Fatwas against Christians jeopardise Egypt’s unity

Sunday 21/05/2017

Fatwas and declarations by al-Azhar scholars treating Christians as apostates have brought to the surface a hidden dimension in the relationship between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.

The Egyptian government is, of course, opposed to such prac­tices and al-Azhar University has initiated legal procedures against its members who accused oth­ers of apostasy, be they Christian or Muslim researchers. For the general public, however, the issue remains unsettled.

Salafists of all tendencies still have no qualms about publicly declaring Christians apostates and legitimising killing Christians and confiscating their properties and women. The Egyptian government may have taken severe measures against those people but for many Copts it was not enough.

Because of the latest anti-Copt declarations, the Egyptian govern­ment has no choice but to open the thorny file of Muslim-Christian relations and deal with it in com­plete transparency and without equivocation. It is a potential threat to Egyptian national unity and, if left unchecked, it will in­fect Egypt with one of the tough­est viruses in circulation in the region — that of sectarian strife.

Egyptian Copts are placing their trust in President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi but some of them had hoped for a speedier solution to Islamic extremism in Egypt. Sisi’s govern­ment has failed to uproot it and some young Copts view the presi­dent as a general with his hands tied rather than a people’s hero.

The Copts, in general, appreci­ate Sisi’s tough stance against terrorism. They also admire his great sympathy with the victims’ families and are grateful for his role in repairing and maintaining the bombed churches. However, they regret that he has not gone the full length in dealing with the Salafists and Al-Nour Party, which is giving the Salafists a voice in the Egyptian Parliament.

Many of the of the Copts say the government is not doing enough to limit the Salafists’ influence. They see in the government’s silence towards certain leading Salafists as tacit approval of the latter’s subversive discourse. They cite the cases of Sheikh Salem Abdul Galil and Sheikh Abdallah Roshdi, who would not have dared accuse Christians of disbelief if they did not find a favourable context for that type of religious and social impertinence. In turn, some Copts are coming forward and publicly declaring Muslims as infidels.

When a Coptic priest was asked about the church’s view of Mus­lims, he said without quibbling: “I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t consider Muslims as infidels.”

The social turmoil ignited by the apostasy fatwas will not be stopped just by bringing to justice one or more individuals here and there. It will need a comprehen­sive approach. Selective targeting can only result in having other currents and interests fish for sup­porters by exploiting the popular appeal of these issues. What the government needs is a package of adequate measures against apos­tasy fatwas.

The first step is to hold account­able anyone who transgresses the constitution’s basic principles. The constitution recognises the importance of national unity and forbids abasement of any religion, which begs the question of why the law is brought to bear on those who show contempt for Islam but not those who show contempt for Christianity.

The second step is to clean up school curricula of ideas, con­cepts or formulations that might influence the child’s sensitivi­ties towards the other. I and the other children of my generation grew up not feeling any difference between Muslims and Christians. Removing from the curriculum any possible source for the current schizophrenia should be enough to stop this social haemorrhage.

Third, citizenship must be trans­formed into a concrete daily prac­tice rather than brandished as a slogan whenever foreign eyes turn to Egypt. It must be ingrained in the soul of the society if we want to dam social strife.