November 15, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 646

Rising Tensions between Muslims, Christians in Egypt

November 15, 2010 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 646


In recent months, tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt have flared in the wake of several incidents, including demonstrations following the disappearance of Camilia Shehata Zakher, the wife of a Coptic bishop who, according to rumors, converted to Islam and is being held by the Coptic Church (rumors that have been denied by the church); the capture of an alleged "arms ship" owned by the son of a Coptic Church official, which arrived in Egypt in August 2010 and was reportedly carrying a cargo of explosives from Israel; statements by Anba Bishoy, secretary of the Synod, to the effect that the Copts are the landlords in Egypt and that the Muslims are their guests, and that the Christians would "die as martyrs" before letting anyone harm the Church; and statements made in response by the Al-Azhar Scholars Front and by the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, who hinted that the Copts were preparing for war with the Muslims and that the Coptic Church was an independent entity above the Egyptian constitution and law. All of these sparked rage against the Coptic minority in Egypt, which responded by holding demonstrations and launching a legal and media battle in its own defense.

Despite attempts by the heads of the religious administrations, both Muslim and Christian, to defuse the tension and prevent its escalation into violence, statements by religious figures from both sides only fanned the flames. A statement issued by the Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research called for unity among Egyptians, but at the same time enraged the Christians by stating that Egypt is a Muslim country and hinting that the Copts' status as equal citizens is contingent upon their respecting this fact. The Coptic Patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, denied the existence of weapons in churches and monasteries, and said he was sorry if Bishoy's statements had offended Muslims. However, his words were taken to be a partial endorsement of Bishoy's position, rather than an apology, and failed to placate the Muslims, who continued to demand that Bishoy be discharged from his post and put on trial. In fact, the Egyptian security forces voiced a concern that Bishoy would be attacked by Muslim extremists, but he refused to accept bodyguards.

Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak joined in the efforts to quell the flames. In his Victory Day speech in October 2010, he stressed the importance of national unity and warned that insulting the religious beliefs of Egyptian citizens, whether Muslim or Christian, was a line that must not be crossed and that anyone inciting civil war would be dealt with firmly. The authorities exhorted religious figures to stay off the subject of Copt-Muslim relations, and also pressured the Egyptian and Arab media, both printed and electronic, to stop publishing materials that might prolong the agitation. Several satellite channels were temporarily shut down and ordered to cancel inflammatory programming.

The conflict abated only after Al-Qaeda's October 31, 2010 attack on the church in Baghdad, and its threats to harm Christians and churches in Egypt unless Camilia Shehata was released, which prompted the Muslim Egyptians to come to the defense of their Christian compatriots.

Columnists in the Egyptian press, both Muslim and Christian, stressed the need to avoid sectarian strife that could lead the country to perdition. Some attacked Bishoy, describing him as the flag-bearer of the war against the Muslims and as the representative of a powerful extremist faction within the Church. Others stressed that this was a marginal faction in the Church, which did not represent the majority of Copts, and that the extremist statements of Bishoy and his supporters only harmed the Coptic community.

Incidents and Statements Contributing to the Tension

1. The Camilia Shehata Affair

Camilia Shehata Zakher, the wife of a Coptic bishop, disappeared from her home for a few days in July 2010. Copts speculated she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or else had run away and converted of her own free will, and held large-scale demonstrations demanding to know what had become of her.The Egyptian authorities claimed that Camilia had left home following a quarrel with her husband,[1] and the heads of the Church stated that she had never converted to Islam at all and that she was safe and sound. Religious Endowments Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq said that everything that had been published in the Camiliar Shehata affair was rumors. [2]

The Camilia affair evoked fury in Islamist and jihadi circles, as reflected in a series of reactions and incidents: A member calling himself "'Asim Al-Jaddawi" on the jihadi forum Shumukh Al-Islam urged Bedouins in Sinai to kidnap and kill Christian tourists in retaliation for the alleged kidnapping and incarceration of the Coptic women who converted to Islam; on September 1, 2010, Mauritanian cleric Abu Al-Mundhir Al-Shinqiti issued a fatwa permitting the killing of Egyptian Copts;[3] in its claim of responsibility for the October 31, 2010 attack on a church in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda in Iraq stated that the attack was a response to Camilia's abduction, and that the Coptic Church had 48 hours to free "the Muslim women incarcerated in Egyptian convents," otherwise Al-Qaeda would target Christians in Egypt and elsewhere;[4] Egyptian Endowments Minister Muhammad Hamdi Zaqzouq even hinted that the demonstrations over the Camilia affair had triggered the deadly attack on the Baghdad church and Al-Qaeda's threats against the Egyptian Christians.[5]

2. The Capture of the Coptic "Arms Ship"

On August 16, 2010, the Egyptian media reported that the security apparatuses had captured a ship loaded with explosives that had arrived in Egypt from Israel, and was owned by Joseph Boutros Al-Jabalawi, son of the deputy head of the Coptic Church in Port Said.[6] The Egyptian interior minister ordered Al-Jabalawi's arrest after attorney Nabih Al-Wahsh filed a complaint demanding that the authorities search the Port Said patriarchy and its churches for hidden explosives. Al-Wahsh voiced a suspicion that, in recent years, many churches and monasteries have become hiding places for illegal explosives and for hundreds of Copts who have converted to Islam, and expressed an intention to file a lawsuit calling for the Interior Ministry to place all churches and monasteries under supervision – just as mosques do not enjoy immunity from scrutiny.[7]

3. The Al-Azhar Scholars Front: Christianity Condones Forced Conversions

In response to this affair, the Al-Azhar Scholars Front[8] issued a statement saying that the capture of the ship indicated a Christian plot to fight Islam and force Muslims to convert. It said: "Christianity... is constantly defining its overt and covert policy of eliminating all its rivals or degrading [the followers of other religions] and depriving them of every reason to live so that they will be forced to convert to Christianity..." The statement endorsed the call to place churches and monasteries under supervision, and to allow searches in them, in order to restore the honor of the state institutions.[9]

4. Synod Secretary Anba Bishoy: The Copts Are the Root of the Land; The Muslims Are Our Guests

About one month later, Anba Bishoy, secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, who is considered a potential heir to Pope Shenouda III, made a statement that further strained Muslim-Copt relations. He told the independent Egyptian paper Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "The Copts are the root of the land. We love the [Muslim] guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as [our] brothers, but [now] they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission..."[10]

Tensions escalated further when the media published details on a lecture that Bishoy planned to give at the Coptic Orthodox Conference in Fayoum on September 22, 2010. The lecture was to include a suggestion that verse 5:17 in the Koran, which describes the Christians as "blasphemers,"[11] was added to the book after Muhammad's death. During the lecture itself, Bishoy clarified that he only meant to raise this as a possibility, not to state it as fact.[12] In an official clarification published later, he said his argument had been misrepresented and that he had not meant to cast doubt on Islam or the Koran, and stressed: "Our Muslim brothers are our partners in the homeland."[13] The Egyptian press reported, however, that pamphlets had been handed out at the conference urging the participants to heed Bishoy's call to defend the churches and monasteries with their lives, should searches be conducted there.[14] This prompted hundreds of Egyptians to take to the streets in protest against Bishoy's statements and in demand to fire him from his position.[15] Demonstrations were also held opposite Egyptian embassies abroad, and several lawsuits were filed against Bishoy by various parties.[16]

5. Al-'Awa: Bishoy Is Preparing for War on the Muslims

The former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-'Awa, led the counterattack on Bishoy. In an interview on Al-Jazeera, he said that Bishoy and Pope Shenouda were responsible for the crisis in Muslim-Copt relations, and that Bishoy's statements indicated he was "preparing for a war on the Muslims."[17] He also said that the Coptic Church must obey the Egyptian constitution instead of behaving like an independent body that is above it. He added: "When a Copt hides a weapon in a church, this can only mean he is preparing to use it against a Muslim." A few days later he clarified that he had referred specifically to Al-Jabalawi's alleged arms ship, and not to the Copts in general, and expressed a willingness to apologize.[18]

Al-'Awa also penned a scholarly reply to Bishoy's statements about the Koran and Islam, which was published as a two-part article, each part appearing in a different daily.[19] The article stated that Bishoy had no authority to discuss or interpret the Koran, or to try to reconcile it with the tenets of the Christian faith. Al-'Awa added: "The root of the problem is that the Church is exploiting the weak stance of the state towards it... and incarcerating anyone [whose conduct] is not to its liking, in disregard of the law and the constitution, while the relevant state institutions remain indifferent to this puzzling behavior..."[20]

Al-'Awa's statements were construed by the Coptic community as an attempt to incite against the Christians and Christianity. Pope Shenouda described them as "unfortunate," and said that he prayed for whoever insulted the Church and hoped God would lead them in the right direction. Shenouda's legal advisor Naguib Gibrail filed a complaint against Al-'Awa and his interviewer on Al-Jazeera.[21] The secretary of the Coptic Court in Alexandria called for President Mubarak to protect the places of prayer and worship, and have the relevant institutions issue an official statement correcting the mistakes in Al-'Awa's pronouncements.[22]

6. Al-Azhar: Egypt Is a Muslim State

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research responded to Bishoy with a statement that condemned his "irresponsible claims about the falsification of the Koran," which, it said, undermined Egypt's national unity. The statement declared that "Egypt is a Muslim state, as stipulated in its constitution which functions as a social contract among all its citizens," and that the Christians' status as citizens with equal rights and duties – the status granted by Muhammad to the Christians of Najran – was contingent upon "their respecting the Islamic identity [of the state] and the civil rights anchored in the constitution."[23] This statement, which was endorsed by Egyptian Mufti 'Ali Gum'a,[24] evoked much rage in Coptic circles. The Secular Coptic Front called on Al-Azhar to retract its claim that Egypt is a Muslim state and acknowledge its responsibility for the consequences that may arise from this statement. [25]

Attempts to Alleviate the Inter-Religious Tension

1. Mubarak: Matters of Religion and Belief are a Line that Must Not Be Crossed

In an effort to calm the situation, in his Victory Day speech President Mubarak called to preserve national unity and refrain from harming it: "We are working to [establish] a modern civil state... which does not mix religion and politics, which underscores the principle of citizenship, in theory and in practice, and which maintains unity among its Muslim and Coptic sons." Mubarak added that nobody in Egypt was above the law and the constitution, and warned that anyone instigating strife and civil war, and threatening Egypt's security and stability, would be dealt with firmly.[26]

2. Pope Shenouda: It Is the Copts Who Are the Guests of the Muslim Majority

The heads of the Muslim and Christian religious establishments were likewise recruited to the peacemaking efforts. Pope Shenouda, who made numerous appearances in the media, said on Egyptian TV that he was sorry if Bishoy's statements had caused pain to Muslims, and denied the existence of arms caches in churches. He said that Bishoy's statement about the Muslims being guests of the Copts may have been taken out of context, and added: "We are [all] living on land that belongs to Allah. We are [all] guests in Allah's land, so nobody can say that the Muslims are the guests of the Copts. [In fact,] I am willing to say that we Copts are he guests of the Muslims, because [the Muslims] are the majority... We must defuse all this tension... It cannot be [defused] by creating [more] tension, but only by through peace, love, calm, and mutual understanding..."[27]

A joint statement issued by Shenouda and Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb said that matters of religion and belief are a red line that nobody must cross. The two reiterated Mubarak's call to preserve the social fabric and oppose the extremists, and condemned any statement maligning the religion of any Egyptian, whether Muslim or Christian. They added that there was no difference between the sons of the homeland, who all live together under a single flag, and that there was need to pass laws against offending the religious sensibilities of any Egyptian.[28]

3. Restraining the Media

As part of the efforts to prevent escalation, the Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya movement warned against issuing fatwas sanctioning violence against Egypt's Copts in response to Bishoy's statements, and called on the Muslims to confine their reactions to peaceful protests.[29] The Egyptian media was also pressured to cooperate. Egyptian Information Minister Anas Al-Fiqi called on the Egyptian and Arab satellite channels to refrain from dealing with controversial religious issues, and promised to monitor the contents of the Egyptian TV channels and of some NileSat channels for potentially inflammatory materials.[30] At Al-Fiqi's urging, several satellite channels signed a memorandum of understandings in which they undertook to avoid contents that could harm Arab societies, spread a discourse of hatred and violence, or deepen religious, sectarian or ethnic division.[31] Later on, several NileSat channels were shut down temporarily, including Al-Nas and Al-Rahma.[32]

Egypt's Supreme Council for Journalism called to uphold the principles of journalistic ethics and to handle controversial statements with maximal accuracy, with an eye to protecting national unity.[33] It was also reported that the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, with the support of Al-Azhar and the three Egyptian churches, had initiated a move to stop the publication in the press of materials that could trigger crises,[34] while the Egyptian Journalists Union established a committee to formulate regulations for covering inter-religious relations in Egypt.[35]

4. The Impact of Al-Qaeda's Threats

Eventually, it was Al-Qaeda's threats that caused a shift in the Muslim tone towards the Copts. Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb condemned the threats, and said that intimidating the Egyptian Copts is tantamount to intimidating the Egyptian Muslims, because both are an integral part of the social fabric.[36] Egyptian Salafi preacher Sheikh Muhammad Hassan said that Egypt's Christians enjoyed the status of ahl al-dhimma (protected people), and therefore no Muslim may kill them or permit their killing. Rather, the Muslims must respect anyone who is not harming their faith, as stated in Koran 60:8: "Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just."[37]

Pope Shenouda commented that, paradoxically, Al-Qaeda's threats had had a positive effect, because they "caused many people to feel solidarity with us, including Muslim clerics, writers, journalists and security personnel... [as well as] many Islamic institutions and newspapers, who expressed their support for the Church."[38]

Reactions by Egyptian Media

Most of the writers in the Egyptian press, both Muslim and Christian, who addressed the issue of the recent inter-religious tensions, focused on the attempt to find common ground and to reconcile between the two sides, while avoiding such topics as the status of the Coptic Church and its relations with the state, and differences of religious doctrine and belief. Muslims writers condemned Bishoy as a representative of an extremist faction within the Church, while Copts emphasized that he and his supporters harmed the Church and did not represent the majority in the Coptic community.

Following are excerpts from some of the articles:

1. Al-Gumhouriyya Editor: Bishoy Is the Flag-Bearer of the War against the Muslims

Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gomhouriyya, wrote: "For a long time now, Bishoy has been an emblem of extremism in the Church, and the flag-bearer of the war – not only against the Muslims, but against anything that is not Orthodox. Bishoy has decided to be the powerful spearhead of Christianity. Certain leaders in the Church appointed him to this position, in order to prove that [the Christians] are not a downtrodden minority and that they are able to embarrass the Muslims...

"For this reason, it is inconceivable that his statement was a slip of the tongue, or [merely] a reaction to an extremist Muslim position. Bishoy represents a powerful faction in the Church, and he is the first who has dared to insult the Koran [by casting doubt on] the Koranic text and the time at which its verses were revealed. [Even] Dr. 'Awa, extremist though his statements were, did not discuss the tenets of Christianity. Some Muslims take an extremist stance vis-à-vis the Copts, but they do not question the New Testament... Bishoy is taking us to a very dangerous place, in which the followers of each religion try to interpret the other religions as they see fit... This is [like a] bomb that Bishoy is hurling in our faces...

"Had he spoken for himself alone, his statements would not have bothered me. But the [fact] is that a large number of priests leapt to his defense, which indicates that he is backed by a powerful institution, and therein lies the problem: those who support him are all priests, whereas none of Al-'Awa's supporters are from Al-Azhar. That is the difference between the two religious establishments in Egypt: Al-Azhar [deals only] with matters of faith, while the Church is [not only] a religious body [but also a] political, social and legal [one]..."[39]

2. Egyptian Journalist: Bishoy's Statements Are Contrary to the Christian Faith

Egyptian journalist Ahmad Basha described Bishoy as the Christian counterpart of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Bana. He wrote: "Anba Bishoy undercut the Christians' demand for a civil state and embarrassed all those who sympathize with this [demand]... The outlook of Bishoy, who is officially close to the Coptic Church and to Pope Shenouda and is one of the hawks within the Church, is no different from the outlook of Hassan Al-Bana, [founder of the Muslim Brotherhood], and of [Al-Bana's] movement, which has given birth to many extremist and armed religious organizations...

"In Christianity, the term istishhad [martyrdom] refers to one who confesses his faith, and not to one who spills the blood [of others]. [In Christianity, this term] is not associated with jihad and self-sacrifice. The Christian faith is based on tolerance. It does not encourage its followers to kill, and does not send them forth to perform massacres and die as martyrs, unless [someone] demands that they worship idols or renounce their faith, as happened in ancient times...

"Therefore, the statement of this extremist patriarch [Bishoy, that the Christians would martyr themselves before permitting the authorities to search the churches] was meant to serve a political, rather than a religious, goal... Bishoy's statement oozed extremism, and was part of the trend that currently dominates the Church, [namely the effort] to revive, or establish, a Christian Brotherhood movement modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood..."[40]

3. Coptic Activist: How Did We Suddenly Turn from Persecuted into Persecutors?

Many Copts emphasized that, despite the belligerent tone of Bishoy's statements, they are not the attackers but the attacked. Coptic activist Mounir Bishai wrote: "Egypt has recently experienced an intense hurricane that, according to many, can be referred to as Hurricane Fitna... Like most natural storms, [Hurricane] Fitna left Egyptian society in tatters, especially the relations between Christians and Muslims in the country. Its most destructive [feature] was perhaps the attempt to alter accepted norms, which changed overnight. Before the [storm], we Copts felt like a minority deprived of its rights, but now we are being accused of the opposite: of drawing our strength from abroad and persecuting the Muslim majority.

"Suddenly we have shifted from complaints to self-defense, from demanding [our] rights to [trying to] convince the public that we are not depriving others of their rights... Before [Hurricane] Fitna we were known as the weak and attacked [party], and now we are being accused of amassing weapons... How have we suddenly turned from persecuted into persecutors, from the weak [party] into the strong and tyrannical [one], from the attacked [party] into the infamous attackers, and from the poor [party] into the rich exploiters? How did these lies become widespread, without us gaining any ground or improving our situation one whit?..."[41]

* L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 25, 2010.

[2] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), September 29, 2010; Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 8, 2010.

[3] Shumukh Al-Islam forum, August 28, 2010. See MEMRI JTTM report: " A Call to Kidnap and Kill Tourists and Christians in Egypt," September 3, 2010,¶m=IDTA.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 2, 2010. See also MEMRI JTTM reports: "ISI Attacks Baghdad Church, Threatens to Attack Christians, Churches Throughout Middle East," November 1, 2010,¶m=APT; "ISI: Churches, Christian Organizations Are Now Legitimate Targets," November 3, 2010,¶m=APT.

[5] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), November 4, 2010.

[6] A source in the Egyptian judiciary said that the ship had actually arrived from China, and that its cargo was not explosives but an illegal shipment of toy rockets for firing on Ramadan. Al-Ahkbar (Egypt), August 16, 2010; Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 23, 2010.

[7] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), August 16, 2010; Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), August 17, 2010.

[8] A body of Al-Azhar alumni that was dismantled in 1999 by a court order for attacking the moderate positions of then-Sheikh of Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi. The Front was re-established one year later in Kuwait, and has since continued to expresses extremist positions on religious, political and social issues.

[9], August 19, 2010.

[10] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 15, 2010.

[11] The verse states: "In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary. Say: Who then has the least power against Allah, if His will were to destroy Christ the son of Mary, his mother, and everyone that is on the earth? For to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between. He creates what He pleases. For Allah has power over all things."

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 24, 2010.

[13] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), September 24, 2010; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 27, 2010.

[14] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 26, 2010.

[15] On September 24, 2010, some 1,000 protesters demonstrated in front of a mosque in Alexandria, and on September 30, thousands protested in Cairo, demanding to put Bishoy on trial and to suspend Pope Shenouda from his position. Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), October 1, 2010.

[16] The lawsuits were filed by over 100 attorneys, who called to investigate Bishoy for challenging the Egyptian authorities, inciting fitna (strife) and harming national unity. Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 20, 2010; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 26, 2010.

[17] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 16, 2010.

[18] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), September 16, 20, 2010.

[19] The first part appeared in the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. However, this daily, one of whose owners is Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, decided to not to publish the second part, and it appeared instead in the independent daily Al-Misriyyoun.

[20] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), October 3, 2010.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 21, 2010.

[22] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), September 19, 2010.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 26, 2010.

[24] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 27, 2010.

[25], September 26, 2010.

[26] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 6, 2010.

[27] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), September 27, 2010.

[28] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 7, 2010.

[29] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 21, 2010.

[30] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 28, 2010.

[31] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 14, 2010.

[32] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 14, 20, 2010.

[33] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 28, 2010.

[34] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 3, 2010.

[35] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), October 13, 2010.

[36] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 3, 2010.

[37], November 10, 2010.

[38] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 5, 2010. The Egyptian government press, in responding to Al-Qaeda's threats, mostly took the line that Egypt does not regard these threats as a tangible danger to its security, for it is able to defend itself, but that the Copts are part of the homeland and Egypt will not let anyone harm them or undermine its national unity. For example, Makram Muhammad Ahmad, chairman of the Egyptian Journalists Union, wrote that the terrorist organizations have deviated from the true path of Islam in spreading strife and destruction, and that consequently, the Egyptian people feel do not sympathize with them and would respond with force if Al-Qaeda makes the "mistake of its life" and tries to stage attacks in Egypt. Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 4, 2010.

[39] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), September 27, 2010.

[40] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), September 18, 2010.

[41], October 24, 2010.

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.