by Samir Khalil Samir
The attack against the Church of Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, on December 31 last, shows in an increasing harsh light the growth of Christianophobia in the Islamic world (and beyond). It is important to denounce this violence, but also to find practical steps to counter it.
First, the facts: Muslims accuse the Egyptian Coptic Church and Patriarch Shenouda III, of holding two women who converted to Islam captive against their will in convents in Egypt. This accusation, which is completely false, was repeated on the very same day of the attack, on December 31. In the mosque 200 meters from the church attacked at midnight, following his imam’s sermon, there was a demonstration of Muslims calling for the release of these two women and all others.
This story has been dragging on for four years. It claims that the two women, Wafa ‘Constantine and Camelia Shehata, who are married to two priests, had marital problems, that they then converted to Islam and were kidnapped and hidden by the Church. It is true that women had marital problems, but it is not true that they converted. In fact the late leader of Al-Azhar, Tantawi, decreed that there is no evidence of their conversion. The two women were then brought to the Church, who for fear of their possible kidnapping by Islamist movements, gave them refuge in convents. But the story keeps coming back to the surface. Even after the attack on the Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad on October 31 last year, the group that claimed responsibility for the terrorist act, cited the case of these two women, to justify attacks against Christians in Egypt.
All of this is absurd. Yesterday, I participated in an online forum of an Islamic newspaper, al-Mesreyya, discussing the attack on the church in Alexandria. Instead of expressing their condolences for the Christian victims, their horror at the attack, etc.. Everyone – at least 60 comments- said that “it is the Copts fault,” and cited the story of the two women; that the attack on the church was organized by Copts themselves “to make us look bad in front of the rest of the world”; or something that was organized by the U.S. and Mossad. I posted a short comment, but it was not published. In the few lines I wrote, I asked what right is there to force a conversion? Conversions are in stifled in Egypt, that is, conversion to Islam is facilitated but those from Islam to another religion are strongly hindered.
The imam of Al-Azhar
In this situation the reaction of Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the current Imam of Al-Azhar, is understandable. He paid a visit to the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III to express his condolences. In Egypt, these visits are a formality every time there is an attack, they imply “we always understand each other”, and “we should not destroy national unity.” Thousands of Christians were demonstrating in front of the patriarchate to ask for more security and protection for Christians. The faithful reacted by shouting slogans and throwing stones at the car of the Muslim representative. But we must also take into consideration what Muslims do. Over the past three months several times a picture Shenouda was trampled upon and destroyed, and the names of 200 Copts are on a death list, with the patriarch in first place. Among them are 100 names of Canadian, German, Austrian and European Copts, and “shedding their blood – reads the list – is lawful.” In this case too, the obsession with conversions is at the root of the violence.
The Egyptian government says that the attack on the church of Alexandria was carried out by foreigners. And in a way it’s true: the Iraqi group linked to Al Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the Church attack in Baghdad on Oct. 31, threatened further violence if the two Egyptian women were not handed over to the Islamic community. Al Qaeda, whose leader is al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, is in fact a widespread terrorist mafia with international branches.
The imam of Al-Azhar has criticized the pope for asking world governments to defend Christians and claims he does not care about Muslims killed in Iraq. That a figurehead such as he, considered a very learned and moderate man – he knows several languages and studied in Paris – should say such things against the pope is unacceptable: he has criticized the pope without really knowing anything, by simply repeating what he has read in the headlines.
In fact there is nothing to criticise in the Pope’s address. Benedict XVI only recalled that violence against man is against the will of God. Of course he asked for help for Christians, seeing that he was referring to recent events. But even if he asked for increased security for Christians, is that really a scandal? If the governments of the Middle East are not able to defend them, because they do not want to or because they are not capable of doing so, then the world must do something, otherwise what’s the UN or other international bodies for?
It is also ridiculous to say – as the imam of Ahzar did – that the pope has never defended the Muslims of Iraq. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI ever approved of the American intervention of Iraq, nor believe that it was lawful. It must be said then that Muslims are often targeted and killed by other Muslims. The pope can condemn violence and say that we must defeat intolerance, and stop justifying violence in the name of God, but the pope has done this countless times.
The destiny of Europe and the Middle East
Some analysts warn against attempts by the West to exploit all this violence against Christians. In fact, however, in many European countries, Muslims continue to increase their demands, presenting them as their “rights”; they do unusual things and nobody says anything. For example, in France and Italy, Friday Muslim prayer takes place in public spaces, on the streets, blocking traffic.
Islam in Europe is becoming increasing more demanding and governments do not know how to react to it; some impede integration; the relationship between governments and Muslim immigrants is among the most difficult.
Of course, the vast majority of Muslims want peace, want to integrate, but among them there are people who have another project: we in Europe have the right to have our law, Shariah, and you prevent us from having this. A few years ago in Milan, the head of the Viale Jenner mosque, responding to a questions about conversions to Christianity in Egypt said “you simply have to apply the law”, which means the death of those who have converted. And if you condemn the application of the law then you are holding back our freedom of religion. This position is creating problems in France, Italy, Sweden, etc. …
It is possible that European governments use violence against Christians to block Islamic emigration. Just as is it possible that Israel uses this violence to justify an ever more apparent racism in Israeli society. But violence against Christians is something that happens every day and has as its aim to rid the Middle East of the Christian presence. Bombings and killings are a constant reality in Egypt.
Dialogue to defeat fundamentalism and secularism
For this reason, some European countries are beginning to say “enough”. There is the growing realization that something must be done. It is true that other attacks on the religious freedom of Christians in China or Vietnam or in Laos, are condemned, if only, sporadically. The fact is that the Middle East is closely tied to Europe and the problem of coexistence with Islam is a European problem. I am pleased with the unanimous response of the international community on the attack on the Copts in Egypt. What is striking in this case is the absolute innocence of the Copts: What have they done to deserve such a murderous attack? In other parts – Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon … – there are acts of war, but there is none of this here in Egypt, it is a violent, gratuitous attack motivated only by “conversions” and just as we all ask for freedom religion, as in the pope’s message for World Day of Peace.
The episode in Alexandria in Egypt is an act against religious freedom. But Muslims in the name of Shariah, are not able to understand the value of human rights. Human rights must come before all tradition and all laws, even sharia.
It must be said that this violence also involves the West. The pope, in his speech on 1 January, said that it concrete actions are needed and not just words. I think we need pay particular attention to the Middle Eastern or Islamic countries, or wherever violence against religious freedom occurs. It is no good putting pressure on these nations, because they see it as too much interference. The American proposal for collaboration with Islam, made by Barack Obama, does not arouse enthusiasm because the U.S. proposals then lapse into a form of colonialism.
The point is that the relationship with these countries must become not exclusively economic but also cultural. One of the main points of this dialogue is the need to take the fundamentalists criticism of Western civilization, which they see as atheist, seriously. The fundamentalists are full of critical errors, but they are based in reality. They see that the West promotes an irreligious culture. In fact, the West is either neutral or indifferent, or even contrary to religion. While fundamentalists promote Islamic religious culture.
We have to take the middle road between two extremes: the secularist West, in which there is no room for religion, or Islamic fundamentalist way in which religion penetrates, through force, all areas of life : prayer, work, sex, family, etc. … In the Angelus of January 1, the pope said: “Today we are witnessing two opposite trends, both negative, both extremes: on one hand, secularism, which often in a very deceitful way, marginalizes religion to confine it to the private sphere and on the other fundamentalism, which instead wants to impose it by force. ” I really think the pope is right. We must reject both secularism and fundamentalism.
 Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the imam of Al Azhar, criticized the pope for – in his opinion – having only appealed for greater protection for Christians in his homily on 1 January. “I do not agree – he said – with the position of the pope and wonder why the pope did not ask for protection when they were killing Muslims in Iraq.” In fact, the pope’s words were: “Faced with the threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of religious discrimination, abuses and intolerance, which today affect Christians in particular (cf. ibid., 1), once again I address this urgent appeal to not give in to despair and resignation. I urge everyone to pray that the efforts undertaken by several parties to promote and build peace in the world come to fruition”. It is true however, that many media have published headlines like “Pope calls on governments to protect Christians,” with a clear reduction of the message.