After all, nothing says “Religion of Peace and Tolerance” like claiming someone else’s sacred ground as a spoil of war and sticking a mosque on it. It is intended as a permanent exercise in supremacist gloating. This act would only uphold a long tradition of building mosques on sacred sites seized in Islamic conquests, just like the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the Hagia Sophia, along with innumerable other churches, synagogues, and temples from Spain to India and beyond.
Despite the vague headline about “wars of religion,” what follows is a refreshingly complete report. “After the Egyptian Revolution: The Wars of Religion,” by Rania Abouzeid for Time, March 10:
The angry, aggressive crowd formed within minutes of my arrival. Dozens of Muslim men, all in ankle-length galabiyas, suddenly came together in the middle of the dusty, dirt path leading to the Church of the Two Martyrs in this poor, mixed Christian-and-Muslim village some 210 kilometers south of Cairo. They were determined to block access to what has become a sectarian sore, a church overrun by Muslim locals and desecrated, an act that has prompted desperate national calls to maintain the inter-religious unity forged in Tahrir Square during the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.
“Interfaith religious unity” was only a means to an end. That should be becoming clear.
“You can’t see it!” a group of men screamed. Several women in full face veils, or niqabs, scurried away, carrying plastic bags of produce. An armored personnel carrier with several soldiers in red berets watched the fracas from further up the road. Closer by, at least a dozen soldiers in flak jackets and helmets marched down an adjacent side street, barring anyone from following them.
“You are not allowed to pass,” some of the men in galabiyas yelled at me. “Leave! Leave now!”
“Are you Christian?” another asked.
“What are you going to see?” Mahmoud Mohammad, 30, who appeared to be their spokesman, said. “Destroyed walls and a burnt building?” I told him I wanted to reach the church.
“It’s not a church,” he said, raising his voice. “It is a meeting place, and we don’t want a church here,” he added, before grabbing my notebook, ripping out several pages and forcibly marching me out of the village.
The village dispute stems from a romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in the town. The woman’s relatives wanted to “cleanse their honor” of the smear of being with a Christian man, according to local media reports and as well as several of the Muslim men who gathered around me. But when the subject of an honor killing came up, the woman’s father refused. He was shot dead by an unidentified assailant and buried on Friday. To date, nobody has been arrested for the murder.
“After Friday prayers some of the youth were angry and still mourning, so they came to the church looking for that filthy Christian,” Mohammad said, referring to the youth entangled in the love affair. They didn’t find him, but they ransacked the church. “We found wine and books against Islam,” Mohammad claimed as other men interrupted to speak of other alleged wrongdoings by their Christian neighbors. “They rape our women!” one yelled. “They overcharge us at their stores!” said another.
It is unclear how many people were killed in Sole as a result of the dispute but after Christians demonstrated in Cairo on Tuesday night against the desecration of the village church, a fight ensued with groups of Muslims, leading to violence, the death of 13 people and 140 wounded.
Tensions between Egypt’s majority Muslim population and Christians, who make up about 10% of the country’s 80 million people, have simmered for decades. They rose sharply, however, after a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day. Twenty-one worshippers were killed in the attack. After the State Security Headquarters in Cairo were ransacked over the weekend, documents allegedly emerged that purported that the attack was orchestrated by elements of the government. The authenticity of the documents has not been ascertained, but the contents play into long-held fears of some of Egypt’s Christians.
Many of Sole’s Christian residents have fled, fearing further violence. Maher Sadiq, 26, isn’t one of them. He says many of the town’s Christian menfolk are still in the town, defending their homes. Sadiq, who says his house is in the same street as the church, said the remaining Christians were “living in fear.” “They’ve turned the church into a mosque,” he said by telephone. “There’s a banner in front of it that says ‘Al-Ramla Mosque.’ They’re not letting anyone pass, or go near the church. We will not leave, we’re prepared to die here.”
More on the potential significance of “Al-Ramla” can be found here.
Aziz Narooz, 27, and Hani Diab, 26, travelled from Sole earlier on Wednesday to join the hundreds of Coptic Christians maintaining a sit-in outside the State Television headquarters. Many are sleeping on blankets spread out on the pavement. Most are carrying large wooden crosses. “People are very scared, some haven’t left their homes in days,” Narooz said of the remaining Christians in Sole. “They burnt our church, they kicked around the statues of our saints. Our saints!” he repeats. “They tore up the bible and they’re still there.”
In a bid to defuse rising tensions, the ruling Supreme Military Council pledged on Tuesday to rebuild the church before Easter and punish the perpetrators of the sectarian attacks. A day earlier, the country’s new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, joined the protesters, but they refused to speak with him until their demands were met. The Copts want the church rebuilt in its original location, not elsewhere as some officials suggested, and the resignation of the local governor.
The governor refused to rebuild the church on the original site.
But it’s obviously about a lot more than a village dispute. Michael Armanios, 20, who was hoarse from chanting outside the State TV building, fears for his future as an Egyptian Christian. “The second article of the Constitution says that Shari’a is the law of the land, that this is a Muslim country. What about us?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper. “Our soldiers don’t want to hear us,” he said gesturing to the dozens of armed men manning the coiled razorwire near the building. “We want – I need – to have an opinion, I need to feel like I am a complete human being.”
“Jesus taught us to be tolerant,” said Samih Sameh, 23, who had painted a crescent and a cross on his cheeks, in the red, white and black of the Egyptian flag. “But this is too much. We are here holding crosses, not weapons. Who will defend us?”