Muslim-Copt initiatives highlight tolerance

All the goodwill is in stark contradiction with extremist fatwas that forbid it.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A view of the dome of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the eastern Mostorod neighbourhood of the district of Shubra al-Kheima on the outskirts of Cairo.		             (AFP)
Need for solidarity. A view of the dome of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the eastern Mostorod neighbourhood of the district of Shubra al-Kheima on the outskirts of Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Initiatives by Egyptian Muslims to build churches and by Egyptian Copts to build mosques are a powerful and unique way to uphold the values of tolerance and solidarity in Egypt. They also serve as a message that religious extremists refuse to accept, so they keep lighting fires between religious communities through sectarian strife.

These destructive efforts have failed as shown by the recent volunteering of a Coptic contractor to build a mosque in Minya governorate in Upper Egypt. His gesture was a few days after Salafist activists burned and looted the homes of four Copts reportedly because one of the homes was being used as a church.

Contractor Michael Munir was involved in the construction of a housing complex in Al Mutahara in south-western Minya as part of the government’s project to build 1 million housing units. When the complex was completed, Munir realised the area did not have a mosque so he donated the funds for building one.

“Building the mosque is a message of tolerance and love, a confirmation of the fact that no religion or dogma should come between the sons of the same country,” Munir said. “We want to tell those seeking to sow the seeds of discord between the two communities that their attempts will fail.”

Munir said there were many instances in which Muslims and Copts donated towards the construction of churches and mosques for each other. He said these acts came naturally and instinctively. They are peace messages that refute the attempts to deform the image of relations between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. They prove that Egyptian society does not tolerate extremist dogmas.

Munir’s complaint with the “owners of backward minds,” as he called them, is that they look at this display of solidarity and openness as a media show, an attempt to show off socially and stay in the government’s favour. They refuse to see the positive side. For Munir, though, civilised behaviour is the best defence against extremist thought and backward minds.

Munir’s father, Atef Munir, was among the victims of the terrorist attack on the Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor in Minya in May 2017. Munir said he refuses to accept that the attack had anything to do with the Islamic faith.

He said donating to build or repair houses of worship in Egypt should come before donating to build schools because it constitutes a real symbol of tolerance and human solidarity. Munir donated half of $5,600 he received from the Egyptian government as compensation for the death of his father to the construction of a mosque and the other half to a church.

Media attention on the burning of four Coptic homes in Minya focused on the latest gesture of the Coptic contractor. Official media seized the chance to stress the strong relations between Egyptian Muslims and Copts despite the terrorist acts of an extremist minority.

Egyptian authorities followed the official government line in pointing out that having Christians willingly donate to build or repair mosques is proof of the absence of sectarian strife in Egypt. The big problem with those authorities is that they refuse to admit the existence of extremist elements who practise social terrorism by issuing fatwas targeting the Coptic community in Egypt.

Munir’s gesture is certainly not unique. Last year in Qalyub, north of Cairo, a Coptic citizen donated land for the construction of a mosque after noticing that people were walking long distances to attend prayers because there were no mosques nearby.

Muslims, too, donated land and money for the construction or restoration of churches. Last year in Minya, Muslim families collected funds for the restoration of St George Coptic Church after local authorities condemned the building because it was threatening to collapse.

Muslims gave funds, fed the construction workers and helped in the construction work. A local Muslim baker gave daily rations of bread to the construction crew.

Also in Minya, a Muslim businessman had donated 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,800) for the construction of the Church of Martyrs that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered to build in honour of the victims of the attack on the Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor.

All this goodwill is in stark contradiction with extremist fatwas that forbid it. A similar extremist trend exists among some Coptic activists who show reserve — sometimes even undeclared refusal — about supporting an agenda of social, intellectual and cultural cohesion between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. They do not miss a chance to harp on the issue of targeting Copts in Egypt and feed sectarian divisiveness.

Kamal Zakher, a Coptic intellectual, said showing solidarity between Muslims and Copts through donations and other acts is the kind of social movement that extremists are afraid of because it undermines their efforts to control people’s minds; that’s why they issue extremist fatwas.

Some of the fatwas can be found on Islamweb, an internet site of the Islamists and Salafists. They said participating in the construction of Christian houses of worship was an unforgivable sin. Some Salafist fatwas equated contributing towards building a church with spending money on alcohol and other misdeeds. These outlandish fatwas were inspired by a study made by Abu Hammam Bakr al-Athari, a prominent member of al-Qaeda’s jurisprudence committee.