May 6, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 964

In Advance Of Orthodox Easter In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood And Salafis Issue Fatwas Forbidding Greeting Copts On Their Holidays

May 6, 2013 | By L. Lavi*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 964

In advance of Orthodox Easter, which will be celebrated by Egypt's Copts in early May 2013, fatwas have been issued by a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) official and by officials in Egypt's Salafi stream forbidding Muslims from greeting Christians on their religious holidays. It should be mentioned that these fatwas are a departure from the practice of past MB leaders, who sent greeting cards to the Patriarch and Coptic figures on their holidays, including Easter, and dispatched representatives to greet Copts in churches.

Representatives of Egypt's religious establishment expressed a different opinion. The mufti of Egypt ruled that Muslims are not forbidden from greeting "their fellow humans" unless their celebration is contrary to Islamic shari'a. The sheikh of Al-Azhar visited Coptic Patriarch Tawadros and greeted him on the upcoming Easter. Also, a member of Al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Research stressed that Islam permits greeting Copts on Easter, since Muslims believe in all the prophets and messengers.

Fatwas forbidding greeting Christians sparked criticism among the Coptic minority in Egypt as well, and especially among those opposing the MB rule, who pointed out their hypocrisy. Columnists in newspapers associated with the Egyptian opposition claimed that the shift in the MB's position is colored by political interests, and warned that these fatwas could splinter Egyptian society and lead it to its doom.

It should be mentioned that Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was invited to the official Easter ceremony to be held by the Church on May 5, 2013. The presidential spokesman announced that the presidency would send representatives to the ceremony, but did not note what level of representatives. He added that the presidency typically sends representatives to such events, and President Mursi does not wait for fatwas to decide whether or not to attend Easter celebrations.[1]

Following are excerpts from fatwas and from critical articles published in response to them:

Fatwas Forbidding Wishing Christians Well On Their Holidays

Member Of MB General Guide's Office: Greet Christians Only On Christmas, Not Easter

In late April 2013, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barr, a member of the MB general guide's office, who is often referred to as the movement's mufti, issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from greeting Christians on their religious holidays. Al-Barr told the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' on April 28, 2013 that according to the shari'a, Copts must not be greeted for religious ceremonies that contravene the principles of the Muslim faith, and stressed that it is forbidden to greet Copts on the upcoming Easter. He added that it is permitted to greet Copts on everyday occasions, but not religious occasions.[2]

Al-Barr stressed that Easter is contrary to the Muslim faith in the sense that "Jesus did not die and was not crucified, but rather Allah gave him protection from the Jews and raised [Jesus] up to Him... which is why we do not greet anyone for something we strongly believe is wrong. This does not contradict the right of our partners in the homeland to believe what they want or do what they want..." He added that it is permitted to greet Christians on Christmas, or for Muslims to greet non-Muslims with the commonly expressed "May you have a good year."[3]

It should be mentioned that Al-Barr's position contradicts the fact that MB heads of the past used to send greeting cards to the Coptic Patriarch and Coptic figures on their holidays, including Easter. Thus, for example, the previous MB general guide, Mohammed Mahdi 'Akef, and his deputy Khairat Al-Shater – who is also deputy to the current general guide, Dr. Muhammad Badi' – sent Easter greeting cards to Patriarch Shenouda III on April 23, 2006. Former MB general guide Muhammad Ma'mun Al-Hudaybi also sent an Easter greeting card to the patriarch in 2004 as well.[4]

In addition, the MB website reported that two years ago, in April 2011, several MB delegations visited churches throughout Egypt to greet Copts for Easter.[5]

MB website: MB general guide Mohammed Mahdi 'Akef greets Coptic Patriarch in 2006 and 2007

Salafi Front Spokesman: A Muslim Man Married To A Christian Woman Cannot Greet His Wife

The Salafi Front, a Salafi stream known to be close to the MB, also ruled that it is forbidden to greet the Copts on their religious holidays, and even called Muslims who go to churches to greet the Copts on their holidays "sinners." The Salafi Front's ruling was harsher and more sweeping; in contrast to the MB, the Salafi Front argued that the ban on greeting Copts applied also to Christmas.

Salafi Front political bureau member Khaled Al-Masri told the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' on April 28, 2013 that a distinction should be made between greetings on religious holidays and greetings on social occasions: "Greeting Copts on their religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter is forbidden by the shari'a, and there is a religious consensus on this... because greeting on these holidays means you recognize holidays you do not believe in, so on what basis do you greet them?" He added: "On social occasions, whether in times of joy like weddings or times of grief like the death of a loved one, it is permitted to comfort and greet them."[7]

Salafi Front spokesman Dr. Hisham Kamal told Egypt's Al-Tahrir TV that even a Muslim married to a Christian or Jewish woman cannot greet his wife on her holidays, and that it is even permissible for him to prevent her from participating in these holidays.[8]

Cartoon from Egyptian anti-MB website: A man asks a sheikh whether he should marry a Coptic woman, and the sheikh says yes; the man later asks whether he should greet her on holidays, and the sheikh responds: It is forbidden.[9]

Sayed Mustafa, deputy leader of the Al-Nour Salafi party, also spoke out against greeting Copts on Easter: "The Copts celebrate Easter according to their beliefs, which are different from ours. We should not greet them for something in which we differ from them, [just like] they are not supposed to greet us on holidays that differ from their beliefs..."[10]

Religious Establishment Comes Out Against The Fatwas: Greeting The Christians Is Allowed

Several sheikhs from the religious establishment expressed a contrasting view. On April 24, 2013, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, led a delegation from Al-Azhar on a visit to the Coptic patriarch to greet him on the occasion of Easter.[11]

Dr. Muhammad Al-Shahat Al-Jundi, a member of Al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Research, also opposed Al-Barr's fatwa, saying that it contravenes Islamic laws regarding monotheistic religions – which permit wishing Christians a happy Easter because Muslims believe in all the prophets and messengers, including the Christian ones.[12]

According to the official MB website, at a conference at the Shari'a Faculty at Damanhour University, newly appointed Egyptian mufti Dr. Shawqi 'Alam said: "We are one people and one nation, regardless of political and religious affiliation. We are brothers in humanity, and there is nothing preventing us from greeting fellow human beings [on their holidays] or extending our condolences in times of grief – unless their celebration contravenes the Islamic shari'a."[13]

Condemnation From Coptic Community: The Fatwas Expose The MB's Hypocrisy

Voices within the Coptic minority also condemned the fatwas. Sharif Ramzy, coordinator of the Copts without Borders organization, said that the MB's actions reveal its hypocrisy, and attacked Al-Barr, saying: "Do your beliefs and fatwas change to suit the election season?"[14]

Coptic thinker Gamal As'ad said that the discrepancy between Al-Barr's fatwa and the MB's traditional position, which permitted greeting Christians, exposes the MB as a pragmatic movement that permits what it considers forbidden when doing so suits its goals. Noting that the MB lacks principles and uses fatwas to promote its ends, he added that this is particularly condemnable in a movement that rules the country. Also, Coptic activist John Tal'at said that this shift in the MB's position following its rise to power shows that Mursi is president not of all Egyptians, but only of his own movement.[15]

Medhat Qilada, head of the Coptic organizations in Europe, said: "I thank the candid mufti of the MB for proving that [this movement] incites hatred and that its Islam is the complete opposite of the Islam of our friends and neighbors... The MB is a failed political movement that does not understand [the value of] the homeland's unity, but always plucks the strings of discord within the homeland..." He added that he doesn't need empty holiday greetings from the MB, "whose heart is full of betrayal of [both] Copts and Muslims..."[16]

Criticism Of The Fatwas In The Opposition Press

The MB And Salafis Adapt Their Fatwas To The Political Climate

Al-Barr's fatwa also met with criticism from the opposition press in Egypt. Columnist A'la Al-'Aribi wrote in the daily Al-Wafd: "The fatwa forbidding greeting Copts on their holidays was issued by [the medieval Islamic scholar] Ibn Taymiyya several centuries ago, and the Islamist streams in the MB and the Salafi movement have passed this down [throughout the generations]. The interesting thing is that these groups exploit this fatwa... according to changing political circumstances.

"In the past, Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barr permitted greeting Copts on their holidays. When he visited the cathedral to congratulate the [Coptic] patriarch, he said: 'It is not forbidden to attend the Patriarch's appointment, nor to greet Copts on their holidays or celebrations. This is a gracious gesture that Allah never forbade us from performing, as long as it is not at the expense of our religion.' [However], just two days ago, Al-Barr said... that the shari'a forbids greeting Copts on their religious festivals... or wishing them a happy Easter... This is an example of politics disguised as shari'a... His [previous] view reflected the position of the MB at that time – but now that circumstances have changed [and the MB is in power], he has changed his position... [Oddly, both positions are claimed to] originate in the Koran and the Sunna."[17]

Those Who Today Ban Greeting Copts Will Tomorrow Call For Killing Them

Egyptian author and playwright Nasser Iraq wrote that if the extremists today forbid greeting Copts on their holidays, tomorrow they might call for killing them: "Those extremists have forgotten that the Koran says 'We have honored the children of Adam [Koran 17:70].' In other words, Allah the Almighty bestowed honor upon man from the start, regardless of religion, gender, or color. Yet now these extremists treat the Copts disrespectfully, by ordering the masses not to greet them on their holidays – as if they weren't human beings. I have no doubt that these backward calls, at this particular time, are meant to keep Egypt a weak, impoverished, and unhealthy country that wastes its energy on pointless argument...

"Those who bear hatred for the human race and the homeland are now telling people not to greet Copts on their holidays. Tomorrow they will call to kill them.

"[I call on] the educators and cultured people [in our society], and the tolerant sheikhs of Al-Azhar, to be vigilant and careful. [And I tell] my Coptic friend: Do not to be sad or embittered. May you have a good year."[18]

These Fatwas Will Lead Egypt To Perdition

Sa'id Al-Shahat, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', wrote: "A Christian [Egyptian] soldier or officer serving his country – how will he feel [seeing] these bizarre and peculiar fatwas, which focus on minute details of Islam rather than its tolerant essence? How can we ask a Christian to be a productive worker [when he sees] these bizarre fatwas that emphasize differences [among the citizens of Egypt]...

"These people are urging us to abandon the Islamic ship of wasatiyya [middle way] and tolerance, and move to the ship of extremism, [by] treating Christians like second-class citizens.

"These bizarre fatwas lay the foundation for tearing Egypt to pieces and leading it to perdition..."[19]

If Mursi Is Allowed To Convey Greetings To The Zionists, Why Aren't We Allowed To Greet Christians?

Another columnist for the daily, 'Adel Al-Sanhouri, wrote: "If the MB sheikh [Al-Barr] must issue a fatwa, why [does it have to deal] with Christian holidays and not with other issues, for instance with the vital social and economic needs that we currently face? [And] why did Al-Barr not issue a fatwa regarding the cordial letter sent by [our] President, Dr. Muhammad Mursi, to [his] 'great and good friend Shimon Peres' on the occasion of the appointment of the new Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv, [in which] he wished the Zionist entity a pleasant and comfortable existence?[20]

"Oh, Sheikh Al-Barr, are we forbidden to greet Egyptian Christians on their holidays, while greeting our dear friends the Zionists is allowed?"[21]

* L. Lavi is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], April 30, 2013.

[2] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 28, 2013.

[3], April 29, 2013.

[4] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[5], April 24-26, 2011.

[6], April 24, 2006; April 9, 2007.

[7] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 28, 2013.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[9], April 29, 2013.

[10] Al-Dustour Al-Asly (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[11] Al-Dustour Al-Asly (Egypt), April 26, 2013.

[12] Al-Watan (Egypt), April 30, 2013. It should be noted in this context that there has been tension lately between the MB and Al-Azhar.

[13], April 29, 2013.

[14] Al-Watan (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[15] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 3, 2013.

[16], May 1, 2013.

[17] Al-Wafd (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[18] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[19] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 30, 2013.

[20] About Mursi's letter to Peres, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 899, Egypt's Foreign Policy Under Muhammad Mursi: Trying To Please Everybody, November 14, 2012.

[21] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 1, 2013.

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