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March 17, 2011


On 5 March 2011, Muslims burned down the Coptic al-Shahidain (The Two Martyrs Church), in the Egyptian village of Sol which sits in the industrial province of Helwan, about two hours south of Cairo. Muslims were enraged after a Muslim woman was found to have fallen in love with a Christian man. The simple villagers, incited into hatred by their religious leaders, attacked the church, and destroyed it. The army, which runs Egypt since the departure of Mubarak on 11 February 2011, was called to action by the Copts, who hoped that the army would prevent the fanatic villagers escalating their attacks, and completing the demolition of the church.

To the disappointment of the Copts, the army unit which was dispatched to the village watched passively, while the villagers continued their attacks on the Copts and demolishing of the Church. The revered bones of the martyrs and saints were desecrated by the Muslims, and thrown in the streets. Copts were enraged everywhere, and thousands of them demonstrated at Maspero, the national TV building, for over a week, while clashes continued between Muslims and Christians, which ended in the loss of lives of 11 Egyptians. All this was happening which the army stood by.

The army, with Muhammad Hussain Tantawi, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, at its head, have shown in this event weakness and indecisiveness. Worse still, it waited for Muslim clerics, who are known to be fanatics and haters of Copts, such as Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, to give their religious opinion on the situation. At last, on 15 March 2011, 10 days after the church was burned down, the army started rebuilding the church. Later on, Muhammad Hassan said, the army was waiting all that time for a fatwā, a religious opinion concerning Islamic law issued by an Islamic scholar, to justify from the Islamic point of view the rebuilding of the church.[i]

Coptic history is full of stories of prejudice and Muslim aggression that led to destruction of hundreds if not thousands of Coptic churches. Islamic literature abound with fatāwā (pleural of fatwā), based on the Pact of Umar, banning construction of new or demolished churches. Such religious opinion form part of Sharia law, which has complicated the legal debate in Egypt since ex-president Muhammad Anwar Sadat introduce Sharia in the 1971 (amended 1980) Constitution.[ii] There is clearly confusion in the Egyptian constitutional system, which includes items that clash with each other.[iii] But the matter of stopping the attacks on religious minorities, prevention of destruction of their churches, and allowing them to rebuild what has been destroyed by majority mobs, are all matters related to human rights and fundamental freedoms which all governments in our modern age are bound by international law to secure.

Tantawi has shown confusion, dithering, and weakness when he allowed Islamists to burn down the church, and then to permit its rebuilding. He has shown that power does not really reside with him. This is likely to encourage the Islamists in the future to strengthen their control over decision making in Egypt. Compare the weakness of Tantawi with the firm action that the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu‘izz li Dīn Allāh (932 – 975) had displayed in a somewhat similar case. Michael, Bishop of Tannis, who wrote this part of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church,[iv] tells us that al-Mu‘izz, following the Miracle of the Moving of the Moqattam Hill, which was witnessed by him and his entourage, approached the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria Abraham (975 – 978):

“And said to him: ‘Desire of me something and I will do it for you’. Patriarch Abraham answered him: ‘I desire nothing, save that God may strengthen your State and give you victory over your enemies’. al-Mu‘izz said to him: ‘Desire of me something, O patriarch’. He repeated to him the speech three times. Then the king al-Mu‘izz said: ‘It is necessary that you desire of me something’. The patriarch then responded: ‘If it be necessary, then I will ask our lord to command, if it be possible, to be built a church of Abba Mercurius at Misr.’”

The Church of Abba Mercurius (Abu Sefain) in Old Cairo, had been demolished by Muslim fanatics, some time ago, and the Copts were not allowed to restore it, so it has been turned into a store house for sugar-cane. The Church of Mu‘allakah in Misr in Kasr as-Sam‘ had also suffered the same fate, since a great part of its walls had fallen down and part was in a state of decay.

“Patriarch Abraham, therefore, also asked permission to restore this church also. al-Mu‘izz, immediately ordered that a decree should be written for Abraham giving him the power to do this, and he gave to him from the Treasury what he would have to spend on the restoration. But Abraham took the decree, and returned the money and said to al-Mu‘izz: ‘May the Lord strengthen your kingdom, but the Treasury has more right to this money’. ”

Up to now the story seems like a simple act of generosity from a Muslim ruler who was moved by the miracle he has just witnessed, and which inspired him with awe and admiration, into rewarding the Patriarch with rebuilding of his destroyed churches. However, what follows tells us of a confrontation between the Shiite Fatimid Caliph and his Sunni subjects, which ended up by showing us firm action which the Caliph displayed:

“When the decree was read at the Church of Abba Mercurius, the Muslim sellers who were there and the dregs of the people assembled and said: ‘If we are all slain with one sword, we shall not allow anyone to place a stone upon a stone in this church’. So the patriarch returned to al-Mu‘izz with the news, and al-Mu‘izz became wrathful at this, and he rode at once with all his troops till he came to the place, and he halted and commanded the foundations to be dug. They were promptly dug and a large number of masons were assembled for the rebuilding and stones were carried to the site from every place by the order of the Caliph, and so they began to build the foundations at once.”

As Bishop Michael tells us the firm action of the Caliph seems to have enraged the Sunni clerics, who resolved to resist the hitherto unheard of kuffr[v] from a Muslim ruler, who dared to force the rebuilding of a church that belonged to the kuffar (unbelievers).  A showdown of strength is hereafter told:

“No one dared to say a word except an elder who used to lead in the prayers for those sellers in the mosque which was there. He it was who used to assemble the congregation and presided over them. He threw himself into the foundations and said: ‘I desire to die today for the Name of God and not to let anyone build this church’.

When the king al-Mu‘izz was informed of this, he commanded that stones should be thrown upon him and that they should build over him. When lime and stones were thrown upon him, he wished to stand up, but the assistants did not allow him to do so, since al-Mu‘izz had commanded that he should be buried in the foundations into which he had thrown himself. When the Patriarch saw this, he dismounted from his beast and threw himself before al-Mu‘izz and besought him on behalf of the elder until al-Mu‘izz commanded that he should be got up from the foundations. It was with difficulty that he managed to escape from them safe, after he had almost died.”

The story finishes by telling us that al-Mu‘izz returned to his palace, and “no one dared after that to say a single word till the rebuilding of the church had been completed.” We learn that not only the church of Abba Mercurius was rebuilt, but also the Church al-Mu‘allakah at Kasr as-Sam‘, and many other churches in Misr and Alexandria, which were in need of restoration.

It is well known that the Fatimid Period (969-1171) was the most tolerant period in Islamic Egypt until the dawn of the modern age.[vi] The Fatimids were Ismaili Shiite[vii] ruling Egypt which was composed then of Copts and Sunni Muslims, who were following two Schools of fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence), the Shafi’i[viii] and Maliki[ix] schools. Both Sunni schools had, and still have, strict rules to govern the building and repair of churches, which pose extreme difficulties on restoration of demolished or dilapidated churches. Some have tried to explain the extraordinary Fatimid tolerance by the need of the Fatimids to rely on the Copts to buttress their Shiite rule when they were numerically inferior to the Sunni Muslims. That may be true, but it does not explain things adequately: the Fatimids would have profited more politically, by gaining the approval of the Sunni Muslims, if they had reaffirmed previous strict arrangements in the matter of church building. No, I think the Fatimids were intrinsically tolerant. There seem to be no study on the religious writings on non-Muslims of the Ismaili sect in that age, and a study on this matter is seriously needed. But al-Mu‘izz was not only tolerant; he was also independent, by which I mean he did not allow himself to be held at ransom by the Sunni scholars, who could have threatened his rule. The religious opinion of the Sunni mob and cleric who opposed the restoration of Abba Mercurius Church did not matter too much to him, and did not dissuade him from enforcing a just decision. But al-Mu‘izz showed a third attribute – firmness. He was decisive and did not dither in taking a strong action, ensuring that his decree is carried out to the full in the face of the intolerant resistance that characterised the story.

These are then the three attributes of a great statesman, which the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu‘izz has shown abundantly: tolerance, independence, and firmness. It is sad that our modern rulers, whether Mubarak or Tantawi, have failed by comparison. While no one accuses them of being intrinsically intolerant, their weakness and fear of Muslim mobs and fanatic clerics paralysed them, and made them unable to take the right action when justice and fairness require them to do so.

It seems that in the scale of tolerance, Egypt, in the 21st Century, falls below the standards of the Fatimid age. How sad, and what a tragedy! And how uphill the struggle is, which awaits the Coptic nationalists!

[i] See Egyptian Army Consulted Islamic Clerics on Decision to Rebuild Torched Church (

[ii] Article 2 of the 1980 Constitution says: Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).

[iii] Article 40 states: All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination due to sex, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.

[v] Unbelief.

[vi] With the exception of Al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lāh(996-1021), and intermittent periods in the second phase of the Dynasty, when Sunni wazirs incited or caused unrest for the Copts.

[vii] Ismaili Shiite are different from the Twelver Shiite, who are to be found mainly in Iran.

[viii] Most of Egypt.

[ix] Mainly in Alexandria.

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