Christians, Muslims “One Hand” in Egypt’s Youth Revolution

Sunday saw a return to Egypt of themes of national unity across the Christian-Muslim divide that recalled the heyday of early Egyptian nationalism in 1919, when the modern nation was formed in the cauldron of mass demonstrations against British colonial rule.

Nowadays, Copts are roughly 10 percent of the Egyptian population, or about 8 million people. Coptic Christianity is its own branch of the faith, tracing itself to the foundational teaching of the Apostle Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria.

The Al-Arab newspaper reports that Christian protesters conducted funeral prayers over the spirits of the martyrs that have fallen in the demonstrations since January 25. The three Coptic denominations mounted three joint prayer ceremonies.

On Friday, Christian youth had stood guard to protect Muslims as they prayed at Tahrir Square, since people at prayer are vulnerable to the secret police.

AP says that Father Ihab al-Kharat gave a sermon on Sunday in which he said, “In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks … We will keep protesting until the fall of the tyranny.”

Al-Arab writes that crowds of youth participated, under the leadership of prominent Coptic figures such as Michael Mounir, the head of the Coptic Organization of the United States, Dr. Imad Gad, an expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, and George Ishak, a leader of the Kefaya! (Enough!) protest movement, along with members of Coptic community councils. (Other Copts are more ambivalent about the movement or oppose it).

Michael Mounir said after the prayers that the Egyptian regime has persecuted everyone, Muslim and Copt alike, which was proved by the fact that during the past 12 days, while the police and security forces had removed themselves from the scene, there had been no attacks on churches. Rather, Muslim youth had undertaken to guard them. In the past, he said, despite the presence of security forces, churches and Copts had suffered massacres, the most recent having been on New Year’s day.

A young engineer, Mina Nagi, who was injured on January 25, said during the ceremony (according to al-Arab, ” Speak the truth, and the truth shall set you free!” saying that tyranny possesses the numbers and the weapons, and intimidation and smoke bombs, and the ability to smear reputations. “But we have the truth, and we have our living bodies, which pulse with true love for living, freedom, and life with dignity and justice.” He reasoned that since the youth had done all that, they would be steadfast and courageous in the cold, the rain, in hunger and facing an unknown future from which attacks will be launched from every direction and of various sorts.

He added, “I came because the suffering and poverty that we live through are not a transitional stage, rather these two are the decisive outcome of the conditions of the economic, social and political structure which gives birth to this destitution, along with absence of democracy and the dominance of private interests over public ones.” He said that what is needed is a profound transformation of the structures themselves, and of the conditions that generate poverty, tyranny and oppression. He said, “I came in accordance with my faith in the struggle on behalf of respect for human rights and the construction of a democracy, and deliverance from prejudice and partisanship, and building a transparent and trustworthy order…”

The Christian and Muslim intellectuals issued a joint statement, affirming that the revolution of Egyptian youth had instilled a new spirit in Egyptian souls, in which was apparent an excellent example of national unity… when believers guarded each others’ prayers after the police disappeared. They said that this decision to stand guard came from the youth themselves, not from any religious leadership, and that it demonstrated that places of worship did not need armed guards. “They are Egyptian places of worship, dear to the hearts of all Egyptians..” They recalled that [because of the New Year bombing] Egypt had been on the verge of sectarian war, and clergymen’s statements had brought the situation to an explosive point, when all that tension was stopped by the Youth Revolution.

They accused the government of exploiting religious symbols to abort the Youth Revolution, and complained that some clergymen had taken government silver to denounce the protest movement. They praised clergymen who stayed inside their houses of worship and did not interefere, and called on the media to stop putting reactionary clergymen on the television screen to speak on public affairs.

AFP Arabic reports that Nadir, a young Copt, was holding a placard at Tahrir Square that said, “The Blood of many Copts was shed during the Mubarak era. Leave Egypt!” He complained that the pace of persecution of Christians has increased in the Mubarak era, and the only response of the president had been to try to cover it up. “That isn’t the solution,” he said. Another young Coptic Christian, Ihab, said that fear of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power was overblown. “A government by the Muslim Brotherhood would be a catastrophe, but there are other choices in Egypt beside Mubarak and the Brotherhood.”

Many Muslims supported the Copts. One, Ahmad al-Shimi, held up a sign that said, “Muslims + Christans=Egypt” with a Muslim crescent and a Christian cross.

Arabic wire services report that thousands of protesters again made their way into Tahrir Square on Sunday, with the theme of commemorating the some 300 martyrs who have died at the hands of the secret police since the protests began on January 25. Dozens bravely sat in front of the tanks positioned around it, to prevent them from moving in and blocking off the public space to prevent further protests. Some of the youth slept in the square in tents or stayed up all night, guarding their right to the public space.

The wire services reprise the story of the Christian role on Sunday. A Coptic Christian priest, carrying a cross, celebrated Sunday mass before the crowd. Next to the priest stood a Muslim imam, carrying a copy of the Qur’an, as the crowd chanted in unison, “We are one hand!” A Coptic preacher lead them in the chant from the altar, “One hand, one hand!” referring to the unity of Christians and Muslims, who express the same demands for a change of regime. A Christian woman named Rana told Reuters Arabic, “All Egyptians, regardless of whether they are Christian or Muslim, want change, liberty, and justice for all people.”

This YouTube video, shot from the crowd, shows them chanting the unity of Christian and Muslim Egyptians and then “One hand, one hand!” You can see the priest’s cross at points above the heads.

Here is a Reuters video report on the unity Mass (can be seen on iPhone and iPad via Foxfire browser app):

So the parallel is to 1919. After World War I, Egyptians began demanding independence from Britain, which had occupied the country in 1882. Nationalist leader and politician Saad Zaghlul and others wanted to lead a delegation (Wafd) to the Versailles peace conference to ensure that Egyptian aspirations for self-determination were heard. The arrogant British jailed Zaghlul early in 1919, and thereby provoked huge multi-class and cross-sectarian demonstrations throughout the country. Copts were as nationalistic as Muslims and as eager to see the backs of the British, and they are clearly visible in photographs of the day, carrying banners with crosses on them. Egyptian women also played a visible role in the protests.

1919 Demonstration of Copts, Muslims Against British

1919 Demonstration of Copts, Muslims Against British

1919 was a foundational moment for the Egyptian nation. The subsequent history of Christian-Muslim relations has had its ups and downs. But at Tahrir Square, Sunday, February 6, 2011 was another such 1919 moment of unity.

14 Responses

  1. As a longtime observer of the ME, the one thing I have learned is that optimism is always, ALWAYS, rewarded with disappoinment. Here’s hoping this time turns out differently.

    • Joshua Stacher, a long-time observer of Egyptian affairs, has a sobering take on how far the Jan 25 protests have come in shaking the foundations of the regime. His assessment —
      “Egypt’s Democratic Mirage: How Cairo’s Authoritarian Regime Is Adapting to Preserve Itself”
      link to foreignaffairs.com

  2. Re Your I ask myself why piece

    Haaretz reports the Google manager you reported missing is to be released.

    The government is also expected to release a Google marketing manager who was detained during the anti-government demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years.

  3. Egypt will always be the land of love and national unity throughout history. No one in the whole world will be able to disunite us. We are the land that was trodden by the sacred feet of Jesus Christ.

  4. Wonderful to read, and I’m hoping against hope that this sentiment will prevail. Christian-Muslim cooperation goes waaay back in Egypt, to the very beginnings of Islam, when Monothelite Christians aided the Caliphate — and received its protection — rather than face continued persecution under the Byzantines.

  5. What a concept.
    Muslims + Christans=Egypt

    They say that Egypt isn’t ready to be free.

    MG you’re right but I hope we are both wrong.

  6. I am just beginning to wrap my mind around the events in Egypt, but I have reached a few tentative conclusions, some of which confirm what I already believed. Here are a some of the ones that I feel more comfortable with:

    1. The grass roots in Egypt, especially the largest demographic (15-30 year-olds) are, by and large, not very inclined toward Islamism. Witness the fact that although most of the participants in the hundreds of thousands who are protesting in Tahrir Square and elsewhere have made a public spectacle of praying, the Muslim brotherhood is far outnumbered among the throngs, and the beard-touting Salafists are in very short supply. One might have imagined that in this state of defiance and open antagonism of the establishment, not to mention lawlessness on the streets, the Salafists would not be afraid to show their faces en masse. I submit that they might have done so, only succeeding in showing what a small percentage of the base they really are. It is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will come to greater power in Egypt, but I doubt that they will have the ability to take over the government. In fact I attribute their largest gains in recent years to be because they were the only organized opposition to the regime. In other words, people did not vote for them, but against the regime. Now that the regime appears to be falling, the Brotherhood will no longer be seen as an alternative.

    2. In general, the population of Egypt is not very inclined to violence. Again, the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square proved that they are quite capable of defending themselves, but they did not devolve into chaos and violence; once the attacks against them stopped, no further violence was committed by them.

    3. The population of Egypt is not as anti-US as we might have thought. Witness the fact that one of the most distinctive buildings on Tahrir Square is the Old Campus of the American University in Cairo. I have not heard of a single instance of an attack against it, despite the anger displayed by the demonstrators. What buildings did they destroy? Buildings owned by their enemies: Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Ministry of Interior.

    4. The youth of Egypt have shown that they are quite capable technically. Witness the fact that they managed to defeat the internet and phone blackouts and continuously send Twitter updates even during the blackout.

    5. The youth in Egypt are capable of overcoming their greatest differences: class and religious distinctions. Witness the fact that the tweets that kept coming from Tahrir Square must have come from individuals who have internet-capable telephones, and thus prove that at least a number of them were affluent enough to own these phones, and that they are educated enough in the English language to used Twitter, but the voices on the tweets were not only those of the affluent, so there must have been cooperation there between the haves and the have-nots. As for religious differences, witness the fact that the Christians were in force enough to guard the Muslims as they prayed, and the very fact that they did so. Then they held their own Mass on Sunday, and were guarded by the Muslims—even the ones with the beards.

    6. There is also a hint that terrorism will be severely damaged in the Arab world by these events. The peaceful nature of the demonstrations (with the exception of burning party buildings and the rock fights when they were attacked) has shown untold millions that grass-roots mobilization can achieve in weeks what militancy has never succeeded in doing, even if the fight is not over yet. This is a game changer, I believe. Grass roots might well be the new thing. I recently read a paper by a colleague of mine that self-immolation may supplant suicide bombing as the “fad” in protest. I am not sure that I am convinced with the conclusion, but the chant “peaceful, peaceful” that the millions shouted across Egypt tells me that people are far more willing to follow the peaceful demonstrators than the violent militants.

    7. Even the most impoverished and downtrodden people in the world are capable of organizing and finding leadership in the most mundane places. The millions that acted in Egypt had leaders, no matter what anybody says. The surprise is not that they do, but that they are unknowns. Just regular Joes and Janes (Yup! I have evidence that Janes led this uprising, too. In some cases, they even beat the Joes to the punch). It is also evident in how organized the disparate groups in there were (students, mainstream Muslims, Salafists, Muslim brothers, Christians, women, old people, children, you name it).

    As I said at the beginning, the conclusions are tentative, and I might yet be proven to be the naïve, optimistic, and idealistic fool that I am, but it is hard for me to imagine that the above conclusions are evidence of my gullibility. I am not saying that this may not yet devolve into chaos and some violence, but the above conclusions will remain true, even if these brave souls are defeated, duped, or otherwise forced to drop the banner.

  7. Maybe, just maybe, this show of religious unity might extend to Israeli Jews, if Israel is willing to make substantive concessions.

    First, however, Egypt has to come out of this with a liberal government.

  8. Professor Cole,

    I greatly appreciate your aggregation of info. on this important topic. While I agree with your comparison to the religious unity of 1919, you fail to mention that the Egyptian Constituion of 1923 also made Islam the state religion, which unintentionally sidelined the guarantees of religious freedom. Moreover, Sadat’s 1980 concession to ammend the constitution to state that all laws are based on/inspired by sharia have been upheld by Egyptian courts since 2008 as holding precedence over Egypt’s ratification of religious freedom. The US State Dept. 2009 Report on Religious Freedom in Egypt clearly shows that religious freedom is a major problem for religious minorities (Coptic Orthodox Christians, Baha’is, Protestants, Muslim dissenters, etc.). While I share your optimisim, I am much more cautious since historically calls for unity have left religious minorities helpless in front of the law. I hope that you might address this topic soon since you are much more informed on these issues than am I. If now is the time to call for fundamental human rights and constituionally guaranteed freedoms (assembly, speech, etc.), then this is also the time to incorporate religious freedom into the architecture of such demands and our analysis/critique of them.

    • Garrison, shariah law guarantees religious freedom! Shariah law is based on the qur’an and the sunnah of the prophet Muhammad peace and blessings upon him. It may have been co-opted by certain groups and those groups may have used weak or poorly researched decisions but the source of shariah law is far more socially advanced then any other system. Show me an abuse of shariah law and I can point to at least as many abuses under western legal tradition. For example, if you believe say American law is superior you would have to agree that African Americans are far less law abiding than white folks, given the higher proportion of them in the penal system.
      People in the west need to realize that their “instinctual” abhorence of shariah law, the Muslim brotherhood, the (true) concept of jihad and all things Islamic
      Are a result of mass media hype and have very little to do with reality.
      Are there criminals, or angry and misguided people in the world who are bent on creating fitnah in the world to achieve their aims? Absolutely! Are the issues that anger them legitimate? Undoutedly! Are there methods legitimate under shariah? Not at all!!! Do they represent the Muslim ummah?
      No! The only thing I have in common with those people is a desire for justice, but agreeing on one point should not make me or my co-religionists guilty for those peoples actions.

      • Yusuf, I appreciate your comments. I in no way intended to offend you or appear to denigrate Islam or the shari’a. I also reject Islamophobic media hype that misrepresents Islam’s history and teachings. So you know, I teach at the university level on religion with a focus on Islam and I provide examples to my students showing that according to the shari’a Islam provided a rather high degree of religious freedom in the pre-modern era in comparison to many other religions and legal systems.

        That said, Egyptian courts have held that religious freedom is not complete freedom, but only within the framework of the shari’a. This means that Christians are regularly not allowed to repair churches or build new ones. While non-Muslims are allowed to convert to Islam, Muslim converts to other religions are denied the freedom to do so, and in one recent case a woman was raped by police and the judge told her that he would have sentenced her to death for converting if Egypt was able to apply criminal law according to the shari’a, which is fortunately not allowed. I could go on and if you want to see more examples just read the US Satte Dept.’s report on religious freedom in Egypt, but I think you get the point. Do you know of any practicing ulama or fuqaha in Egypt who argue that Muslims can freely convert to other religons, or that other religions should be allowed to freely build and repair places of worship without government approval? These laws are derived from the shari’a inherited from the Ottomans. Even if you argue that the shari’a does not truly justify such legal actions (and I would like to read a legal analysis along this line of reasoning), you cannot deny that in legal practice in Egypt it is done. As such, religious freedom is limited and by definition is not freedom in the sense of the law not infringing on the rights of its citizens to practice religion, or not, however they please. I would very much appreciate it if you could show me documentation that proves otherwise.

  9. the christians and the moslems have One Unique God
    moslemes have faith in the bible the christ so moslemes believe that there is a holy duty to protect their christien brothers as they are humanbeings and they are nation of holy book and we moslemes must give our blood soul flesh to them even we die to make them live
    this is a holy order on evey moslem .

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