Readers will recall the Belmont Club post of a video of the Coptic monastery in Egypt whose wall was being broken down by army armored vehicles. That incident went unremarked in most of the media, but its downstream consequences have resurfaced in the Washington Post today. The headline says “13 die in sectarian violence in Cairo”. No, it is not a clash between the Montana Doomsday Cult and the survivors of the People’s Temple, as the word “sects” might suggest. Instead it is what you suspected it was all along: an attack on Egyptian Christians. The WaPo continues, “all those killed Tuesday were Christians, according to Bishop Morcos, a spokesman for the Egyptian Copts, but his account could not be independently confirmed. The worst casualties were inflicted by gunfire and molotov cocktails, he said. ”
Confirmation was available on Al Masry al Youm which says “Coptic Christians were protesting an attack by a group of Muslims on a church in Atfeeh, Helwan earlier this week. The crisis was sparked by a romantic relationship between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman.”
The Copts are actually the natives of Egypt “a major ethnoreligious group in Egypt. Christianity was the majority religion in Roman Egypt during the 4th to 6th centuries and until the Muslim conquest, and has remained the faith of a significant minority population until the present day. Their Coptic language is the direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian spoken in the Roman era, but it has been near-extinct and mostly limited to liturgical use since the 18th century. European scholars attempting to decipher the Rosetta Stone eventually realized that the third script upon it was a form of cursive Coptic.”
They were someone once.
A more accurate way to describe the clashes is as between the natives and the colonizers, but we have the term “sectarian clashes”. According to Al Masry al Youm, the Salafis are mostly responsible for the latest attacks. Salafism is a term for fundamentalist Islam, a term that has come to be associated, some say unjustly with groups like al-Qaeda.
The Washington Post reports on the lead-up to the latest clashes. “The year began with religious violence: 21 people died when a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up as Copt worshipers left a church after midnight on New Year’s Day in Alexandria. A week later, an off-duty policeman boarded a train and opened fire, killing a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding his wife and four other people”. The temperature has been steadily rising and has no attained political significance. That effect has been heightened since the ouster of Mubarak. Copts have been demonstrating in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Mohammed El Baradei has denounced the attacks on the Coptic community.
On his Twitter account, ElBaradei described the incident as a “tragic crime” that reflects ”distorted values.” “The demolition of a House of God is a crime against humanity; one that violates the values of the 25 January revolution, the most important of which are tolerance and equality,” he added.
On Saturday, angry protesters set fire to a church in the village of Sol Atfih, in Helwan, on learning of an affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. The violence was triggered by a feud between the couple’s families, who disapproved of the romantic relationship. Romantic relationships between Muslims and Christians are taboo in Egypt, and the marriage of a Christian man to a Muslim woman is illegal unless the man converts to Islam. Copts make up about ten percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.
Baradei’s interest is indication of the mainstreaming of the Coptic issue. It has become associated with the struggle for the future of post-Mubarak Egypt. Ahram Online argues that the Salafis had been egged on by the Egyptian security apparatus, the better to foment “revenge and counter-revolution”.
Mounir Megahd, a spokesperson for Egyptians Against Discrimination, says it’s likely the State Security apparatus has orchestrated the clashes.
“Recent reports released have shown the close ties between the state security apparatus and the Salafist movement,” he adds. “It has been reported that state security has used them to bomb the Two Saints Church in Alexandria (on the first of January).”
This is evidence, he says, that state security has infiltrated the Salafist movement and is using them now in their attempt to foment a counter-revolution.
Megahed said that the telltale sign is that since Mubarak stepped down Salafists have begun raising all the inflammatory issues, such as the Article 2 of the constitution and the release of Camilia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine – a case from last year of two Copts who allegedly converted to Islam and are allegedly being by the church. …
“You’ve got the Salafists and state security, who are way more organized than you can imagine,” says Zakher. “And on the other side you have the National Democratic Party (NDP) which triggers these incidents to try to scare people and show them that Egypt was safer when they are in power, yet afterwards it’s on fire.’’
Zakher insisted the words “sectarian tension,” to describe the events are inaccurate.
“We don’t want to confuse people by using incorrect terms,’’ says Zakher. “These are criminal acts not a result of sectarian tension.”
Ahmed Eid, member of 25 January youth coalition says that the group is planning a visit today to Atfeeh, in Helwan, where they political and religious figures are to speak to the villagers to calm the situation. He says that the coalition has also rounded up 1000 volunteers to assist in the rebuilding of the church.
In this scenario, the Copts are being used as a match to create a larger political explosion. The situation is mildly reminiscent of the attack by al-Qaeda on the mosque in Samarra, Iraq, which was used to trigger a near civil war and thereby set the stage for a new Caliphate. That was defeated by General Petraeus. But who will oppose any similar action in Egypt? The alliance between Egyptians for Discrimination and the newly assertive Copts may be encouraging, but they are small players in wider correlation of forces. Washington has in the past ignored them both and focus upon the what it perceives to be the major actors. The Copts have long been ignored by international diplomacy and that is unlikely to change until they become important in some worldly respect.
The video below illustrates this neglect. They can’t even apply for political asylum to escape death threats, probably to avoid angering the Salafis. If Copts were as well connected as Tariq Ramadan, who was given a visa by the Obama Administration after having been denied it for “providing material support to a terrorist organization”, then they would fare better. Ramadan received political and legal support from “the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union [who] filed a lawsuit on January 25, 2006 against the United States government on behalf of the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and the PEN American Center”, demonstrating as NPR’s Ron Schiller said, that liberals are “more educated, fair and balanced”. Except for the Copts, that is.
The other “sect” which “more educated, fair and balanced” people fear; and from whom clashes may be soon be expected are the Christianist, racist, Islamophobic and gun-toting Tea Party people. Perhaps archaeologists of the far future will come upon a scrap of parchment in three languages. Chinese, Arabic and something else. And the third language will be indecipherable, until some scholar realizes that it is a variant of something spoken by the ragpicking class of Merkuns and not the language of the “more educated, fair and balanced” classes. The document will then be recognized as the long lost text of something called the Gettysburg Address, which was believed delivered by the founder of the Democratic Party, Ibrahim Lincoln, in Chicago. And there, in ancient lost Merkun, the scholars will read forth:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Well why can a nation not perish from the earth? It happened to the Copts.