FaithWorld

Egypt’s new religious fervour breeds ghetto mentality

egypt koranA wave of religious fervour and a backlash by secular liberals has left some ordinary Egyptians feeling like strangers in their own country, and civil rights activists warn of a dangerous drift into sectarianism.

Banker Hussein Khalil says organising something as simple as an evening out with friends has turned into a headache. (Photo: Koran held up at protest rally, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

“These days in Egypt, either you go out with people who are very strict and agree not to go anywhere that serves alcohol, or you go out with others who just want to get drunk,” said the 27-year-old. “Moderates are unable to enjoy their lives… We’re under pressure to join one of the two extremes.”

Egypt’s legal system is based on Islamic sharia law yet the country has a large Christian minority and the state has sought since independence to cement national identity by promoting an ideal of citizenship that transcends religious affiliation.

Religious observance was seen widely as a matter of personal conscience until the 1980s, when growing numbers of Egyptians started working in Saudi Arabia and began promoting the strict Islamic ways back home.

Egypt stops TV channels, Islamic trend seen a target

satellite dishesEgypt has temporarily shut 12 satellite channels and warned 20 others for reasons ranging from insulting religions to broadcasting pornography, although an analyst said the real target seemed to be strict Islamic trends.

The government last week tightened TV broadcast rules, a move critics said was part of a crackdown on independent media before a parliament election in November and a presidential poll next year. Four channels were closed. The government denied any political motivation. (Photo: Satellite dishes, 3 April 2004/Jack Dabaghian)

Analysts said the latest decision to temporarily shut the satellite channels and warn others, announced late on Tuesday, seemed to be mainly to stop the spread of strict Islamic Salafi teaching that might boost support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt Christians say intolerance grows, close ranks

coptsMinarets and church towers mingle on Cairo’s skyline, but tensions mar Egypt’s record of religious coexistence and a perception of growing intolerance is leading some Christians to shun their Muslim compatriots.

Amira Helmy, from a middle-class area of the capital, was brought up by a Muslim neighbour after her mother died and attended a state school alongside Muslim children. “Most of my friends were Muslims. We used to go on outings together and some would call to me from below my house so we could walk to school,” recalls Helmy with a smile. (Photo: Leader of Egypt’s Copts, Pope Shenouda (C), with fellow clergymen,June 8, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

Now a housewife in her 40s, she sends her daughter Christine and son Kirollos to a private Christian school and forbids them from mingling with Muslim children to protect them from insults. Around a tenth of Egypt’s 78 million people are Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts — descendents of Christian communities that founded monasticism in the early centuries after Jesus.

Wind could have parted Red Sea for Moses: U.S. report

moses 1Moses might not have parted the Red Sea, but a strong east wind that blew through the night could have pushed the waters back in the way described in biblical writings and the Koran, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

Computer simulations, part of a larger study on how winds affect water, show wind could push water back at a point where a river bent to merge with a coastal lagoon, the team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder said. (Image: Israel’s Escape from Egypt on a 1907 Bible card)

“The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus,” Carl Drews of NCAR, who led the study, said in a statement. “The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in.”

NYPD interfaith Holy Land tour, a different kind of New York religion story

nypd 5 croppedThere used to be a television series about the New York Police Department that ended with the voiced-over sign-off: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” We’ve been hearing mostly about only one of the religion stories in New York these days, the controversy surrounding the planned Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site. On a recent visit to New York, I had the pleasure of hearing a very different type of New York story when I interviewed the NYPD officers who led the unusual interfaith tour of the Holy Land described in my feature here. (Photo: From left – Miller, Nasser, Wein and Reilly at interfaith center in Israel)

I met Sgt. Brian Reilly, Detective Ahmed Nasser and Detective Sam Miller at Reilly’s Lower East Side office and spoke to Detective Larry Wein by phone because he was out investigating a case. The Lower East Side has traditionally been so diverse that it’s almost tailor-made for the kind of interfaith cooperation they highlighted with this trip. “I’ve worked here in the Lower East Side and East Village for 29 years and been exposed to people from all over the world,” said Miller, who is Jewish. “It’s just a melting pot of every race, religion and ethnicity.” The NYPD reflects the city’s diversity, he said:  “This is the most diversified police department in the world. I’m an investigator. When we need a translator, I don’t have to go outside. We have members of the service who can speak any language in the world.”

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Reilly is commanding officer of the NYPD chaplains’ unit (4 Catholics, 2 Protestants, 1 Jewish and 1 Muslim) but these men are not chaplains themselves. Instead, they are leaders in faith-based fraternal organizations for NYPD officers. The Holy Land tour was a completely private initiative. “We weren’t working on somebody’s suggestion,” explained Reilly, a Roman Catholic. “We paid it all ourselves. There was a price for the tour and people decided to go or not. We’re fraternal organizations and we decide how to run our yearly trip.”

Liberal Koran expert Nasr Abu Zayd dies in Egypt, after exile

zaydNasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Koranic scholar declared an apostate for challenging mainstream Muslim views on the holy book, died on Monday in a Cairo hospital, aged 66.  Abu Zayd held a liberal, critical approach to Islamic teachings that angered some Muslim conservatives in his homeland in the 1990s, a decade when President Hosni Mubarak’s government was combating an uprising by armed Islamic militants.

Abu Zayd critiqued the use of religion to exert political power. He argued the Koran was both a literary and religious text which clashes with Islamic teaching which sees the holy book as the final revelation of God.  His approach challenged Egypt’s mainstream Islamic thinkers and popular sentiment in a country where conservative Islamic trends have been on the rise, reflected in part by the prevalence of the Islamic veil. (Photo: Nasr Abu Zayd/ University for Humanistics)

“I am anti-dogma,” he told Reuters in 2008. “It’s a meaning produced by humans, and I don’t find that I am going outside the domain of religion if I challenge this dogma.”

Egypt prepares new marriage and divorce law for non-Muslims

coptEgypt will draft a new law to govern marriage and divorce for non-Muslims, a state newspaper reported, a move analysts see as an attempt to contain anger after a court overruled the Coptic Orthodox Church last month.

Egypt’s Coptic church has long called for changes to the country’s personal status laws, which say Islamic rules on marriage and divorce prevail except in cases where both husband and wife are non-Muslims and from the same religious denomination. Under the current law, for instance, a Catholic husband with a Coptic wife could be subject to Islamic law.

“The Egyptian Minister of Justice Mamdouh Marie has decided to form a committee to prepare a personal draft law for Christians and non-Muslims,” the state-run al-Akhbar newspaper reported, adding it would take 30 days.

Egypt’s moderate Islamic TV extends reach with new languages

azhar (Photo: Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, 10 March 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s al-Azhar’s satellite channel that seeks to promote moderate Islam launched four language services to extend its reach to millions of Muslims worldwide, its designers said on Sunday.

Al-Azhar, one of the oldest seats of Sunni Islamic learning, will target viewers in English, French, Urdu and Pashto besides its now running Arabic programs, in a renewed effort to further U.S. President Barak Obama’s call for greater religious tolerance.  The station was launched to coincide with Obama’s visit to Cairo in mid-2009 and his call for better ties between the Muslim world and the United States.

“There is a wide open market for religious moderation on the airwaves,” said Sheikh Khaled El Gendy, Azhar religious scholar and one of the channel’s content developers.  “We are competing with voices of intolerance for the attention and loyalty of young people,” said Gendy, who hosts a live call-in program for viewers struggling with the interpretation of Islam to seek guidance.

Egypt court says Copts can remarry, church objects

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Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, December 11, 2005/Tara Todras-Whitehill

An Egyptian court has ruled that divorced Copts have the right to remarry, contradicting the church’s position and undermining its efforts to maintain its authority over the Christian community in Muslim-majority Egypt.

Saturday’s administrative court decision was prompted by a rare intervention by Pope Shenouda, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, who launched an appeal by the church against another court ruling made in March 2008 that had approved the request by the two divorced men to remarry.

Egyptian Christians want action on “insulting” novel

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Egyptian Copts celebrate the Feast of Assumption in Dronka, 400 km (310 miles) south of Cairo on August 21, 2008/Amr Dalsh

Egyptian Christians have called for government action against the author of a widely read novel they say insults Christianity, in an unusual case that puts freedom of expression in Muslim-majority Egypt under fresh scrutiny.  Government investigators are looking into the complaint filed by a group of Egyptian and some foreign Copts against Youssef Ziedan, a Muslim who wrote the 2008 award-winning novel Azazeel (Beelzebub).

Azazeel, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, backed by the Booker Prize Foundation, tells the story of a 5th-century Egyptian monk who witnesses debates over doctrine between early Christians. Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer, said the author insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history … He is not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”