Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sectarian clashes break out in Cairo

I am both shocked and saddened to wake up to this news today, although unfortunately this is not the first time to have heard of such incidents. My prior work with Arab-West Report exposed me to many shocking reports of sectarian aggression, either from Muslims against Christians or visa versa.

The underlying current that ties all these stories together however, is not necessarily violence, but rather a lack of awareness and understanding corroborated by vicious rumours and angst. Indeed, even Western media outlets hold blame when it comes to fanning the flames of sectarian tension in cases such as the one from yesterday.

The BBC reports that "At least one person has died in clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Cairo," quoting an Egyptian official. Yet heading over to al-Jazeera, headlines blast that clashes in Cairo killed at least 11. Al-Masri al-Youm in contrast notes figures from the Egyptian Health Ministry quote 10 dead, with over 100 injured. The disparity in figures is not surprising for anyone familiar with previous incidents of sectarian tension in Egypt. Often there is a hidden agenda, with many elements influencing the story to serve one purpose or another. My previous years of work with AWR helped me to understand some of the intricacies involved in people's perceptions of such events. Many Muslims will claim that the number of Copts killed are inflated to help stir up support from expatriate Copts living overseas, primarily in the United States. It is this same group of people that will throw around beliefs that much of the financial aid that comes from the United States, in particular from development projects such as USAID, are funneled into Coptic agencies. This fuels anger; with Copts making up less than 10 percent of the total population in the country, it would not be surprising for people's anger to stir if it were in fact true that most aid went towards Coptic avenues.

These claims however, are mere rhetoric. I have yet to find proof that the majority of any financial aid sent to Egypt goes towards Coptic channels; in fact, when looking into the aid sent by the U.S., it becomes clear that much of it is in fact military aid. Based on figures from 2009, Egypt received a whopping 1.3 billion U.S. dollars in military aid. (Source)

Looking back a few years helps to shed light on how difficult it can be to ascertain accurate figures in sectarian violence in Egypt. One of the more infamous stories of sectarian tension arose with the 2008 attack on the Monastery of Abu Fana.

Abu Fana Monastery is located approximately 210 kilometres south of Cairo, in the province of Minia which has had previously reported incidents of sectarian strife. On May 31, 2008, the Monastery of Abu Fana was attacked by a group of Muslim men, allegedly armed with rifles and sticks. According to reports from the monks within the Monastery, the men proceeded to fire upon the monastery, injuring two, and attacking the walls surrounding the monastery. Photographic evidence would later appear to indicate the level of the damage inflicted upon the monastery.

From the outside, this appears to be a clear cut case of Muslim aggression against an innocent group of men of God. How could it be possible for Monks to have aggravated this attack? Digging back, al-Jazeera's report on the incident makes little mention of possible motivations behind the attack, other than "Muslim residents of the area claim the agricultural land on which the monastery's wall is being built as theirs, and say it is damaging their crops." It further links the attacks on the Monastery to heightened aggression against Copts in the rest of the country, including attacks on a jewelry shop in Cairo.

AWR sent a team to investigate the truth behind the incident, and what was discovered was far from the truth as portrayed by the media. Drs. Cornelis Hulsman noted that many of the religious iconography that was alegedly burned during the fire that was set by the Muslim aggressors, appeared to have been placed after the fact. There was no burn markings around where the pictures would have hung on the walls, indicating that these images and icons were hung and possibly burned after the initial fire.

Alongside this, the causes behind the dispute were not sectarian in nature and instead stemmed from a land dispute. As one report from AWR states:

"Due to the pervasive media reporting both inside Egypt and in the international community, the violent incidents of May 31, 2008 at the Abu Fana Monastery is widely viewed as a sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims. Though this is not without merit, especially through the subsequent escalation of the tensions, at its core the controversy is a landownership dispute with competing claims from different local actors. Unclear regulation about registration of land led to a situation with two groups maintaining ownership of the same parcels, and the additional aspect of archaeological land and artifacts at an ancient Christian site further completed the issues.

The Muslim villagers claim the right to own the land through traditional “wad al-yad” claims, which demonstrate ownership of previously unused land, if development is evident. The Christian monks claim the right to own the land through traditional “urfi” contracts, with money transacted and signatures affixed, but with no official documentation in the government. Neither of these measures is recognized by the authorities, but since Egyptian laws are unclear and often unenforced, the measures remain in frequent popular use."

Taking the story of Abu Fana as an indication of what happened in the recent clashes in Cairo, let's examine what the claims behind the story are. 

Coptic protesters took to the streets in the city to demonstrate against the burning of a Coptic Church in Helwan, a province in Cairo. They claim this was a clear act of aggression, and immediately sought a resolution to the conflict. 

The Muslims in contrast, claim that the reason they set fire to the church in the first place was in response to a Coptic man attacking the "virtue of a Muslim woman." 

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Islamic faith, here's a brief synopsis. A Muslim man may marry and have relations with either a Jewish or Christian woman. However, a Muslim woman may not have relations with anyone other than a Muslim man. The primary reason behind this lies with the religion that the children will then be brought up. In Islam, the religion is handed down on the paternal side; thus even if a Muslim man marries a Christian woman, their children will automatically be considered Muslim. 

To return to the story. 

For a Muslim woman to have relations with a Christian man is already a difficult situation in Egypt. Particularly when you consider that the backgrounds of the two families involved are likely to be very traditional. It is simply unacceptable to consider the possibility that the woman had relations with the Christian man of her own volition. It is simply easier to say that she was pushed into the affair, and take retribution on her behalf. Now even if it were true that this woman's virtue was somehow violated, it should never be responded to with an act of aggression against a house of God. This is the saddest underlying fact in the whole story, that to respond to alleged violations a group of Muslim men set fire to a church. This goes against what became a prevalent undercurrent of the Egyptian Revolution - Images of Christian men standing guard while their Muslim counterparts performed the Friday prayers, further images of Muslim youth protecting Christian churches during the violence and looting. 

Where has this sense of camaraderie disappeared to, and who has really stoked the fire of sectarian tension. These should be the questions on people's minds, not an immediate call for retribution. Not an immediate indication of sectarian violence and a return of hatred between Muslims and Christians. The youth here have already demonstrated their very evident appreciation and respect of each others faith - who is being served by creating this atmosphere of unease? 

The youth have responded again to these "sectarian crimes" and have called for a peaceful march of solidarity on Friday to express their solitude with both the Coptic and the Muslim victims of these acts of aggression. More information can be found here.

My only hope is that people do not jump to conclusions, or believe the hype raised about such events. When alleged crimes of a sectarian nature erupt in Egypt, it is always wise to look a little deeper than the surface before coming to any conclusions. 

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