FaithWorld

Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring, some see no spring at all

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the period of interfaith unity on February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks. Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists — a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region’s now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes — have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

(Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib in Venice, 21 June 2011/Tom Heneghan)

“If things don’t change for the better, we’ll return to what was before, maybe even worse,” Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib said at a conference this week in Venice on the Arab Spring and Christian-Muslim relations. “But we hope that will not come about,” he told Reuters.

Egypt’s Sufis see post-Mubarak Islamist threat, consider launching own movement

(Egyptians dance to the music of a Sufi singer as they celebrate the birthday of Sayida Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, near her shrine in Cairo July 7, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

Down the narrow alleyways of Cairo’s Sayidda Zeinab neighbourhood, 100 men sway their heads and clap in rhythm as they invoke God’s name. “O how you have spread benevolence,” chant the men, some dressed in ankle-length galabeya robes, to celebrate the birth of Fatima al-Zahraa, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

The men are followers of the centuries-old Azaimiya Sufi order who seek to come closer to God through mystical rites. Some of the country’s estimated 15 million Sufis say their traditions are now threatened by various groups of Islamists elbowing for influence after the overthrow of Egypt’s veteran leader Hosni Mubarak. Some Islamists, such as the ultra-conservative Salafists, see Sufi practices such as the veneration of shrines as heresy.

Egyptian Christians worry their country is being hijacked by Salafists

(An Egyptian Christian chants slogans as he protests against recent attacks in front of the state television building in Cairo May 15, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh )

Last January, Nazih Moussa Gerges locked up his downtown Cairo law office and joined hundreds of thousands of fellow Egyptians to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down. The 33-year-old Christian lawyer was back on the streets this month to press military rulers who took over after Mubarak stepped down to end a spate of sectarian attacks that have killed at least 28 people and left many afraid. Those who camped out in Tahrir Square side by side with Muslims to call for national renewal now fear their struggle is being hijacked by ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists with no one to stop them.

“We did not risk our lives to bring Mubarak down in order to have him replaced by Salafists,” Gerges said. “We want an Egypt that will be an example of democracy and freedom for the whole world.”

Muslims rush to restore torched Egyptian church

(A Coptic Christian boy looks out of the Saint Mary Church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

Mohammed Fathi worked his brush gently over an icon of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, removing soot from its surface inside a church gutted in an attack by Islamist militants this month. “It takes a lot of careful work to do that,” Fathi said. “We have to do a lot of tests with chemicals to try to restore the icon to its original condition.”

The 26-year-old is one of a vast group of mostly Muslim craftsmen tasked with restoring St Mary’s Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba after militants set it on fire on May 7. Egypt’s military rulers have ordered its restoration at a time when tensions between Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and Muslims are on the rise. The ground floor of the four-storey church was gutted in the fire, destroying 10 out of 27 old icons beyond repair.

Sectarian strife tests Egypt’s post-Mubarak rulers

(A soldier stands guard near the Saint Mary church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

Egypt’s army rulers face a dilemma as a bolder stance adopted by Islamists in the post-Mubarak era is worsening sectarian tension and triggering demands for the kind of crackdown that made the former president so unpopular. Armed clashes between conservative Muslims and Coptic Christians left 12 dead in a Cairo suburb on Saturday, touching off angry protests by some of the capital’s residents who called for the army to use an “iron fist” against the instigators.

The violence has deepened fear among Christians, who complain of poor police protection and a new tolerance of Muslim extremists, raising the risk of new flashpoints in a country dogged by poverty, soaring prices and a faltering economy. Police deserted their posts during the January and February uprising against Mubarak. Many have returned but many Egyptians say that has failed to stop theft and violent crime spreading as Egypt looks ahead to its first free elections in September.

Egypt vows crackdown after 12 die in Christian-Muslim strife

(Soldiers stand guard near the Saint Mary church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

Egypt’s government announced measures to curb religious violence on Sunday after 12 people died in clashes in a Cairo suburb sparked by rumors that Christians had abducted a woman who converted to Islam. The fighting on Saturday was Egypt’s worst interfaith strife since 13 people died on March 9 after a church was burned, and it threw down a new challenge for generals ruling the country since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf canceled a tour of Gulf Arab states to chair a cabinet meeting where the government decided to deploy more security near religious sites and toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship.

Days of protest after Christian governor named in southern Egypt

()

(A Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, April 18, 2009/Tarek Mostafa)

Muslims in southern Egypt protested for a third day on Sunday over the appointment of a Christian governor, saying his predecessor, also a Christian, had failed to solve their problems. Thousands rallied outside the governor’s office in Qena and prevented employees from entering, blocked highways leading to the town and sat on a railway line into the province demanding that the appointment of Emad Mikhail be reversed.

Egypt’s interim military rulers, who took control when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising, selected Mikhail last week as one of several new appointments to replace officials associated with his autocratic regime. The protesters say Mikhail’s predecessor, Magdy Ayoub, failed to stem sectarian violence and address poverty and unemployment, which grew during his tenure. Witnesses say some Coptic Christians joined the protest as well.

“The experience of a Coptic governor has failed. There is no objection to his Coptic identity but the previous governor left a negative impression of Christian officials,” Youssef Ragab, a witness in Qena, told Reuters by telephone.

Egyptian army must stop shrine vandals-religious affairs ministry

()

(A resident looks at damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine at a mosque in Qalyoub, north of Cairo April 3, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Egypt’s religious affairs ministry has called on security forces to strike with “a hand of steel” to stop the vandalism of Sufi shrines targeted in attacks blamed on ultra-orthodox Muslims. An increase in attacks on shrines in Egypt is fuelling concern about the role that Islamists will play after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, who suppressed Islamist groups that he saw as a threat to his rule.

Scores of shrines have disappeared or were burnt down on the outskirts of Cairo weeks after Mubarak was toppled from power. The attacks have awoken old tensions between Sufis, followers of a mystical Islamic tradition to whom shrines are an important part of religious practice, and ultra-conservative Salafists, who see them as idolatrous.

Top Algerian Salafist’s fatwa says unrest is un-Islamic

fatwa

(A Salafist sheikh consults Islamic literature in Algiers, August 2, 2010/Louafi Larbi )

The spiritual leader of Algeria’s influential Salafist movement has issued a 48-page fatwa, or religious decree, urging Muslims to ignore calls for change because he says that democracy is against Islam. The fatwa by Sheikh Abdelmalek Ramdani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, comes at an opportune time for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as Algerians watching protests in other Arab states have begun pushing their own political and economic demands.

“As long as the commander of the nation is a Muslim, you must obey and listen to him. Those who are against him are just seeking to replace him, and this is not licit,” Ramdani wrote in the fatwa obtained by Reuters. “During unrest, men and women are mixed, and this is illicit in our religion,” said Ramdani, who claims several hundred thousand followers here.

Beard guide and song ban among Salafist books barred in Algeria

algeria salafi 2

(Photo: Customs officers inspect books purchased at an Islamic book fair in Algiers, searching for Salafist books, October 29, 2010/Zohra Bensemra)

Concerned by the growing influence of the ultra-conservative Salafist branch of Islam, Algeria has this year been cracking down on the import and distribution of Salafist literature. Salafist publications, most printed in Saudi Arabia, are still available in some specialist bookstores. See our feature on this crackdown here.

Following is a selection of titles on sale in a bookshop in Rouiba, an eastern suburb of the Algerian capital.