The Egyptian Ministry of Housing has issued a decree allowing Christians to perform their prayers in unlicensed churches until they obtain permits as official houses of worship.
- KATJA DOROTHEA BUCK
Freddy Elbaiady has made history as a politician. But what counts most for the 46-year-old Egyptian doctor is his work at the Salam Medical Center (SMC) in El-Qanatir, north of Cairo. The bridges between Christians and Muslims that are built through this work are sustainable even in times of crisis.
Dr Elbaiady has many professions and ministries. He is a respected radiologist in Cairo, runs a medical centre in his hometown El-Qanatir, is a member of the local church council, and is involved in evangelical church politics in his capacity as one of the members of the Supreme Council of Protestant Churches in Egypt. To the wider public he became known in 2013, when he accepted an offer to join the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament as one of the few Christian members. TV news programs were and still are happy to invite him for discussions on interreligious coexistence, the role of the churches in Egypt and politics in general. No doubt, this man has influence and prestige. But if asked to talk about himself he remains reticent.
His office in the medical centre has surprisingly very simple decor. No thick desk, no leather furniture to receive guests. Dr Elbaiady receives visitors in a small room. In the rear part there is an examination table for consultation. He is content with the front as his office. Only the wooden nameplate on the small desk reveals his role as CEO. Dr Elbaiady works at a large private hospital in Cairo, where he chairs the radiology department. From there, he arrives at SMC by around 3pm, where he works until after midnight, often into the early hours of the morning. “I get along with little sleep”, he says matter-of-factly.
In villages in Minya, Christians and Muslims are confined to separate districts, a condition that feeds into sectarian dynamics.
EZBET AL-FORN — Of the few streets that lie perpendicular to each other in Ezbet al-Forn in Upper Egypt’s Minya Governorate, your surroundings vary depending on which one you choose to walk down.
At the corner of one, a few meters away from a house used as a church where one security guard is stationed, I encounter a number of Coptic women.
“Over here, people are Christian. In the area starting with that colorful building over there, people are Muslim,” one of them tells me, pointing to a house 100 meters away, right next to the church. “We face south; they face north,” she adds.
When tension befell the village in September after security forces prevented Coptic residents from holding religious ceremonies in a house they used as a church, arguing that it was not registered, Copts emphasized that their problem was with security forces and not the Muslims living in the area.
Anba Makarios, the bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas, confirmed this sentiment, telling Mada Masr that the segregation of houses in the area does not allow for sectarian conflict to occur, in a governorate where there are two million Copts out of approximately 5.6 million people, as per his estimate.
But while it is believed that the spatial segregation contributes to the sense of security and freedom of worship that the Coptic minority enjoys in Upper Egypt, it also maintains a separation where false perceptions can fester, as well as the apprehension internalized by both groups toward each other.
In the village, a funeral tent in an alley connects a Christian-populated street with a Muslim-populated one. Visitors flock to it from both sides, an observation that residents point to as evidence of the peaceful relationship between Copts and Muslims in the area.
We face south; they face north.
“We are one family. We say good morning to them, and they say good morning to us. We do not wrong them, and they do not wrong us,” a Coptic woman tells me.
“This is just how we found things,” she says, pointing to how the spatial arrangement is more inherited than chosen.
A professor of Comparative Fiqh at Al-Azhar University, Saad al-Helaly, encouraged the universal celebration of Christmas, saying Muslims can celebrate the festivity without following its religious elements, encouraging a sense of solidarity between Muslims and Christians.
Helaly explained that Muslims celebrating Christmas is like celebrating any other special festivity without adding religious justification or value.
“In your life, if you celebrate things like anniversary of marriage, anniversary of getting a new job, a patriotic Eid or a scientific Eid. Then you have created a happy Eid and created joy within your family or your people. You have made the people experience a beautiful day.”
He explained that a feast does not discriminate between different religions, “It is a feast – not a religious feast like Salafis claim. We won’t follow the religious aspects but feel the spirit of Christmas. There is a difference between the spirit of Christmas and a religious feast.”
“Religious feasts have ‘takbeer’ and specific rituals and a prayer,” he said, “but the spirit of Christmas is to spread joy to humankind, and make your society and people happy even one day per year. Then have you done well to mankind or no?”
Christmas, he says, is “an idea that came out and created an international market. Children wait for it: Muslims, Christians and Jews. It created an economical boost and a true feeling of the New Year; that there is a new thing, that there is a day where families come together and rejoice.”
He concluded that religion will not stand in the face of universal happiness, “Go ahead and show me all ‘fatwas’ [ruling on Islamic law recognized by an authority]! Say it is ‘haram’ [forbidden in Islam]. Has the word ‘haram’ stopped the joy from spreading?”
For most of Islamic history, Sufism wasn’t considered as something apart. That it is today has much to do with the rise of Islamism, which is generally perceived as anti-Sufi. (Indeed, many contemporary Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafis, are precisely that.) Yet, none other than Hassan al-Banna, perhaps the most preeminent Islamist of the twentieth century, was initiated into the Sufi Hasafiyya order in 1923, just five years before he founded the Muslim Brotherhood. (Banna, for a time, would regularly visit the tomb of Sheikh Hasanayn al-Hasafi, the order’s namesake.) Similarly, Abdessalam Yassine, the late founder and leader of Adl Wal Ihsane, Morocco’s largest Islamist movement, was a member of the Boutchichiyya order.
The Coptic Orthodox Church announced that the churches bells ring out today at 12:00 o’clock Cairo local time، in solidarity with the brothers in the homeland، Extra News said.
The church offered condolences to the families of the victims.
Al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed in Al Arish was targeted during Friday prayers when a number of militants set off a bomb and opened fire on people attending prayers at a mosque in the country’s north Sinai region on Friday. the attack left 305 killed and 128 injured.
The terror in Egypt on Friday is only the latest grim reminder that Muslims are often the first victims of Muslim fanatics.
An anonymous Muslim cleric told the New York Times that he was shocked the killers would attack a mosque. Prior targets for the terrorists in the Sinai included Coptic Christian churches and a Russian airliner in 2013.