewitnesses in the church, though he himself was not present until after the fire was ablaze.
While the altercations were concentrated originally at St. Mina Church, three Salafi Muslims came to the Church of the Virgin Mary and began pounding on the doors. Getting no response from the guards inside, they shot at the locks, and eventually used an iron bar to pry open the gate. One guard, Salah, had his throat cut. From the other, Malak, they demanded he turn over the weapons cache of the church. In addition to rumors about captive Coptic women converts to Islam being held in churches and monasteries, rumors exist that Copts keep weapons in their houses of worship. In the 1970s and periodically since then there has been a pernicious rumor that the churches of Upper Egypt, in Asyut in particular, were storing weapons in preparation for violent efforts to overthrow local government and declare a Coptic state in the region.
Malak insisted there were no weapons, so they accosted him and seized his papers and cash (the equivalent of approximately $300 US). By this time, however, neighbors became aware of the altercation, and local Muslims rescued Malak from harm.
Eyewitnesses report that Salafi Muslims had cartons of flammable material with them, though whether this was gasoline or Molotov cocktails was not known to Fr. Mityas. What is clear is the damage done. The Church of the Virgin Mary occupies a relatively small amount of surface area, but ascends six stories tall. The ground floor houses a simple chapel, with the main sanctuary above it. This sanctuary has two levels of balcony seating, creating a stadium effect in which worshippers are able to look down on proceedings. Above these are two stories of general office space.
The bottom chapel, including the altar and iconostasis, was incredibly charred. The main sanctuary had extensive damage, reaching up to each balcony. Heavy soot plastered the walls. All electrical and mechanical equipment was destroyed; all books and papers were burned. Salah, the church guard, was found ‘as charcoal’, as Fr. Mityas insisted his description be rendered. Remarkably, despite the damage, Sunday, the day after the attack, the church still conducted Holy Communion.
The following are pictures of the fire damage:
The Political Response
Since the attacks, Egypt has rallied to condemn the sectarian outbreak in Imbaba. Mohamed el-Baradei, a presidential candidate, and other civil leaders participated in a 2000 person march through Imbaba to demonstrate solidarity with victims. They asserted the now common chant, ‘Muslim, Christians, one hand!’
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, imam of the Omar Makram Mosque near Tahrir Square, visited Maspero and joined the Coptic demonstration there. He stated that Egypt must resurrect the popular committees which protected mosques and churches during the revolution. Safwat Higazi, a Salafi leader, stated the attackers were ‘thugs, not Muslims’. The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, condemned intolerance and secret hands trying to spread chaos in society. The liberal Wafd Party echoes this claim.
Within Imbaba, Sheikh Muhammad Ali of the Toba Mosque relates his version of the story. He was approached by the husband of Abeer, but did not believe his story. He told Muslims around him the man was a liar, and this group left, chanting Muslims and Christians are one hand. When he went with an official to the church to inform them the issue was concluded, local Christians assumed they were trying to enter the church, and began pelting them with bottles from the balconies. Soon thereafter, gunfire erupted, and the situation spiraled out of control.
The ‘secret hands’ mentioned by the Muslim Brotherhood have been identified by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A military source has revealed the discovery of a plot by remnants of the former regime to plunge the country into civil war through inciting sectarian tensions. 190 people have been arrested, and the death penalty has been threatened. Among the arrested are Abeer’s husband, and a local Christian café owner. The Copt is accused of firing his gun into the air to disperse gathered Muslims, which set off the protests.
The local governorate has pledged that it will rebuild the church, starting within ten days, in an operation that will take three months and over one million US dollars. Victims will be compensated: approximately $1000 US for those killed and $400 US for the injured. Security is being increased at all churches in the governorate.
Claims exist that the Salafi movement in Egypt is funded by Wahhabi Muslim states from the Gulf. The attacks, however, have been condemned by both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Fr. Mityas has another explanation. He states Abeer, seven months ago, converted to Islam as she married a Muslim, but then ran away from him and returned to Christianity. The whole Imbaba episode, then, developed from the following lie: A call went to Abeer’s husband by someone from the area, stating Abeer claimed she was being held in the church against her will, asking for help to escape. The attack was planned, Fr. Mityas believed, and had no relation to the Camilia Shehata interview a few hours earlier, in which she, though believed by Salafis to be captive in a monastery, declared publically her Christianity. Some have argued the Imbaba troubles gained steam in spontaneous reaction to her appearance on television. Sheikh Muhammad Zughbi, however, seized on the story of Abeer, went on television, and swore three times to God: I will take the people and we will storm the churches and monasteries.
Fr. Mityas posited the slaughter of Salah and the theft of money from Malak was to make the attack appear perpetrated by thugs, rather than Salafis, who are understood to be pious, however strict. Salafis, he said, have a strategy of playacting. While one will light a fire, another will come behind him and help put it out.
Their strategy, Fr. Mityas stated, was to spread sectarian conflict, but then work after the fact to repair relations. This was seen in the instances of previous conflict blamed on Salafis, such as in Qena, where an appointed Christian governor was refused, and in Atfih, where another church had been burned. In each instance Salafi leaders were sent by authorities to settle the situation and preach tolerance. Their message of tolerance, however, is one of protection: Islam guarantees the sanctity of Christians. The implied message, states Fr. Mityas, is that in a democratic civil state there is chaos.
While not blaming the ruling military council directly, Fr. Mityas states that Salafis have been given room to operate. Criticism is leveled, however, for continuing the policy of balance and ‘reconciliation’ conducted by Sadat and Mubarak. If a Muslim is arrested, a corresponding Christian must be arrested. Ultimately, justice is given to none when religious leaders are assembled to pronounce reconciliation, and culprits are released. Indeed, states Fr. Mityas, of the 190 individuals arrested in Imbaba, several were Christians who were taken out of their homes, having never been anywhere near the church. He was, however, was unaware of the total number of Christians taken into custody. Yet he asks, ‘Where is the spirit of 25 January? Where is the rule of law?’
Unfortunately, Arab West Report was unable to visit any Muslim sources during the visit to Imbaba.
The Religious Response
Fr. Mityas insisted that as Christians, Copts should never carry weapons except in the army when called upon to defend their country. ‘We never encourage anyone to violence; we have a religion of love.’
Yet Fr. Mityas also spoke that many people will spiritualize the message of Jesus to his disciples, in which he exhorted them to sell their cloak and buy a sword in Luke 22. Though he later commanded the sword to be left in its place, the principle put forward is that Christians should not allow themselves to be seen as weak. Instead, their enemies must view them as strong. ‘He must know you have a sword, while he also knows you will not use it against him.’
In the context of rumors about Christians possessing weapons, Fr. Mityas made absolutely clear he was not encouraging Copts to arm themselves. Rather, he stated that Copts must be strong in society, not weak, and from this strength their love and virtues would be better respected.
For example, one can only love the enemy from a position of strength. Fr. Mityas stated there were three commands given for how to perform this love, according to Luke 6. First, do good to those who hate you. Second, bless those who curse you. Third, pray for those who mistreat you. This can only be attempted by one who is strong, even if his enemy attacks him.
Fr. Mityas declared that over time, if you offer love, the enemy will feel it and be affected. If blessing and prayer are done in the individual heart, however, only doing good can extend this love so as to be felt. This is done in three ways: by offering food to him if hungry, service if in need, and words of kindness in every instance. This does not result in becoming friends, he clarified. ‘Can I be friends with Muhammad Zughbi? But I can love him and pray for him.’
Yet Fr. Mityas stated it is not true that the only means of positively affecting the enemy are through doing good. Prayer on his behalf can lead him to change his religion, his morals, or his nature. This is God’s work, but the strong Christian can ask God for it to be done.
Are there strong Christians in Imbaba for this to happen? Fr. Mityas stated that he, first and foremost, needed to repent. The church, however, has a weak faith, it has unrepentant sin, and has love which has failed to be expressed. ‘We can blame no one else,’ he said, ‘we are at fault with ourselves.’
As a prime example he listed the Christian man who engaged in a relationship with a Muslim woman in Atfih. This small personal sin later exploded, resulting in the local church being burned. ‘If we all lived as we were supposed to, then lions would be transformed into lambs.’
Upon our arrival in Imbaba we were escorted though the military cordon which cut off traffic from the main road and surrounded the church on the corner of the street. Only a few short moments after sitting down to interview the priest, a flare up began outside. A Coptic passerby raised his mobile phone and took a picture of the church with the soldiers surrounding it. Immediately the soldiers accosted him, a few other Copts became involved, and the priest exited to try and calm the situation and usher everyone inside. The altercation lasted about five minutes, with shouts, commotion, and accusations of abusive treatment. (From my limited vantage point, there was none, though individuals were forcibly detained while resisting.)
When the situation settled outside, it exploded inside. Two Copts raged incessantly against the army, proclaiming they did nothing wrong. Their friends held them back, shouting back at them to calm down, but the pent up rage present in the community had everyone on edge. It was a good fifteen or twenty minutes until peace presided.
The Coptic photographer was released shortly thereafter, and two senior army officials entered the church and apologized to Fr. Mityas for what took place.
There are lions about everywhere, yet there are many lambs among them. May love and right-doing be the purpose of all, that at the very least, the two may lie together.