This week’s editorial reviews the report
published by al-‘Utayfī in 1972 following the al-Khankah sectarian events and
comments on whether any of the report’s recommendations were carried out.
Article 2 of this week’s issue is
a translation of the report by Dr. Jamāl al-‘Utayfī on the al-Khankah sectarian events.
Although the report was written shortly after the incidents in 1972 Dr. Tareq Heggy, member of the AWR board of
advisers, believed that translating the report into English would help non-Arabic readers to see that many of the
recommendations made in this report were in fact never carried out. The al-Khankah events took place in November
1972 and center around a primitive building that was used for performing prayers and church services but that did
not have an official permit. According to the report, on November 6, 1972 the building was partially burned but
no perpetrator was identified by the public prosecution. Following that incident, six days later, around 400
Christians in priests and deacons garbs headed for the burned building to hold a church service. Once there, the
group erected speakers and held a church service without any major disturbances. However that night when Muslims
found out about the service, they went to the streets and gathered at the Sultān al-Ashraf mosque, regarding
the church service of that morning as a provocation and a challenge. They headed for the local police station in
a procession. In the hours that followed, houses were set on fire and people were injured but thankfully no one
died, a number of people however, both Muslim and Christian, were detained by the police.
The report is
around twenty pages long and presents the findings of a fact-finding committee that President al-Sādāt
requested and was then headed by Dr. Jamāl al-‘Utayfī, the deputy speaker of the People’s
Assembly. The report deals with the background to the incidents as well as the facts themselves and then
supplies three reasons for the al-Khankah incidents along with recommendations for stopping such incidents from
occurring in the future.
The first reason for the events which is outlined by the report is the licensing
of church building. The report comments that a system should be devised for establishing churches and this would
help to stop the appearance of churches without permits which can then often lead to disputes and conflicts in
the local community. The report’s committee also proposed that a plan should be put in place for simplifying the
procedures for licensing churches.
Secondly, the report commented on proselytizing and missionary
activities that take place in Egypt and called for freedom of belief to be respected. It added that religious
education has become an essential subject in the school curriculum and that the opportunity should be given for Copts to
regularly receive religion lessons.
Finally, the report stated that the publication of religious books
that insult other faiths had become a problem in Egyptian society with both sides, Coptic and Muslim, complaining
about books that touch on each other's faiths. The report recommended that the Ministry of Culture and
Information develop a system for censuring religious books, without such censuring being used as a tool in the face of freedom of scientific research.
All of the recommendations included in the report are
sound ideas and the committee did a good job of presenting what appears to be a balanced and unbiased
portrayal of events. However, it is interesting to note with hindsight how many of the recommendations were not
carried out. For example, debate still rages on to this day about a unified law for houses of worship and it
continues to be one of the main issues that incites sectarian friction around the country. The three explanations
that the report puts forward as direct reasons for the incidents still play a role in sectarian incidents. Thus
it seems that while the report did a good job of putting ideas out into the public forum and discussing the root
causes of the tensions, many of the recommendations it proposed were not carried out and in fact could still be
written in reports today. The report now serves as an important historic document about one of the first major
famous sectarian incidents in Egypt, which in itself is not a bad thing however one has to wonder whether if the
recommendations suggested by the report had been further investigated or implemented it would have helped to stop
some of the sectarian events that have taken place since the al-Khankah incidents in 1972.