Tensions rarely ever occur at random. In the past several years I have had many interviews that demonstrate the history of tensions that exists as reported in various media or by political activists. Yet this information rarely reaches the public, leaving readers with a very flat, and therefore incorrect, image of what happened. Many of these interviews were cited in Arab-West Report, but not all, simply for a lack of time. It is not just a matter of conducting an interview, but when working out a text, one discovers questions which require further calls to fill in gaps. This needs time and became the main reason why my March 25th interview with lawyer Bāsim Majdī Greis, a lawyer from ‘Ātfīh, remained incomplete. Still, the blacklist of Dutch MP, Raymond de Roon provided me with the needed stimulus to work out my notes in a text for AWR, mentioning the questions that I still have.
The story of ‘Ātfīh is important because of the role of the Egyptian army, who stood idle at the burning of the church in March 2011. After the burning, however, the army did indeed rebuild the church within a very short time. See this article for an overview of articles about ‘Ātfīh.
The following are notes from interviews with Bāsim on March 25th and October, 2011:
“The story concerns the Mar Mina church in Sūl, 44 km north of Beni Suef, in the district of Saf. Sūl is about 5 km from ‘Ātfīh. There are, according to Bāsim Majdī Greis, around 7,000 Christians in the village.”
“The story begins in 2000, with 'Ayād Fakhrī, a Christian businessman, who raised chickens. He wanted to build a church in his village, but it is difficult to obtain permits to build a church and 'Ayād knew this would result in resistance from local Muslims. Thus, he began to build a place to raise chickens. The building for chickens was exceptionally beautiful. ‘Of course it was intended to be transformed into a church at a certain moment in time,’ Majdī explained. He had contact with security who knew this would become a church and they unofficially agreed to this. This was not an uncommon occurrence in the days of Mubārak. Christians often resorted to tricks to build churches because the normal procedure involved many obstacles, especially when there is local opposition. Tricks include building factories, a house, or in Sūl, a place for chickens that later, once completed, would suddenly become a church.”
“'Ayād assumed that he was in the clear after having received the unofficial support of security officers but, one night in July of 2000 he learned that he was mistaken. A group of men had secretly cut the electricity and as 'Ayād drove up to the building they killed him, shooting him at least 70 times. The church in Sūl was nevertheless completed in exchange for the closing of the investigation into the 'Ayād’s death later that year.”
“The next problem occurred in Sūl in 2008 when a Christian man named Majdī began a relationship with a Muslim woman. They had an 'Urfī marriage, an unofficial marriage conducted with only a few witnesses. When the information became public it was condemned by local Muslims as, according to Islamic law, a Christian man is not permitted to marry a Muslim woman, regardless of the type wedding. Majdī later fled the village with two other men and no one has heard of his whereabouts since.”
“In 2011, another Christian man developed a physical relationship with another Muslim woman from the same extended family. Father Balamun said that an 'Urfī reconciliation meeting resulted in the three involved Christian families having to leave the village.”
Bāsim was very explicit in calling the behavior of Majdī and the other Christian young man wrong.
“All Christians know the potential consequences of such relations, but they hoped that the 'Urfī reconciliation meeting had ended the tensions. That soon turned to be a wrong presumption.”
“There were several disputes between different members of the same Muslim family resulting in a fight in which the girl’s father and cousin were killed. The village was quiet until 9PM on the evening of the church burning, but beneath the surface the people were seething over the death of the two Muslim members of the family.”
“The two Muslims were buried outside the village, but since Muslims had made accusations that Christians were responsible, they asked the army for protection. Some soldiers accompanied them to the burial with two fire trucks.”
“On Friday night the army, several fire trucks, and an ambulance were all present at the church. When the attack occurred they all stood idly by and did nothing. Father Hosha and deacon 'Ayād watched in tears, powerless to thwart the atrocities in front of them.”
“The church was burned down and the army still did nothing to remedy the situation. There was thus nothing left to do but to make our voice heard at the TV building in Maspero. Around 150,000 people assembled at 'Abd al-Mon'im Riād square (between Tahrīr and Maspero). CTV reported this in a program called “fil Nūr” with Ihāb Subhī.”
“The army promised to rebuild the church before Easter. This promise amounted to merely words. Until now they have done nothing [CH: we now know that these were not empty promises. The army did indeed rebuild the church]. Then Salafi sheikh Muhammad Hassān, based in Cairo, went to Sūl.”
“Houses of Christians were burned. Christians were expelled from the village. Shops of Christians were burned. The pharmacy of Dr. George was burned. They also expelled Christians from their homes. The army was there and did nothing.”
“Not all Muslim families were against Christians, but the Hassanīyah and the al-Najār clans in particular were responsible for the acts. These were the clans to which the Christian men who were involved with the girls belonged.”
“This was baltaga behavior—looting. I do not know why the army did not interfere.”
“Muslims in the village were provoked to act against Christians through the spreading of certain rumors.
Claims were that:
- They are using a language of witchcraft – this was their way of speaking about the Coptic language.
- They said that Copts drink alcohol during prayers – this is their way of speaking about the barakat wine used during the Holy Communion.
- They say that Christian women are not properly dressed (not veiled).
These claims show that they do not understand the church.
Wā’il Hassan, a Muslim lawyer and friend of AWR responded that day:
“I believe the soldiers in ‘Ātfīh did not act because there was no officer with them to give them instructions.”
He said that on January 28th people in 'Izbit Abū Qarn, a district in Old Cairo, burned the local council building. They stole everything they could get, even iron bars. The looters took computers, sofas, chairs, just anything they could get. The army sent two tanks to protect the area. These people were very violent, they also attacked stores.
“A few days after the attack they tried to rob jewelry stores in the area and shot and killed four soldiers. These men were soldiers, not officers. The army waited a few hours before they came in and returned fire.”
For Wā’il this meant that local soldiers have no authority and cannot act without the instructions of an officer. He suspects this was the reason why the soldiers did nothing when the church burned.
On March 31st, I asked Dr. 'Abd al-Mu’tī Bayūmī, professor of Usūl al-Dīn at the Azhar and former dean of the Usūl al-Dīn college for his reading of the burning of the church in Sūl:
“Because Egypt is not ruled by law, laws are not implemented and things spiral out of hand. The attack on the church would not have happened if the law had been applied and if the young man would have been punished. Since there is a state of lawlessness, people take things into their own hands. Bishop Basantī once said that if Christians wanted to, they should be able to build a church on each street, but building a church is changing the way an area appears and this is what many Salafis object.”
Samīr Marqus, Coptic author and, since August 2011, deputy governor of Cairo, said on April 2nd:
“The army said that rebuilding the church in ‘Ātfīh is not possible unless Salafi leader Muhammad Hassān gives a press conference stating that rebuilding the church is in accordance with sharī’ah. It never happened before that a religious fatwa was needed before a church could be built. It shows that the military are seeking the help of Salafis in ruling the country in different ways.”
This is not an indication of Islamist influence in the army, but of a weak army that needs Islamists to rule the country.
Bishop Munīr Hannā of the Episcopal Bishop of Egypt, April 2nd:
“When the burning took place we were with a group of people in my office (in Cairo) on the phone with people in Sūl. I am a former army officer and soldiers do communicate with their superiors and they could have called their superiors. After the burning, the army brought people together for an 'Urfī reconciliation. They do not want to apply the law because if the law would be applied then the perpetrators would need to be punished and the army knows this will not please local people.”
The church burning of Sūl, ‘Ātfīh, was preceded by tensions about church-building and illegal relations that violated Islamic law. Christians knew these illegal relationships could cause serious tensions and worked hard to find an 'Urfī settlement, which worked with some Muslims in the village, but not with others.