Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Christian-Muslim Rift Widens

Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Jan 7 2005 (IPS) - Tension is simmering between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian communities after allegations of forced conversions to Islam.

The final weeks of 2004 witnessed unusual tension. These resulted in angry Christian demonstrations and the temporary retreat of Coptic Pope Shenouda III (of the Egyptian Monophysite Christian Church) to his traditional redoubt in the Western Desert.

Some observers, meanwhile, suspect that the state – ever fearful of foreign accusations of religious persecution – has intervened on the side of the church in an effort to speedily resolve the volatile issue. Despite official assertions of national unity, fresh outbreaks of sectarian violence were reported in the Upper Egyptian governorate Minya Dec. 30, suggesting the problem is far from over.

“I don’t think it’s over – the country hasn’t pulled itself out safely yet,” Mohamed Said, deputy director of the state-run al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “There’s still resentment on both sides, and irresponsible reporting in the press isn’t helping the matter.”

The uproar was initially triggered by news that the wife of a Coptic priest from the west Delta village Abul Matameer, some 150 km north of Cairo, had converted to Islam. The report quickly sparked rumours among Egypt’s Christian community that the woman Wefaa Constantine had been forced to convert against her will, perhaps with the connivance of government officials.

Hundreds of Coptic Christians converged on Cairo’s Orthodox Cathedral Dec. 5. They held angry demonstrations over the next four days, insisting that Constantine be immediately returned to the custodianship of the church. Demonstrators also protested against what many Copts – Egypt’s largest Christian denomination – perceive as an unofficial policy of discrimination by the state.

Pope Shenouda III, the supreme authority within the Coptic Church, personally requested the intervention of President Hosni Mubarak by having Constantine returned to church authorities.

The confrontation reached its climax Dec. 9 when Coptic officials instructed demonstrators to disperse after receiving assurances that the woman had been handed over to a church council. By then some 55 people had been injured, including police. In all 34 Christian demonstrators were arrested.

But the story did not end there, and the fate of Constantine remains a source of controversy.

Local media reported Dec. 12 that Coptic authorities had conceded that Constantine’s conversion had been voluntary and that she had not been subject to coercion.

“It appears that the case of the priest’s wife…has reached its conclusion with the acceptance by Copts of the reality of the situation, after it was made clear that Constantine wasn’t subject to any pressure to leave her religion,” the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported. Despite five days of efforts by church authorities to convince her to change her mind, Constantine wearing traditional Muslim headdress “insisted on her decision (to convert to Islam), and she had even memorized half the Koran,” the paper reported.

But a second story quickly emerged: that Constantine had been convinced by a panel of church elders to retract her conversion and return to the Christian faith. The state press reported that she had declared in the presence of government officials Dec. 14 that she would “live and die” a Christian. Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed told reporters that Constantine had initially gone to the police with the intention of converting to Islam, but had subsequently changed her mind.

A high-ranking Coptic official told government-run al-Ahram weekly that the earlier reports had simply been wrong. “When she came to her senses, and started to speak to us, she seemed to be convinced that she is still a Christian,” the official was quoted as saying. He added that Constantine was “still a Christian…and had never become a Muslim.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Christian weekly al-Watani said Constantine voluntarily returned to the church, and media allegations to the contrary “have not been validated.”

Sidhom explained that Constantine, chafing in an unhappy marriage, had seen conversion as the only way to obtain a divorce, given the strict rules governing matrimony in the Coptic faith. “She never imagined it would result in this drastic row,” he said, adding that Constantine was currently living “in the custody of a monastery, waiting to return to her family.”

The affair’s ambiguous circumstances, however, including the subsequent cloistering of the woman, have prompted some suspicions that she had been forced by the church to recant her conversion with the collusion of the state, which was fearful of sectarian meltdown.

“A major issue of concern is just how security officials handed her over to the church,” noted Said. “The Egyptian state was quick to return her to the church once the cathedral demonstration took place.”

The Islamic press expressed outrage. “The handing over of Wefaa Constantine (to the Church) was illegitimate,” independent weekly al-Esboua trumpeted in a headline Dec. 27.

The Dec. 23 edition of Afaq Arabiya, a mouthpiece of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood said: “If a Christian wants to convert to Islam, he will go to the (Islamic religious authority) al-Azhar, and find that the venerable institution doesn’t welcome him; that it even notifies state security to interrogate him…and he finds himself accused!” The writer added that such a thing could only happen “in countries ruled by despots.”

Some Christian observers too expressed disapproval. “The government has actually given church (officials) a right that is not theirs,” prominent Coptic thinker Rafiq Habib was quoted as saying in the state press, “and violated the law by allowing the detention of an Egyptian citizen inside a monastery, which made many people wonder.”

Pope Shenouda III was quoted as saying that the Constantine case was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Immediately after the handing over of Constantine to the church Dec. 8, Pope Shenouda III retreated to the Anba Bishoi monastery in Wadi Natrun in a high- profile show of protest against state handling of the case. From this stronghold in the Western Desert, Shenouda cited additional Coptic grievances, including bureaucratic difficulties over church-building; forced conversions to Islam, particularly in Upper Egypt; and a general, unofficial policy of anti-Christian discrimination by the state.

Shenouda went on to insist that the 34 Christian protestors in state custody be released before the Coptic Christmas Jan. 7. They were released Jan. 5.

The pope did not return to Cairo until Dec. 22 after two weeks absence during which he reportedly conferred with some 1,800 members of the Coptic clergy.

He returned a day after the release of 13 Copts held since the demonstration, suggesting that a deal had been struck between church and state. “The pope’s return was a sort of political arrangement to put an end to the sensitive situation,” said Sidhom. “The release was understood to be part of a package, that the 34 detainees would be released gradually.”

Many observers have been quick to note that the issue is prone to aggravation by external influences. A formidable element of the equation is the expatriate Coptic community in the United States, which has a history of vigorously accusing Cairo of the “religious persecution” of Copts, unofficially estimated at between 10 and 20 percent of the national population of 76 million.

Said doubted that any “mysterious foreign influences” were playing a role in the current impasse. “It’s customary to blame sectarian issues on external forces and Israeli designs, but I think the trouble has been due more to radical trends within the country,” he said.

Fresh reports of sectarian violence suggest that the matter has not been resolved. The police were reported to have arrested 80 people Dec. 30 in the Upper Egyptian governorate Minya, some 250 km south of Cairo, after sectarian clashes left one Muslim dead. Violence reportedly erupted when a number of local Copts attempted to build a church without official permission.

Sidhom said Christians in Minya had long been appealing for permission to build a church. “Finally, out of desperation, they tried to modify an existing building, when they were attacked by Muslims who tried to destroy it,” he said.

Said says the conflict is a part of a trend where a “revolution of identities” is taking place all over the world “in which cultures are increasingly defining themselves in religious terms.”

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