Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Riots in Alexandria...and student response

Many of you probably heard about the riots in Alexandria near the end of October. To give you a synopsis, a DVD recording of a performance of “I Was Blind But Now I See,” a play performed in a church in 2003, was circulating in Alex. The play is about a young Copt, Mina, who is persuaded to convert to Islam by the emir of an Islamic group. He is promised a flat, a wife, and better living conditions, so he converts and adopts the name Taha. He soon becomes disillusioned with the emir’s hypocrisy and decides to leave. Before he is gunned down, he reaches his family’s home, crawls to the doorstep, and is embraced and forgiven by his family.

As the film circulated the word spread quickly, and more than 5,000 demonstrators gathered at Mar Girgis church to protest the play and demand an apology from church leaders. On 19 October a nun was stabbed on the steps of Mar Girgis. When church leaders would not apologize (perhaps less inclined to after the attack against the nun), the demonstrators moved on to other churches and started attacking Coptic-owned businesses. By 22 October 16 shops in the area had been damaged, two more people had been killed, more than 100 injured, and at least 105 detained. It was the worse outbreak of sectarian violence and tension since 2000.

Questions are being asked about the timing of the DVD’s “discovery.” There is speculation that the unrest might provide the government with a justification for extending emergency law. Some have said the violence is an attempt by Islamic extremists to tarnish the image of Maher Khalla, one of two Copts who is running in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Khalla withdrew from the elections on 22 October, saying he wants to avoid the recurrence of violence.

Thankfully, many people are looking for a bright future and are angry at the media for heightening tensions between religious groups. One man said, “People threw rocks and garbage. Why? For what? Ignorance. Really, this is nothing but ignorance. The man who attacked the nun hadn’t even watched the DVD. This is barbaric.” Another man said, “This isn’t going to stop me from associating with my Muslim friends…in this neighborhood, we—Copts and Muslims—live together. We share the same hardships. It’s inconceivable that a problem like this should tear us apart.” (Cairo Magazine, Issue 29.)

In light of this, I decided to talk with my conversation class about what it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt. Keep in mind these are the opinions of my class of Coptic Christians (with their own bias) and do not reflect society as a whole!
When I asked the class about Christian/Muslim relations I heard the following:
**It already takes years to get permission to fix something in a church (because the government has to “okay” it), but it is better than it was before. In the past, when a church was built, a larger mosque would be build next to it.
**The media is Islamic. Every TV channel stops the program during prayer time, and all but one actually recites the prayers on the TV.
**Some employers give the Christians a harder time at work just because they are Christian (again, this could just be opinion!)
**Christians feel the pressure to fast along with the Muslims out of respect for them. Employers are not good about keeping filtered water available for their Christian staff during Ramadan.
**All the students say they have Muslim friends, but they avoid the topic of religion. If they must talk about religion, they talk about their own and do not condemn the others. If they tried to question each other they would lose the friendship.
**Christians often have to work on their Sabbath day—Sunday—so most Christian church now offer a (generally larger) Friday service. Some can go to church on Sunday but are then expected at work afterwards.
**YES!!! One man said, “It’s important to not protect our religion by hating the other or saying they are wrong. Instead, we must go back to the bible and share it and ourselves with each other.”
**Most Christians want private education because they think the public system is biased for Islam. In public schools one of the most important subjects is Arabic Studies in which students study Arabic poetry, grammar, and the Koran. Christians don’t like it because they are forced to memorize Koran prayers and recite them. They are tested on this.
**There has been more freedom of expression in Egypt in the past five years than ever before. Ten years ago they couldn’t speak out against the government. Now they can (although they joke that no one listens anyway). I asked them, “What changed?” Their answer was America. America has been pressuring President Mubarak to move to a democratic government and for many Egyptians this has been a great thing.
**I also heard a lot of people say that among the educated, there are no major problems between Muslims and Christians. Muslim woman are best friends with Christian women and religion is never an issue.


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