Issues of sectarian tension in Upper Egypt create a double problem in establishing fact. First, many news agencies do not commit resources to the area, so journalism often relies on hearsay rather than first-hand reporting. Second, religious biases often serve to either cover over or amplify aspects of the story that play into an established narrative. This is true both among those involved and in the reporters themselves, as rumors are easily conflated into facts.
In the last week the governorate of Minya in Upper Egypt witnessed two examples of Muslim-Christian tension. Unfortunately, these incidents often go unreported in major media outlets, and within Egypt often receive scant coverage as well. This is seen in the brevity of two reports in al-Masry al Youm, English edition, which also serve to establish the basic facts.
In the first report, clashes are reported between Copts and the police, when the former attempted to block a road in protest of two local girls who were rumored to have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
In the second report, the police this time disperse hundreds of Muslims surrounding a church in Beni Ahmad village in the governorate of Minya. They were protesting the reinstatement of a priest who had been previously removed by agreement of the church and authorities, allegedly for inciting sectarian tension.
With the dearth of first-hand, in-depth reporting, however, comes coverage that often relies on one-sided sources, promoting a cause with lack of objectivity. Whereas the lack of coverage can be interpreted as complicit silence against Coptic grievances, this latter reporting is wholesale adoption of their perspective. Indicative are these two articles from the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which tells these stories, and others as well.
These articles rely on statements taken from the area, and do a good job of increasing the level of detail.
In the first report, the two Coptic girls are identified as Christine Azat (age 16) and Nancy Magdi (age 14). These were reportedly abducted on June 12 while on their way to church. The article quotes Christine’s father, and describes how the Christians of the area have scrambled to assemble the 200,000 LE ($33,333 US) ransom demanded for their release. Once done, however, they were rebuffed saying the girls were already sold to another group, which was now demanding twelve million LE (two million USD) to hand them over. The article mentions the rumor that they ran away and willingly embraced Islam, but dismisses this as the Azhar rejects underage conversions.
In the second report, the village of Beni Ahmad West is located seven kilometers south of Minya. The conflict relates to an incident from March 23rd, 2011, in which Muslims surrounded St. George Church and threatened to destroy it when licensed renovation appeared to be expanding the building. Eyewitnesses are quoted saying the Muslims chanted they would kill the priest, Fr. George Thabit, for his role in events if he and his family did not leave the village. In a previous article AINA states there are 23,000 Muslims and 8,000 Christians resident in the village.
The report states that Fr. George did leave the village. Muslims, however, heard rumors he would be returning, and began to camp out at the church in small numbers. When he did come back, on June 24 there was another major demonstration against him. Five hours later he was escorted away in a police vehicle. The Muslims remained until security later dispersed them. The archbishopric is quoted as condemning this interference in ecclesiastic affairs, asking for the rule of law and maintenance of security.
The information above is fair enough, but it is couched in language that betrays bias. For example, the report about the two girls ends with the speculation that, “as females, their lot is to be raped, enslaved, and sold off to some rich, sexually-depraved man who believes it his divine right to own infidel sex-slaves.” The second report does not have such blatant speculation, but ends with communication of a non-identified threat from the Muslim ‘mob’, that unless they hear that, “the priest is banned from returning to the village, they will hold their Friday prayers tomorrow, June 24, inside St. George’s church.”
If indeed this is the story, it is important to relate it as such. Given the sensitive reality of sectarian tension, however, it is vital to either consult contrary sources or else convey the story with appropriate doubt. The English language Ahram Online web newspaper provides alternate coverage of the kidnapped girls.
This article places both girls’ ages at 14, and states they ran away from home months ago, with their families searching for them frantically. A policeman discovered them walking on the streets, conspicuous with their face veil but with the tattoo of a cross on their wrists. The article states the girls have produced a YouTube video stating their voluntary conversion to Islam, and that they were not kidnapped. It states they are being held in a safe house until an Azhar scholar can determine if the story of their conversion is true. Meanwhile, the families of the girls have asked that they be returned home.
It should be noted that Ahram Online is a government owned newspaper. Though it has appeared to have more freedom to criticize the government than its printed counterpart, al-Ahram, the story must still be understood in light of its ownership reality.
Arab West Report was able to contact Nermine Rida, a Coptic Orthodox journalist for Akhbar al-Minya. She stated the girls were involved in a teenage crush with two Muslims, Ali Gomaa Rashid and his relative Ezzat Gomaa Rashid. These along with another relative, Saudi Gomaa Rashid, were currently being held in custody, along with five Copts still detained for their role in the demonstrations. Rida stated that Copts transgressed the acceptable levels of peaceful demonstration by blocking the road, and that the police were justified in breaking up their protest.
Rida also stated that the Azhar rejected the girls’ conversion to Islam since the law does not allow for the conversion of anyone under eighteen years of age. She did watch the YouTube video, however, and was convinced the girls were not kidnapped and made the video without compulsion. She understood that they were being held currently by authorities, but were soon due to return to their homes.
Rida was unable to confirm the ransom demand, except to say a call to raise 200,000 LE was issued by a Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq.
Concerning the incident in Beni Ahmad village, Rida confirmed the outlines of the story centering around Muslim demonstrations and Fr. George Thabit. There was a disagreement about the dimensions of the church and the role played by Fr. George, resulting in an agreement with Bishop Arsanius of Minya to send him away. During his absence from the village the church was repaired satisfactorily along the lines agreed upon by all village members.
After completion, the bishop returned Fr. George to the village, and Muslims were angered and resumed their demonstration. Yet Rida makes clear Muslims were not the only party in disagreement with his decision. Around thirty Copts joined the Muslims in demonstrating against the return of Fr. George, headed by one named Rifaat al-Qummus.
Arab West Report is unable to independently verify the account of Nermine Rida.
What should be made of these situations, then? Without traveling to the area and investigating directly, one should be cautious about claiming certainty about events. Even then, one would be likely to discover contradictory testimony.
Kidnappings regardless of religion have taken place in Egypt within the security vacuum since the revolution. Many Copts, however, believe their community is especially targeted by extremist Muslims. Yet it is also clear that at times Copts respond with accusations of kidnapping when facing the shame of a female relative running away from home, either due to a bad family situation or in a love affair with a Muslim.
One of the issues lies in the definition of kidnapping. Generally understood, kidnapping involves the use of physical force in an abduction. Some Copts, however, expand the meaning to include the luring away of adolescent women from their family, helping (or deceiving) her to escape from difficult domestic situations. Cornelis Hulsman of Arab West Report has written extensively on this issue.
Camilia Shehata represents the most recent example of an imagined kidnapping, which captured the attention of the nation. Frustrated by her marital situation, she ran away and disappeared for four days. Local Copts immediately began demonstrating demanding her return from her assumed Muslim captors.
Muslims, meanwhile, circulated pictures in which she was wearing a hijab, and claimed Copts had kidnapped her – a willing convert to Islam – holding her in a church or monastery. Salafi Muslims held rallies in her defense, and some threatened to storm the monasteries in search of their ‘sister’. Immediately on the heels of this story followed the case of Abeer Talaat, which culminated in the horrors of Imbaba when Muslims tried to enter the church upon a rumor she was captive there, held apart from her Muslim husband. The ensuing clash resulted in multiple deaths and the burning of a nearby church with no connection to the rumor.
One day before the Imbaba incident, Camilia Shehata appeared on al-Hayat Christian satellite channel and told the truth of her story. She sat with her husband and child, and confessed to running away from home, due to marital issues. She never converted to Islam, however, and she was sorry for the trouble caused.
In terms of church building issues, it is well known that Christians have had difficulty securing permits. During the Mubarak era, decision-making power was held by the security apparatus, which often decided upon granting or withholding permits due to the perceived reception of Muslims in the area. There is currently a new, draft, unified law for building houses of worship, to govern both churches and mosques on an administrative basis. The first draft has been rejected by the churches of Egypt, in part due to the perception the locus of decision will not move from security.
This issue is similar to a church building conflict in Ezbet Bushra from June 2009, in the governorate of Beni Suef. In this location Fr. Ishaq Kastour was involved in a controversy in which Copts built a factory which was actually purposed to become a church, which included a place for his personal residence. The process was done without approval, and Muslims vandalized the building at various stages. Fr. Ishaq was also removed from the village by the bishop (presumably at the urging of the security apparatus), returned, but was eventually permanently assigned elsewhere. A government sponsored Muslim-Christian reconciliation meeting led to the decision to grant Copts a church building, but on the outskirts of the village, as a hastily constructed mosque was given preference at the original location. As of the completion of an AWR report on the subject, authorization of the church had not yet been granted.
It also is not uncommon for parishioners to disagree about their church leadership. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a hierarchical organization which appoints priests to their diocese. While local sentiment can be and often is taken into consideration, it is not unheard of for a small but active contingent of a congregation to reject their given priest. According to Rida’s report, only thirty Copts participated in the protest against Fr. George. Was this a contingent of malcontents, or indicative of widespread frustration with his leadership? In any event, it would be improper to label the demonstration strictly as Muslim transgression in church affairs.
None of this explanation should be used to justify the parameters of the two stories, but will hopefully make actions more understandable. The girls may have been kidnapped or not, but if not, surely most demonstrators did not know the truth of the situation. It is the case in Egypt, and certainly since the revolution, that the best way to achieve results is to gather masses of people and pressure authorities to grant your demands. In the face of perceived official neglect of Coptic issues, including other cases of alleged kidnapped girls, the demonstration on the part of most was in imitation of other groups’ success.
Should this be necessary? No. Should underage girls have been immediately returned to their family? Yes. Should Copts have blocked roads and resisted dismissal? No. Have there been real cases of kidnapping Coptic adolescents? Perhaps. Is there blame, when in occurrence, on those who quickly circulate false or unsubstantiated claims of kidnapping? Absolutely.
What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.
Similarly, Muslims have used the power of demonstration to great success in pressuring government to yield to their will. This was seen most recently in the case of the appointed Coptic governor of Qena. Initial demonstrations against him were joined by Copts, in protest of the previous Coptic governor’s poor record and the newly appointed governor’s alleged role in killing protestors during the revolution. Yet the demonstrations against him quickly took on a religious dimension, as area Salafis, and some Muslim Brothers, rejected the idea of having a non-Muslim governor altogether. They blocked roads and threatened to cut off supply lines to popular tourist areas to the east on the Red Sea coast. The government was unable to dislodge them, and a solution was crafted in which the governor was ‘suspended’ for three months. When he left the area, the demonstrations subsided.
Were the Muslims of Beni Ahmad looking to similarly assert their will against a rejected priest? Perhaps. Was the conduct of this priest deserving of their rejection? It is not known. Is it the reality of Upper Egypt that decisions are taken communally rather than through the rule of law? Yes. Is this an acceptable way to govern a nation? No. Is it right for the priest to be removed in this way? No.
What is the reality of this case? It is not altogether clear.
What is clear is the poor, partisan, and inflammatory reporting of these incidents by the Assyrian International News Agency. Whereas AINA did an admirable job of presenting a perspective of these events, when much mainstream reporting is either in ignorance or dismissive of its importance, they failed to present other sides of the issue. Furthermore, amidst this negligence, they assumed the total credibility of the reported Coptic position, in doing so warping the perspective of their readership.
Sectarian issues do not plague Egypt, but they are a significant social problem. Underlying them is an unspoken frustration with the ‘other’, as competing storylines place explanation of these incidents into a greater narrative. Depending on perspective, they are either aberrations in a centuries-long culture of tolerance, or else a disturbing confirmation of pervasive discrimination.
Greater narratives, however, smooth over details. Each individual sectarian incident has its own details, many of which are disputed or unknown. Reporting of these events must take utmost care to prevent their automatic assumption into a narrative. At the same time, reporting must call a spade a spade, when this is clear.
Such clarity is difficult to achieve. With sectarian conflict, both metaphorically and literally, the devil is in the details.
Rodolph Yanney, “Conversions of Christians to Islam,” January 9, 2001 [RNSAW, 2001, week 01A, art. 4] http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/4251
Cornelis Hulsman, “Open letter to former US Congressman Pastor Ed McNeely for writing President Bush a letter with wrong claims about Christian girls being kidnapped by Muslims,” AWR, 2003, week 30, art. 34, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/11472
Usāmah Wadīc al-Ahwānī, Christian girl Ingy became a member of a Muslim Family, AWR, 2004, week 28, art. 22, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/6372
AWR editorial board, “Western misreporting on Ingy’s conversion to Islam,” AWR, 2004, week 28, art. 38, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/6361
Cornelis Hulsman, Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt; opinions from Egyptians in various positions, AWR, 2004, week 38, art. 28, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/7698 (with a comment of rev. Menes Abdel Nour about the alleged kidnap of Injī Edward Nājī)
Janique Blattmann, Christian Solidarity International claiming forced conversion of Coptic girls to Islam, AWR, 2005, week 53, art. 8, http://www.arabwestreport.info/node/12409