A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Aftershocks of the Cathedral Clashes

Many Egyptians seem to be taking a hard look at their growing sectarian polarization in the wake of Sunday's clashes at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiyya; despite years of violence, church burinngs and sectarian clashes, the attack on the central shrine of the Coptic Church and seat of the Coptic Pope are perceived as crossing previous red lines.

Pope Tawadros has directly criticized President Morsi over the government's failure to protect the church; he has accused Morsi of a "dereliction of duty." The Pope also canceled his weekly Wednesday sermon.

Others are trying to discern the meaning of the clashes. At Abu Dhabi's The National, Issandr El Amrani blames social fragmentation:
The attack on the Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo on Sunday was in one respect a watershed: never before has what is essentially the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church been attacked in this manner.

But in most other ways, the sentiment many Egyptians feel is one of dazed, if horrified, familiarity. There simply have been too many such attacks in the recent past.
At Jadaliyya,  Paul Sedra sees the problem as revealing a disappearing concept of citizenship:
I have written before in these pages about Egyptian sectarianism, its modern origins and recent manifestations. The impulse to lay the blame for this sectarianism at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood is strong and, in my view, not without justification, particularly given the sectarian incitement in which the organization has engaged since its rise to power. Indeed, only two weeks ago, Amnesty International issued a press release directed at Egypt’s rulers whose title read, “Egypt’s Coptic Christians must be protected from sectarian violence.”
But the language of that title points to a tendency that, I would venture, bears nearly as much responsibility for the current violence as the Brotherhood. The notion of “protection” referenced by Amnesty conjures up an image of Coptic Christians in Egypt as an inert, monolithic bloc – a bloc whose leadership is assumed to reside with the Church. What is missing here is the notion of citizenship – the notion of Copts as Egyptian citizens, equal before Egyptian law and the Egyptian state to their Muslim compatriots.
The Atlantic Council posts Wael Eskandar's eyewitness account of the fight at the Cathedral.

Islamist-Coptic violence  was present throughout the entire Mubarak era, but so long as it was isolated in distant villages, many Egyptians could dismiss it as exaggerated accounts by Christians, and remain in denial that Egyptian society has deep divisions on sectarian lines. The Abbasiyya confrontations may have finally ended that denial. The growing Islamist complaints about Egypt's minuscule Shi‘ite population, ludicrous as it seems, suggests that for Salafis at least the "Egyptian" identity is far less important than the Islamic identity; but unlike the tiny Shi‘ite minority, the Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and play a major role in Egyptian society. Denial is increasingly difficult, and now Pope Tawadros has openly laid the responsibility for the lack of security at the Cathedral at the door of the Presidency.

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