Egypt: Church burning reveals ugly contest over truth and victimhood
by- 20th August 2013
What mentality of man will burn a church? In Egypt, what should be known as a house of prayer is now the symbol of civil strife amid conflicting accusations of blame.
‘Attacks on churches are being done by the former regime and their thugs, not pro-Morsi demonstrators,’ said Ahmed Kamal, youth secretary for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Helwan, an industrial district to the south of Cairo.
But this is nonsense to Bishop Thomas, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Qussia, 340 kilometers south of Cairo. His church was attacked by pro-Morsi protestors, but neighborhood Muslims rallied to defend it.
‘We recognize their faces and know who they are,’ said Thomas. ‘The Brotherhood is using us as a scapegoat to blame us for their failures.’
Anti-Christian rhetoric has been prominent among Islamists. Since Pope Tawadros, along with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, appeared with General al-Sisi to announce the deposing of President Morsi, many Islamists believe Copts to be part of a grand conspiracy against not just their movement, but Islam itself.
‘We don’t oppose Christians,’ said Kamal, ‘but we are against the pope – as we are against the head of the Azhar – who interferes to direct people to a particular political direction.’
This second half of this message is reinforced by Kamal’s local party representation. The Helwan FJP’s Facebook page notes that ‘burning houses of worship is a crime’, but then all but justifies it in an attack on the church.
After listing a litany of the pope’s offenses, it declares, ‘After all this people ask why they burn the churches.
‘For the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offense. For every action there is a reaction.’
Kamal recognizes this message may have been too general. The Brotherhood sees Islam as both worship and ideology, only the latter of which has been rejected by the church and anti-Morsi protestors.
But for Arne Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project to promote religious literacy in journalism, this error reflects the reality on the ground for Islamists.
‘Whatever the Brotherhood says [about nonviolence] is not listened to or communicated on the street,’ he said. ‘So there is a large incoherence among them.’
More than 50 churches were destroyed since Wednesday last week, including three Bible Society bookshops - the first time in Egypt's recent history. Some news organizations reported churches being marked for attack before the Brotherhood sit-ins were forcibly broken up.
Fjeldstad believes the Brotherhood will have a difficult time making theological sense about why God ‘turned against them’. But in the meanwhile, the sit-ins were filled with chants about martyrdom.
‘They have prepared the ground for future generations of warriors for Islam,’ he said.
Sarah Carr is an independent journalist and founder of mbinenglish.com, a web page which exposes the Arabic-only messages the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the FJP Facebook page above.
But she understands the rage of Islamist protestors, for she was a witness to the military-sponsored dispersal of the sit-in which killed over 600 people, not including 40 police personnel.
‘It was completely disproportional violence,’ she said, describing army vehicles mounted with automatic weapons firing into the crowds. Carr did not see any armed protestors, though she does not deny their presence.
‘The army needs to justify their terrorist narrative and use it to crush the Muslim Brotherhood,’ she said.
But the Brotherhood did resist. Political analyst Abdullah Schleifer notes that the Western tradition of nonviolent protest involves non-resistance to state-sponsored oppression.
‘Non-violence does not mean building barricades to hold off the Egyptian riot police and breaking up pavement stones to throw at them.’
Kamal freely admits the difference.
‘Gandhi is not necessarily our role model,’ he said. ‘He was good and his people were brave, but we have our peaceful model as well as per our book and principles.
‘We are unarmed in front of their weapons, but we will resist them. To be peaceful is not just to stay silent and wait for bloodshed. We must defend our lives even by throwing stones.’
But Emad Gad, a leading politician with the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says they went far beyond throwing stones. His party is collecting evidence of protestors’ violent intent.
‘The army did not attack the people,’ he said. ‘They used tear gas and bulldozers and were attacked by armed protestors, and then they responded.’
For political analyst Eric Trager, both narratives make sense. The Brotherhood cannot win a battle against the security forces, but that may not be the point.
‘The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military,’ he told World Affairs Journal.
To protect itself, the military must now push the issue to conclusion.
‘It [the army] entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one,’ Trager continued.
‘The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.’
Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church in Cairo disagrees.
‘We witnessed bloodshed on our streets, vandalism and the deliberate destruction of churches and government buildings in lawless acts of revenge by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters,’ he said.
‘I appeal to everyone to avoid rushing to judge the authorities in Egypt.’
In attacking churches, though, Carr finds the Brotherhood playing into the hands of authorities – though society provides fertile ground.
‘We’ve seen for decades how you have one person with an agenda [to spark sectarian attacks] and then others are very happy to jump in,’ she said.
‘It doesn’t take much incitement from the Brotherhood or anyone else.’
Yet the authorities, she finds, are not innocent.
‘It is no good to go to conspiracy theories, but why did you break up the sit-in and not protect churches?’ she asks. ‘What should we conclude?’
The conclusion is a morass of relativity, reflective of a polarized society without diffused solidarities that make commentary meaningful.
‘The number of police killed is almost insignificant,’ said Kamal, ‘compared to the two thousand killed and ten thousand injured on our side.
‘This confirms our peacefulness.’