Christian-Muslim Brotherhood dialogue is much needed to reduce tensions but where are the leaders willing to engage in this?

Sent On: 
Fri, 2013-07-19
Newsletter Number: 

MEMRI published a report on July 17 stating that following the ouster of Egyptian President, Muhammad Morsi (Mursī), the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood began accusing the Copts in Egypt, along with their supporters, of being behind his removal – which they call “the June 30 coup” – and of playing a central role in the protests that led to it. The Muslim Brotherhood is basing these claims on the fact that when Egyptian Defense Minister Al-Sisi announced that Morsi had been removed, Coptic Patriarch, Tawadros II, had been standing at Al-Sisi's side.


Previously, I had responded to questions of the British Catholic publication, The Tablet, that I did not see wisdom in Patriarch Tawadros’ decision to do so. But the Pope was not alone. Also Azhar Shaykh, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, was attending this television broadcasted meeting which was supposed to indicate broad communal support for this move of the Egyptian army.


Maged Atiya, who is blogging under the name “Salamamoussa”, had his own reservations. In his blog on July 3 he concluded, "The unseating of former President Morsi is as difficult to condemn as it is to condone." That is a much better formulation then all those who flatly denied it was a coup d’état. The army had its reasons and catapulted a civilian to the presidential chair, but it nevertheless was an army intervention.


I sent Maged Atiya my comments about Pope Tawadros to The Tablet and expressed my concerns about the very extreme anti-Muslim Brotherhood voices one frequently hears in Christian circles. I understand that there are deep fears and concerns but expressing anti-Brotherhood sentiments publicly can only result in a backlash from Brothers against Christians.


Maged wrote in his response on July 7: “I don't support Church involvement in politics, and I winced a bit on seeing Pope Tawadros at the news conference [of al-Sisi]. I don't know why he did that, as he must have known the risks for individual members of his flock. Perhaps he felt the Morsi government was too dangerous for Egypt and the Church and he needed to make a clear stand. Was he coerced as you suggested as a possibility? I don't know. I do know that Coptic Popes are not known for yielding to coercion, as Emperors, Sultans and even US Ambassadors, have come to realize.


That said, Copts have often believed that it is best not to be involved in politics because it will backfire on them. There is some truth to that. It is also true than non-involvement has not worked. So which would you choose if both carried risks: full citizenship response, or making yourself half a citizen.


It is true that most Copts are anti-Muslim Brother, but no more so than many Egyptians, perhaps a majority. I am anti-Muslim Brother. I don't de-humanize the Muslim Brotherhood members. I do think they are totalitarians. I also think the group frequently lies, and individuals within it don't object to this, at least not publicly. Keeping quiet about their abuses will not make it easier for the Copts. Essam El Haddad, who is one of the more decent members, met with you, said nice things about the Copts, then when the Cathedral was attacked on April 7 effectively tried to shift the blame onto the Coptic mourners. Is this trustworthy behavior?”


Here I wonder whether Maged Atiya got it right. Were El-Haddad’s comments placed in their proper context? I was in a meeting of the Wafd Party where Coptic Wafd leader, Mounir Fahry Abdel Nour, who was today named Minister of Commerce and Foreign Industry, blasted Dr. Essam el-Haddad for his statements. I know the new Minister well, but I am not so certain if he had been informed about Coptic activist, Naguib Gibriel, making his anti-Islamic statements at the Cathedral which preceded the violence that later was reported and that Essam El-Haddad appeared to play down. Violence is very often the outcome of a chain of events which both Muslims and Christians can often escalate. It is unfortunately also true that Christians at times manipulate information in order to gain sympathy from a Western public while Muslims at times have responded with excessive violence.


I am questioning whether El-Haddad’s statements were well thought out. I am questioning whether people making statements had access to all details of what had happened. Of course I do not know, but I do know both leaders and do not doubt their sincerity; they both have done what they believed to be right.


Maged Atiya continues in his response to me: “Finally to your point as to whether public words will endanger Copts. It is likely they will. What does it say about the Muslim Brothers, with which you urge a dialog, that criticizing it with words, even harsh ones, will elicit a response with fire and bullets? What should the dialog be? Please spare our lives, when you see fit, in exchange for servitude? I say that with some pain, as I am safe in America, and I am fully aware of the terrors that less fortunate Copts face in the isolated villages where they might be a minority surrounded by a hostile majority. I say that my silence has not and will not protect them, while my speaking out may get the world to pay attention and seek redress. Perhaps I should ask people like you to join me in calling a spade a spade. We all need to bear testament.” 


I agree. I do not believe Copts should not go public, but they should do so wisely. This requires first trying to understand the motives of the other and accepting some self-critique on their own side if this is needed. If those efforts are made then voicing their concerns publicly could be more convincing to Muslims. I know Copts, such as Bishop Musa, who are very capable of doing this, but the great majority of Coptic activists are very emotional and in their emotional responses are also not always very rational and self-restrained.


I respect the way Atiya goes public and voices his concerns. On July 12, he participated in a BBC discussion on the political crisis in Egypt and made some good contributions:

I have, however, great difficulties with MEMRI’s method of reporting. It most often is factual, but also selective. Their report on the Muslim Brotherhood views on the Copts is an example of this. They highlight opinions that exist but that, if distributed among Copts who have had no personal relations with Muslim Brothers, also create deep fear and even hate.


In their dispatch of July 17 titled, “Muslim Brotherhood: The Copts are behind the Egyptian Military Coup That Removed Mursi,” they highlightanti-Christian statements of members of the Brotherhood.  Muslim Brotherhood protestors “accused the Copts of fomenting a revolution against Islam; some of them chanted ‘No to the Crusader revolution.’ In addition, media close to the Muslim Brotherhood published articles inciting against Egypt's Copts.”


MEMRI also reports that Coptic Christians “are claiming that since the January 25, 2011 revolution, and particularly since Mursi became president, the violence perpetrated against them by various Islamic elements including the MB has been steadily rising. It is reported that during Mursi's single year in office, over 200,000 Copts fearing for their lives have fled Egypt for Europe, and that since June 30 of this year violence against Copts and Coptic property, including arson against churches, has spiked.”


It is evident what MEMRI is doing: highlighting a combination of anti-Christian statements with the claim that violence against Christians increased since Morsi became president. Both are true if taken as two separate statements, but one cannot link both statements as if no other factors played a role. President Morsi has not been able to get the Egyptian police under his control and thus has also not been able to create law and order. In this state of lawlessness Christians have certainly suffered.

Other Egyptians have so as well, but Christians likely to a larger degree.


MEMRI also claimed over 200,000 Copts fearing for their lives fled. As we have earlier seen with the number of emigrants, Naguib Gibrail claimed those were highly exaggerated (see Jaco Stoop, Arab-West Report, 2012). Copts try to emigrate, probably in a greater ratio than Muslims.


I have asked numerous Copts who emigrated for the reasons they were planning to leave Egypt. I have yet to meet someone who felt personally insecure or threatened, but all voiced great fear for the (economic) future of Egypt. I cannot blame them. Egypt has been on a downward economic spiral. There is considerable insecurity in the streets and thus if one is able to leave why should they not?


The way MEMRI formulated this was only to add fear among non-Muslims to the already existing fear of a wide non-Muslim audience.


Violence has undoubtedly increased in the Sinai Peninsula and the escalation of militant activity there. A priest in al-Arish was killed. A Copt was beheaded by gunmen. But reporting this followed by a quote from human rights activist, Naguib Gabriel: “ethnic cleansing and organized slaughter,” only adds to the growing fear among Coptic Christians. It is true that the situation in Sinai is very grave for Christians living here. But when I called Father Yo’annis from Qufada, a village near Maghagha in the governorate of Minia, he said that it was calm in his village. Yet, in Maghagha and Minia were Brotherhood demonstrations that created fear among Christians. I also know from other villages in Upper Egypt that they are calm. Violence is usually on limited locations. In Maghagha the Egyptian railways, for example, have been blocked, an effort to disrupt life of fellow citizens as much as possible.


The statements of some Muslim Brotherhood members are indeed shocking. Dr. Hilmi Al-Qa'oud wrote on the Muslim Brotherhood website about “The Military Republic of Tawadros,” claiming that the Coptic Orthodox Church was behind the military coup against Morsi. He wrote, in a translation made by MEMRI: “The Church is unsettled since the January [2011] revolution, and since the Islamic movement emerged on the scene and garnered massive popular support by elections and by referendums. Accordingly, [the Church] openly and secretly led the process of opposition to the Islamic stream and this stream's rise to power. [The Church] gathered around itself the secular minorities – Communists, Nasserites, liberals, opportunists, and mercenaries – in addition to [its] advance rebel force, established by [the late Coptic patriarch] Shenouda [III] in the form of what he called youth movements or human rights activist [corps]... and they are joined by the traitor rebels from the diaspora, who [in July 2011] declared the establishment of the independent Coptic state.”


The article of Al-Qa’oud is definitely inciting. It is not true that the Church led the opposition to the Islamic stream. But it is true that many Copts feel safer with Egyptian anti-Brotherhood secularists.


The claim of Copts wanting to establish an independent Coptic state has been used since the 1970s to incite Islamists against Copts. It is true that some Coptic activists in the West have advocated this, but even among Copts in the countries of emigration they have very, very little support. Thus statements of Coptic radicals are used to make unjustified generalized claims about the Copts which, in this generalization, are simply not true.


Al-Qa’oud: “They all sang the praises of the civil state, and attacked the religious – that is, Islamic – state. The satanic propaganda machine led by the mercenaries demonized the Islamic stream and portrayed it as having failed... Since the Islamic stream refrained from acting against this disgraceful crime, out of self-respect and [with the aim of] preserving the homeland, and also because it has few media outlets, many believed the rumors and lies that were spread... [and came to see] the Islamic majority as a Satan that must be stoned by all possible means. It is this that led to the military coup.”


It is true that there has been a lot of anti-Brotherhood propaganda to instill deep fear against the Brothers. Just as Muslim Brothers can misuse the statements of some Coptic radicals for propaganda anti-Brotherhood-Egyptians can be very misleading and manipulative in presenting Brotherhood views.  Deep polemics between Muslim Brothers and anti-Islamists have resulted in a propaganda war whereby it is very often difficult to determine the truth. This neither serves the Brothers nor their opponents.


Yet, there is a difference between both parties. The Muslim Brotherhood is well-organized and has a strong hierarchical structure. It is thus very unlikely Al-Qa’oud wrote his poison without the green light of his superiors who might have even asked him to engage in this war of propaganda.


Al-Qa’oud: “In recent days, the Church has praised the mercenary Tamarud movement, with [Coptic Patriarch] Tawadros expressing his happiness over its existence and over the June 30 protests by secularists and by sectarian [elements, i.e. the Copts], and encouraged [the Copts] to participate in them. Likewise, Christian satellite TV channels ceaselessly incited [their viewers]against the Muslim president [Mursi] and the Islamic movement. [Thus, for example] a female Christian rebel broadcaster declared, 'Christ's blood must fill the squares,' and sectarian rebels claimed that Islam would end on June 30 and that they would never accept shari'a rule.”


I doubt that the church as an institution has praised the Tamarod Movement. I also doubt that Pope Tawadros has made public statements in support of this movement. But no doubt individual Christians have been explicit in their support for the Tamarod Movement, but the Church as an institution? That sounds highly unlikely in view of the Church traditionally refraining from involving in politics except from leaders turning up if the ruling authority asks them to do so as might have happened in the case of Pope Tawadros’ attendance during General al-Sisi’s statement of ousting President Morsi.


Al-Qa’oud is furious about Pope Tawadros’ attendance: “At the meeting where a coup was decided on to remove the Muslim president, Muhammad Mursi, Tawadros stood before the military commander of the coup and praised the move. With that tragic scene, and with his gloating, he showed the world that it was the Church that had decided to put an end to the Islamic rule and even to humiliate the first Muslim president, who was elected by the Egyptian people in clean democratic elections...”


It is of course not true that the Church had decided to oust President Morsi. Only the military could have made that decision.  Blaming the Church is, of course, only intended to incite Muslim-Brothers against Christians.


Al-Qa’oud: “The Church is opposed to Islam and to the Muslims. Its traitorous stance is understandable – but what cannot be understood are those who belong to Islam, who have turbans or beards [that is, Al-Azhar and the Salafis]. How can they agree with the military's crime against the homeland, against Islam, and against the Muslims? ...”


“During [his] 40 years [as Coptic patriarch], Shenouda failed to eliminate the Islamic movement, despite all the assistance he received from the tyrant [Mubarak], [and also despite] the illegal permits obtained by the patriarch and his [Coptic] sect for building churches, the special laws that stand above Islamic laws, the irregular hiring, and the using of the media and the press to support the sectarian rebellion and to justify this preferential treatment [for the Copts] that was obtained through force, despite [the wishes of] the people.”


Al-Qa’oud shows here what he thinks of Pope Shenouda who, in the 1970s, indeed has acted as an activist and firebrand pope trying to reduce the influence of Islamists in the days of President Sadat, but did he ever try to “eliminate” the Islamic movement? Pope Shenouda has always been realistic enough to know that Islamists in Egyptian society are a permanent fixture. He has met with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to reduce tensions. It is true that Pope Shenouda has exerted pressures on the Egyptian government to get churches built, but if there would have been a fair law for building houses of worship and clear transparent rules for implementing such a law, that would not have happened.


Al-Qa’oud: “[Shenouda's] replacement [Tawadros] is following in his predecessor's footsteps, and is striving to eradicate Islam in Egypt completely – in education, in the media, in legislation, in the economy, and in public life. Since taking up his post as the head of the Church, he has successfully recruited conscience-free individuals with Muslim names with the aim of defaming Islam and fighting the Islamic stream. The young people of the Church have succeeded in forming militias under a variety of names that invest efforts in protesting, together with the criminal Black Bloc gangs, and in violent actions that include the use of Molotov cocktails and bullets...”


This is inciting. Many Christians would wish to see the Church have such an influence and power. The reference to individuals with Muslim names defaming Islam must be related to Muslim secularists who do not believe in God. No doubt there are Christian youth in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood Black Bloc, but there are also many Muslims. I am not able how anyone could determine any percentage of Christians in this gang.


Al-Qa’oud: “Today, Tawadros prides himself on his success in being the first leader of the Church to head [the group] that removed the Muslim president who memorized the entire Qur’an, prays in mosques, and hates oppression and tyranny. [Tawadros] is also proud that the coup's commander answers to his authority, his will, and his demands... It can be said that Tawadros is now the leader of the military republic that toppled the legitimate regime and the legitimate Muslim president... Will this situation persist?... I do not believe that the road ahead for Tawadros' military republic is [unobstructed], because both the Egyptian people and the times have changed [since the January 25 revolution].”  


The article of Al-Qa’oud is full of hate and provocation. It is dangerous because it encourages Muslim Brothers towards violence against Christians. We have already seen several examples of this.  Most likely mainly Christians who were not involved in polemics fall victim to such violence, where the preaching of hate victimizes those who are not political activists.


It is very challenging to break that negative spiral. Muslim Brothers are victims of the so-called “second revolution,” or counter-revolution or coup d’etat, descriptions that depend on one’s own political stance. Amnesty International recently presented a report about this:


Christians should realize that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to establish a government like that of Premier Erdogan of Turkey (that is what Muslim Brotherhood leaders I met liked to compare their dreams to) is very difficult for them. They had high dreams and expectations that are now shattered. Christians should not gloat at that.


Al-Qa’oud’s incitements, however, not only help create anti-Christian anger among the Brothers, but also strengthen anti-Brotherhood feelings among Christians. That negative spiral should be broken.


Today a new cabinet was formed. Among them are three Christian ministers. Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour is now Minister of Commerce and Foreign Industry—a very prominent position. He is certainly a capable minister, but he is also an outspoken opponent to Islamists. Despite all sympathies I have for him and knowing that he truly wants the best for all Egyptians, I nevertheless believe that because of his outspoken opposition to Islamists in a cabinet that was formed after the fall of President Morsi that this will not help to reduce tensions between Muslim Brothers and Christians.


Where are the leaders on both the Brotherhood and Christian side that could contribute to breaking that downhill spiral that only can lead to more death and anger?


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief, Arab-West Report

July 18, 2013