Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Complaints of Bias Can Go Both Ways in Egypt


Letter from Egypt
By DANIEL WILLIAMS
New York Times
December 16, 2009

On a side street in the far northeast Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, the door of a five-story former underwear factory is padlocked.

This is, or was supposed to be, the St. Mary and Anba Abraam Coptic Christian Church. The police closed it Nov. 24, 2008, when Muslims rioted against its consecration. Since then local Copts have had to commute to distant churches or worship in hiding at one another’s homes.

While Muslim leaders criticized the Nov. 29 vote in Switzerland that banned construction of minarets, the distinctive spires on mosques that are used for the call to prayer, they don’t support Christians who want to build churches in some Islamic countries. Restrictions in Egypt have exacerbated sectarian violence and discrimination, say Copts, a 2,000-year-old denomination that comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The day after the Swiss vote, Ali Gomaa, one of Egypt’s top Muslim clerics, called the decision “an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside of Switzerland.” Copts quickly said that neither he nor any other Islamic leader mentioned the Christian situation in Egypt.

“Without the merest attempt to put our house in order, are we in any position to taunt others to put theirs?” Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Cairo-based Egyptian Coptic weekly newspaper El-Watani, said by telephon. “They should be ashamed.” The contrast between criticism of the Swiss and silence about local parallels isn’t limited to Egypt. Censure of Switzerland, where about 5 percent of the population is Muslim, was widespread in Islamic countries where Christians face restrictions on practicing their faith.

“The decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values,” said the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which represents 57 Muslim-majority nations. Members include Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims are arrested for worshiping privately; Maldives, the Indian Ocean atoll where citizenship is reserved for Muslims; Libya, which limits churches to one per denomination in cities; and Iran, where conversion from Islam is punished by death, according to a 2009 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom.

“The Copts are a minority. Why do they need more churches?” Harbi Muhammed Ali, a cafe owner in Ain Shams, said in an interview. “There are other churches around. If you have one car, do you need two?” As for Switzerland, “the West is always preaching human rights,” he said. “It’s their problem.”

Requests for interviews with officials of the government and at the state-controlled Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the country’s largest institution of Islamic learning, went unanswered. And requests for interviews at the Islamic conference’s Geneva office, which issued the criticism of the Swiss ban, were rejected because officials were too busy, said a person who answered the telephone there.

In Egypt, local officials oversee permits for church construction and renovation, which must receive endorsement from Muslims in the neighborhood and final approval from President Hosni Mubarak. “Church and human rights leaders complain that many local officials intentionally delay the permit process,” the U.S. State Department report said. “As a result, congregations have experienced lengthy delays, years in many cases, while waiting for new building permits.”

Ain Shams is a sprawling district of narrow lanes and multistory housing with a majority Muslim population. The rioting there began after Copts renovated the factory and said Mass, Muslim and Christian residents said. Rioters carried a banner that read “No to the church,” chanted “There is no god but God” and threw stones at the police who kept them at bay.

Today, only a wrought-iron cross design on the locked front door marks the place as a church. Just down the street, Muslim residents constructed a lime green Mosque of Light at the same time that the Copts were modifying their building.

“Of course, they closed us down, but the mosque is open,” said Hossama Sedik, 30, a Coptic day laborer. There are about 40 Coptic churches in Egyptian cities and scores more in towns and villages, especially in southern Egypt, along with even larger numbers of clandestine prayer houses, said Bishop Thomas, a Coptic priest who operates a retreat outside Cairo.

In October, Muslims hurled stones at Christian workers in Al-Badraman, a village south of the city, because they were going to raise the steeple and add a bell at a church, according to press reports. In 2007, riots erupted in Behma, another southern village, after word spread that Copts were going to build a church without a permit. About 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were torched.

Parallel to these incidents are clashes over such issues as conversion and alleged harassment of Muslim girls by Copts, and Coptic girls by Muslims. “It’s a challenge to hold onto the concept of love and peace,” said Thomas, 52.

After he founded his retreat 10 years ago, Muslims set up four small mosques, complete with minarets, just outside the four corners of the rectangular enclosure. “They make a point that if we are here, the Muslims must be, too,” he said.

Even so, he joined Muslims in denouncing the Swiss ban. “If I want freedom to build in Egypt, I must also want it in Switzerland,” he said.

Bloomberg News

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