It used to seem that sectarian conflict occurred in distant regions of Egypt, mostly centered in the traditional towns of the south. In recent years these have been creeping closer and closer to Cairo, though still isolated mainly in poorer, fragmented neighborhoods which maintain a traditional Upper Egyptian mentality. Yet the question is fair: Is the trend indicative, and may such incidents affect even the cosmopolitan areas?
My family and I live in the neighborhood of Maadi, a southern suburb of Cairo which has always been and remains an upper class enclave, populated by many foreign residents. Muslims and Christians living here are well-off, well-educated, and lament any hint that the two religions cannot get along. Furthermore, safeguarding the economic interests of the community, police presence is strong, crime is minimal, and life is a level above the struggles faced in other areas of the city.
Yet our home lies somewhat on the border of a lower to middle class neighborhood called Hadayak al-Maadi. Literally translated ‘the gardens of Maadi’, there is little greenery to be seen at all, in contradistinction to the grassy circles and plentiful trees slightly south in Maadi proper. We do much of our shopping here, finding prices to be lower than in the import-focused markets of Maadi elites. We also enjoy the descent into what feels like ‘real Egypt’, though our populist notions might be dismissed by the suggestion of living there. People, however, have always been friendly, and we do not feel out of place.
Yet if a sectarian conflict were to envelop Maadi, Hadayak might seem like more fertile ground for it to begin. Despite our ventures into the area, we don’t know it well. Do Muslims and Christians get along? Are they neighbors and friends, or does each community tend to itself? I approached Fr. Arsanius, one of two priests serving at the Coptic Orthodox Church of Abu Sayfain. This church is about a fifteen minute walk from our home, located in the heart of the Hadayak area.
Relations are good here, he assures. He would not expect a sectarian conflict to arise in the neighborhood. His answer in elaboration, however, is not only nuanced, it is near contradictory.
Approximately 2,200 Christian families live in the area, and these enjoy good relations with their neighbors. In this part of town everyone knows everyone else, which confidently leads Fr. Arsanius to state there are no ‘thugs’ in Hadayak. In recent sectarian conflict in other parts of Egypt, thugs have borne the brunt of condemnation, along with Salafi Muslims of extremist ideology. Accusations continue in that the thugs in question have been brought from elsewhere to attack an area. There is nothing to be done about this, Fr. Arsanius states, but local relations would not yield to it. Furthermore, in terms of Salafis, he has seen a few resident in Hadayak, but they have no centers of activity here, and illustrate no evidence of violence.
Directly across the street from the church is the Maghfara (Forgiveness) Mosque. After the Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Eve, one week later on Coptic Christmas local Muslims encircled the church, and several went inside during the service to express solidarity with their Christian brothers. Then, during the days of revolution the imam called publically for Muslims to protect the church, calling it ‘our church’. A few days after Mubarak stepped down, the mosque organized public speeches in celebration, to which he invited Fr. Mercurious of the church to also address the crowd. For its part, the church organized a local garbage clean-up effort; young Christians went to the mosque and asked for assistance, and many Muslim youth joined in.
Yet despite the sincere and appreciative words of Fr. Arsanius, he also expresses concern about the mosque, beginning from its very inception. Abu Sayfain Church was built in 2001, along the pattern of many church construction projects in Egypt. A local Christian owned land and in coordination with church authorities began constructing a house of worship. He did not bother seeking prior permission, as many Christians believe this is an endless process leading nowhere. The effort did not meet resistance, however, and since then the church has been fully functioning. It is currently seeking funds to construct a service building on the plot of land next to the church, hopefully to house a small medical clinic among other activities.
While the construction did not meet opposition, it did engender competition. The land across the street from the church was owned by a Muslim with Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. During this time the Muslim Brotherhood was an outlawed, but tolerated, group. Similarly, it was unable to build houses of worship through official channels. Building a mosque in general, however, is easy. It was constructed under the supervision of the officially registered NGO al-Gama’iyya al-Shara’iyya (the Religiously Legitimate Association), which some accuse of promoting Islamist ideology. This NGO is nationwide, controlling hundreds if not thousands of mosques, and operating charitable service centers. While a good number of the mosque imams would be under the supervision also of the government, ensuring moderate interpretations of Islam, Fr. Arsanius did not know if the imam here was so linked.
He did know, however, the centrality of the mosque in Hadayak Muslim Brotherhood activity. While some understand the post-revolution Muslim Brotherhood to be a centrist political organization working for a civil state, albeit with an Islamic reference, Fr. Arsanius disagreed. Yes, some of their members present a moderate, even liberal vision. Others, including important leadership, call for full implementation of sharia law, an Islamic state, and even resurrection of the caliphate. Besides, what does ‘an Islamic reference’ in a civil state even mean? To him their discourse seems disingenuously vague.
Fr. Arsanius’ son was a revolutionary in Tahrir Square. There he rubbed shoulders with youthful members of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of which seem to be in opposition to their leadership. Fr. Arsanius recognized this, and was hopeful the bonds created in Tahrir between Christians, Muslims, and even Islamists might hold true. Yet whatever the future portends, Fr. Arsanius notes the concerns of the present, tying them specifically to the Maghfara Mosque.
Over the years, it has not been uncommon for the imam to refer to Christians as kuffar, or infidels. During Muslim holidays they choose to pray outside, publically asserting their religious identity, filling the street in front of the church. When this falls on a Christian day of worship, usually one of the service times has to be cancelled since people cannot enter through the crowds. When I asked if he could introduce me to the imam, he politely declined. Though they are known to each other, Fr. Arsanius could not remember his name, but said the people of the mosque do not like America. How might they then interpret my effort, within their superficial relationship, to bring them an American?
At the heart of the Islamic religion, Fr. Arsanius declares, is the teaching to kill the non-Muslim. Oddly, this was the first comment he made as we opened our discussion. Thereafter, he proceeded to tell me about all the good relations notwithstanding.
When I asked him to explain this psychological tension in Coptic views toward their Muslim neighbors, he related the following anecdote. Last year, isolated criminal activity took place on the street in front of the church, and in the altercation the police officer assigned to guard the church shot and killed the perpetrator. Word spreads quickly in a traditional neighborhood such as Hadayak; the word which was spread, however, was that the ‘church guard’ shot and killed a Muslim. In no time at all, hundreds of neighborhood Muslims surrounded the church, perhaps seeking to burn it. Quickly the doorman closed the front gate, and other policemen came to investigate, eventually dismissing the crowd.
Were these hundreds representative of the thousands of Muslims in Hadayak, Fr. Arsanius asked rhetorically? No, we enjoy good relations with the Muslims of our area. Yet in an incident, when tensions are high along religious lines, there is an Islamic saying obliging Muslims to ‘support your brother, whether he is oppressed or oppressing’. Even if among a few, this spirit can overpower good relations.
There is tension permeating society, and the situation is fragile. Fr. Arsanius stated clearly that it is not appropriate for Copts to confront agitators head on, such as Salafi Muslims or the Muslim Brotherhood; this is not a Christian response, even if Copts appear to be increasingly adopting a confrontational stance, however non-violent. Yet he is not sure what the proper response is. How might love be extended to such as these? How might it be lived in relation to the Maghfara Mosque?
In any case, the church is committed to good relations, and Fr. Arsanius is confident these do exist. A sectarian incident is not likely to occur in Maadi. May his confidence be properly placed, both in God, and in the goodness of surrounding neighbors.
Note: It is my hope to visit also the imam of the Maghfara Mosque, and seek his perspective on community relations. I will write about this further following our discussion.
- Attack on St. Mina Church in Imbaba, Cairo (asenseofbelonging.wordpress.com)
- From the Burned Church in Imbaba: Fr. Mityas on the Event, Explanation, and Spiritual Response (asenseofbelonging.wordpress.com)
- Imbaba: Voices for Peace Present, but Overwhelmed (asenseofbelonging.wordpress.com)