Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike, are closely watching the controversy associated with the Ground Zero Mosque project, though for different reasons. The Egyptian media is giving this issue full coverage with articles mostly accusing Americans of Islamophobia, and supporting Muslims to hold on to their rights to build a mosque anywhere as guaranteed by the US constitution, regardless of what Americans think.
On the other hand, some influential Muslims rejected the idea of a Mosque near Ground Zero only on grounds that it would backfire on Islam, by connecting it to the 9/11 events. Dr. AbdelMotey Bayoumi, a member of Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy, believes it could be a «Zionist conspiracy» to harm Islam.
American-Egyptian Copts were also accused of organizing the rally which is to be staged on 9/11 with Geert Wilders, reported the Egyptian daily «youm7» on August 20, 2010.
«I cannot believe the double standards of the Egyptian Muslims,» commented Coptic activist Magdy Guindi. «It is obvious that Americans don’t approve of this Mosque being near Ground Zero. Is this not one of the conditions applied to church building in Egypt?»
Much of the on-going sectarian strife in Egypt is related to the ability to build churches. Unlike Muslim citizens, who only need a municipal license to build mosques, the Copts require presidential approval for a church, based on the 1856 Ottoman Hamayoni Decree, in addition to ten humiliating conditions laid down by the Ezaby Pasha Decree of 1934, before being considered for a presidential decree. These include the approval of the neighboring Muslim community.
«Muslim clerics and Islamists easily persuade Muslims that a church is equivalent to slandering Islam, so they take advantage of this «Muslim approval» condition,» said Guindi.
Even after obtaining licenses for a church, Muslims still attack Christians and demolish or burn their churches (AINA 7-12-2009). A rumor that Christians are meeting to pray is enough reason for Muslim neighbors to carry out acts of violence against them (AINA 8-21-2009). On various occasions, it only takes Muslims to protest against the building of a church for State Security to stop the works, under the pretext that it is causing «sectarian strife.»
In 2005 President Mubarak issued a decree, which delegated authority to the country’s 26 governors to grant permits to Christians to expand or rebuild existing churches. Instead of making matters easier, many local officials intentionally delay or refuse to process applications without «supporting documents» that are virtually impossible to obtain. State Security often block them from using permits that have been issued on «security concerns.»
Last month a problem arose between the Governor of Minya and Anba Agathon, the Bishop of the diocese of Maghagha and Edwah, which is still unresolved, despite mediation efforts by Coptic Pope Shenouda III.
The Governor suddenly suspended the license obtained for the renewal of the 1934 diocese in Maghagha, including the church, after it was demolished, as agreed with the governor. The pretext for the suspension was because the 45 square meters of rooms where the Bishop lives were not demolished as well. Although the Bishop confirmed that the governor agreed verbally to the Bishop staying in his dwelling until new rooms are built on the new site, the governor now insists that the Bishop «should find somewhere else to sleep.»
Since March 16, 2010, after the demolition of the old church, the Bishop and the congregation have been celebrating mass in a linen tent erected on the courtyard where the new church is planned, under the summer heat exceeding 45C. The Diocese of Maghagha serves 250,000 Copts.
Realizing that the governor has tricked them into getting them to demolished the old church first, Bishop Agathon, 75 clergy and nearly 150,000 Copts from parishes all over the Diocese of Maghagha and Edwah have staged a three day sit-in in Maghagha tent church from July 25, 2010, protesting against the intransigence of the Governor of Minya. They wanted to travel to Cairo to continue their sit-in at the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo, after presenting a petition signed by 160,000 Copts from the Diocese to President Mubarak. It was reported that the Pope, who was undergoing medical treatment in the U.S., asked the Bishop to wait until his return.
Most Copts interviewed on the issue of the Ground Zero Mosque thought that even if Moslems had the right to build a mosque, it should be somewhere else, to save the victims families any pain. Others thought the Muslim attitude was typical «They go to a country and want to take it over, making the best of democratic rights to their advantage, but when it comes to Islamic countries, matters are different, and they forget about the rights of others,» commented one young Coptic girl.
«Let Muslims experience the rage and frustration we have been going through for centuries, every time we want to build or repair a dilapidating church in our own country,» commented Coptic activist Mina Hanna, in what sounded like Schadenfreude. «It would be interesting to see what happens if the West decided to treat Muslims like Christians in Egypt.»
By Mary Abdelmassih