Egypt: Where Muslims think heaven is not under the feet of Coptic mothers… and Coptics think to love a muslim is to live in Sin…

“Heaven is under the feet of mothers” says the veiled teacher in Arabic telling us, students, the prophets words; in attempt to exemplify the importance of motherhood and illustrate the reward God will give these good mothers for all the suffering. This particular teacher goes on to say, “Except for Nelly’s mother; because she is Christian.” As a six year old sitting in a religious education class at the King Fahad Academy in 1986, England, I remember being horrified as I, with the big imagination I had, imagined my most loved mother walking on that thin rope they told us you had to cross between hell and heaven – and not making it to the other side… It is, no doubt the same thing my sister felt, 15 years later from the Egyptian Saturday school teacher, also in London, who said the same thing. We both had nightmares of the fall into a pit of fire they told us was waiting, where your skin would heal every time it was burnt so that you could suffer its excruciating pain of burning again and again, and having been informed, by a figure of trusted authority, that the mother we both so much love, would not find heaven under her feet, was simply harrowing.

On both occasions my very brave mother, who I know will be making it to heaven, should heaven actually exist, took herself to our respective schools and demanded to meet the, now quite embarrassed, bigoted, teachers and I loved watching her put them in their place. But who was my mother really fighting? Was she fighting these two small minded, brain washed, unprofessionals? No. The fact that both my sister and I, over the course of 15 years, in two different schools, by different teachers, suggests that what was happening here was a deep rooted, systematic otherisation of Christians in the Muslim/Arab context and that the worrying thing was that it did not get better over time, nor worse, it was stationary, like it was a taken for granted fact repeated over the years. This suggests, perhaps, that you cannot fight sectarianism from the top down, it needs to be grounded, from the roots up, a cleansing of the rotting and decay at the very bottom that is manifest in Egyptian and Arab schools from the day they enrol and are asked what religion they are, not for equality assurance purposes.

Let’s get even more uncomfortable with this, because it’s easy to point fingers only at the Muslim inter-dimensional failings and oversee the problems which the Coptic congregation itself. Before I share my opinion on this, I would like to clarify where I am coming from to justify why I feel credible. At the age of 13, I decided to leave the King Fahad Academy and I started going to the local Coptic Church in the UK where I learnt many wonderful qualities of love, forgiveness, solidarity etc. I spent 8 years going to church, totally taken by the sense of community that was lacking amongst the muslim equivalent. During this time, I enjoyed all the good this community taught, but also was made acutely aware of the biting sting of forming a tight community where the congregation closes it’s gates high to outsiders seeing everyone “muslim” (not other, but muslim) as a persecutor. Of course, there are many reasons the Copts feel justified for feeling this, but it is unhelpful to adopt the “excuse of abuse” to reinforce, in new generations, the divide, the difference and accept it through normalising it, joking about it and sharing secret tapes of muslim converts to christianity being abused by their muslim families, for example, or creating this space where your Coptic children only played football with your coptic friends children, went to the cinema together, trips together etc. etc. The church, too, is guilty of ostracising it’s own followers if they fall in love with non christians, especially muslims. I, for example stood in confrontation with my pastoral Father (now Bishop) and asked him if I was, in the eyes of the church, a bastard child and he stood silent. The first boy to fall in love with me was advise against marrying me because of my muslim father and what this would mean for his children. Any christian woman married to a non christian could not “receive the grace of god” in the form of holy communion should she feel an urge to go to pray because she was having sex, in the eyes of the church, outside marriage.

Passiveness on the part of both Christians and Muslims is also a stamp of shame, guilt and oppression. If you, as a Muslim have done nothing more than recount the times you’ve had a Christian friend or had breakfast with a a Christian neighbour, if you’ve not protested every time they’ve had their churches burnt, if you’ve not been outraged every time they have had to hit walls getting licences to get water into their churches, or building them in the first place; if you have not stood protecting their churches during their festivities to ensure their safety, if you don’t actively teach your children about equality, then you too have contributed to the persecution and death of Copts in Egypt. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to think this way, but its time we stopped giving government more power than it deserves, we, along with the state need to be held accountable.

But the Copts need to step up their game of inclusion too… let me give you an example. When I was getting married, my husband and I decided we would include a quaranic verse and a verse from the bible in our wedding invites. This way, we would be doing something out of respect to all our christian and muslim family and friends. Everyone in our families thought it was a great idea and I was pleased. I went to get these designed and printed at a Coptic wedding stationary store. The assistant took our orders and one day before collection, the manager called and told us he removed the quote from the bible because he was scared of state security – this was two years after 25th Jan!! After lots of fights and tears and frustration – not because I could not have the wedding invites the way I wanted them, but because this guy gave in after my uncle from “state security” called him and his tone was now full of fear, respect etc. I was sickened by this man who epitomised everything wrong with the Coptic community who were scared and lacked the bravery to stand and merge into wider society. The same reasons perhaps that many would not admit led to the poor turn out at Al Khosoos funeral – and of course, the Copts were right… the mourners were indeed attacked – so how can you convince them they are wrong? It is a vicious circle we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into, in Egypt.

The recent deadly attack on Coptics in AlKhoso, Cairo was not solely state responsibility.  The state has a duty of care, and a duty to ensure justice for the church and the Christians murdered in the recent clashes – both which the state has miserably failed in so far; the list is long with offences against the Copts in Egypt where the state has not performed its role, or anywhere near avenged the people it is meant to include in its rubric of protection and security. Of course this is the role of the state, and it’s the role of the government to ensure it is not systematically enforcing its persecution of minorities in, say, the curriculum – many are turning a blind eye that year one religious education books now mention the Muslim Brotherhood ten times etc.

However, we need to very clearly distinguish responsibility so that we, as a society reproducing culture and discourse, can also be held accountable for the role we play in these horrific incidents, because if you’ve asked someone their religion, if you’ve asked your child if the person they’re marrying is of the same religion, if you’ve justified being unfair in your dealings with someone based on their religion or domination, if you’ve refused to employ someone because of their religion, if you’ve preferred to have your children play with kids from the same religion, then I’m sorry to say, you are also responsible for the deaths of the Copts in this country. And… let’s be even more honest, it’s not the Copts burning down mosques, or killing etc etc. So yeah, they have it worse…

Everything needs to be addressed simultaneously; the churches getting burnt and attack is one story, the patriarchal attack by Muslims also needs to be addressed, e.g. the Salafi men harassing Christian women, the Muslim men killing the Christian engaged couple for holding hands, the Muslim men cutting off the ear of the Christian man to teach him a lesson. This superiority Muslim men are giving themselves over children, women, Christians and other minorities is beginning to stink. The Copts too need to start teaching their own children not to carry chips on their shoulders, that it’s not each for their own, to risk integrating outside their congregation. Once the people themselves have been brave enough to address and affect change within their communities, then they will be strengthened to start asking for justice from the state when their churches are burnt and their mourners are attacked. Oh Egypt… what a confusing mess.

29 Comments

  1. ” if you’ve asked your child if the person they’re marrying is of the same religion” What parent doesn’t , you should know why. And you shouldn’t of expressed a sickening with the stationary worker but rather your Uncle. Very insightful thanks for sharing and very true that the problem is deep rooted in .. Religious teachings .. I don’t want to say culture.

  2. Okay, this totally incorrect.. We NEVER consider it a sin when we love Muslims, cuz GOD told us than we should LOVE all humanity including Muslims and non-Muslims and every soul..

  3. When my parents asked me what religion my boyfriend was, it was solely out of concern for my welfare as they worried I may not understand how it could affect my life. I told them I didn’t know and then asked him. I went on to marry my Coptic Christian husband and we have been married 38 years.
    I have lived in the Middle East for 35 years and have come to believe that I will never understand the hatred and intolerance I have found here. My father was a British officer and we lived in Europe and Asia and I never heard my parents say one bad word against another race or religion. I thank God for that every day . I have heard Christians here say awful things about Muslims and Muslims about Christians and Jews and it is very sad .

    • I am so uplifted that your marriage has been blessed this way and pray it continues to shine in your hearts… thank you for sharing your story and for reading mine.. and here’s hoping that what religion was originally about… love, respect, care etc. is what fills the heart of those who follow it… x

  4. Nelly, I hear so many people talk about the sectarianism and how we’re both to blame, but no one has talked about the coptic side before. I get so annoyed when people talk about the ‘hate’ rhetoric on both sides and how it must stop. It showed such ignorance of the coptic side of the problem because I felt that hate rhetoric meant a preacher telling a congregation to hate and attack the other, and frankly this doesn’t happen in a coptic church. We are far more subtle. Just like you described. I agree with everything you said (with the exception of interfaith marriage. I just think its way too confusing for a child to have each parent teaching the child different and lets face it, on some points contradictory faiths. The fact is Christianity is a religion that asks for your whole heart and no less).
    I agree with you that we lack the courage to merge into greater society. But the fact is, the scars of persecution remain ,and there needs to be a concentrated effort by society to get rid of those. I don’t think that can happen before the government decides it want to enforce justice.

    You can’t convince copts to lower their defences when the field is still so dangerous. I really would love to talk to you about this and possible solutions more.

  5. These peoples are coexisting on this geography for thousands of years. Was there an era more problematic than this? Was there an era, muslims were more ignorant to their religion than this?

  6. My dear Nelly, your blog was brought to my attention by a few people who had read it and found it concerning. Having read it myself, I think that it is a great shame that 10 years of pastoral relationship could be summarise into one very simple yet unrepresentative sentence. I have no recollection of that ‘silence’ as it was never the basis of our interaction for all those years. I have always respected you for your ability to think and express freely…but more importantly, fairly, and I fear that for whatever reason, this is somewhat remiss here. Having said that however, if this is what you feel, I would like to assure you that it has never been, is not, and will never be my view of you or anyone else in a similar situation. As for Egypt, while I agree with much of what you say in terms of the need for social interaction and cohesion, I think that matters are slightly more complex and need a wholistic mind-shift that focuses on mutual acceptance and respect, away from the divisive and fragmenting culture that has been nurtured for so long. Egyptians are a blessed people who are the victims of a state that has not lead them down the right path of a single and powerful national identity for decades, and until this changes, we will remain within this vicious spiral of polarisation, anger, resentmant and further polarisation. If anything, I believe that events since the uprising have brought like-minded Egyptians together across religious and political divides. On a more personal level, while I have every respect for what you may think, I am saddened by this being the only memory you have of a community that truly loved and accepted you unconditionally, and continues to do so. I continue to pray for you, and for Egypt, that spirit of mutual love and respect may one day truly reign for the good of all.

    • Dear Fr Angelos, Having ignored every single message I have sent you over twitter in the last year, I am glad there has been something that has moved you into acknowledging me again.

      The community that accepted me, did not do so unconditionally, for I was rejected as a suitable wife – I was also told at the time, this was your advice – and the never asking after me once I left was painful at the time. However, I do miss, love and respect that kindness and support that was afforded to me at the time which was missing from all other aspects and I am not here denying it.

      Of course things are complex, and this is the message I am trying to portray in the post.

      Thank you for keeping me in your prayers, however, I would have loved to have hear from you when I reached out.

      • My dear Nelly. I must clarify that I was overjoyed with our last conversation, albeit too long ago and with the agreed meeting afterwards that did not materialise. I must point out that I do not, as a rule, use Twitter as a means of communication as it is a public platform and I prefer more personal interaction. It is for that reason that I do not have any recollection of your reaching out and assure you that I would never knowingly or intentionally ignore that because, as you may remember, it was I who was trying to arrange for us to meet. Having said that, I would greatly welcome any contact; you now have my email and my number is still unchanged. In conclusion, I must stress that I most definitely would not have advised anyone away from you as you are and have always been a treasured daughter, and are an asset to anyone and anything you come in contact with. This will be my last post but am looking forward to any further personal contact.

  7. عزيزنى نيللى
    عفوا لردى بالعربية التى أجيدها أكثر وأرجو أن لا يتضايق أحد من قرائك الأعزاء.
    قراءة لك كثيراً ومن المعجبين بكتاباتك ونشاطك وخدمة رعاية أولاد وأحفاد الشوارع وأتمنى لك التوفيق والإستمرار والتقدم.

    موضوع زواج المسيحى من مسلمة أو العكس، موضوع شائك ومعقد خاصة فى مصرنا العزيزة أم العجائب والغرائب. وله جذور تمتد إلى قرون كثيرة، ولعل أهم مايعيق مثل هذا الإرتباط، هو موقف الأسلام الذى يجيز زواج الرجل المسلم من المرآة المسيحية ولكنه يمنع زواج المرآة المسلمة من رجل مسيحى. وبالتالى إن موقف الكنيسة هو المنع فى الإتجاهين، لأن الكنيسة لو سلمت بالمبدء الإسلامى لذهبت كثيرات من المسيحيات وتركن المسيحية. هذه وجهت نظرى أو تحليلى الشخصى، وقد أكون مخطأ.
    فى بلاد المهجر (بعيداً عن مصر) تسمح الكنيسة لزواج أبنائها من غير المسيحيين (الأرثوذوكس) ولكن ليس من المسلمين أيضا. لماذا؟ لأن الجذور المصرية مازالت ممتدة ومنغرسة فى المهجر. (كما فى حالتك) ويتم هذا الزاوج بعد أن ينال الطرف، غير الأرثوذوكسى، المعمودية (بعض الأحيان تكون صورية لأنها لم تتم بإيمان وقناعة حقيقة إنما بغرض إتمام الزيجة، لهذا بعضهم لايعود للكنيسة مرة أخرى).

    طبعاً هذا المنع له أسباب إنجيلية أيضاً كقول القديس بولس “لاتكونوا تحت نير مع غير المؤمنين” (2 كو 6: 14).
    سأحكى لك قصة حدثت منذ حوالى ثلاتين عاماً عندما كنت طالباً بالجامعة. أحد زملائى عرف أن له عم متزوج من سيدة ملسلمة منذ نحو 25 عاماً. وقد قاطعته عائلته تماما بتحريض من الجدة (أم هذا العم). بدء صديقى بالبحث عن عمه، الذى كان يسكن بمصر الجديدة، حتى وجده وذهب مع إخيه الأكبر لزيارة عمهما، الذى كان يعيش مع زوجته المسلمة وهو مازال مسيحياً ولم ينجبا أولاداً. وكم كانت فرحة هذا الرجل وزوجته بأولاد أخيه الذين لم يراهم من قبل. أقنع صديقى والده بضرورة زيارة العم وعودة العلاقات الأسرية (خاصة أن الجدة المتسلطة قد ماتت) وبعد جهد مع الأب ذهب مع أبنيه وزوجته لزيارة شقيقه بعد أكثر من 25 عاماً من القطيعة.
    هذا الرجل (العم) أحب فتاة وتحدى عائلته وكل العوائق التى وقفت فى طريق سعادتهما وتزوجها (لاأعلم بأى طريقة) وعاشا معا. أنا لا أحاكم الرجل هل فعل صواب أم خطأ، هذه قناعته الشخصية وحياته التى سيحاسب عنها.

    ماهو الغرض من هذه القصة؟ العائلة رأت أن أحد أفرادها قد ضل وترك حظيرة الإيمان. بينما باقى العائلة مازالوا مؤمنين، يذهبون للكنيسة، يصومون، يصلون ويتناولون. لكن ينقصهم أهم شئ … المحبة … ينقصهم أن يحبوا إخيهم … ماهى المسيحية بدون محبة ؟… لاشئ … لاتساوى شئ.

    عزيزتى … سأكون أكثر صراحة معك … هل أنا شخصياً أقبل فكرة الزواج من ديانة أخرى؟ بصراحة .. لا .. كما ذكرت إن الجذور عميقة وعقيمة أيضاً فينا كمصريين وتغيرها قد يأخذ أجيلاً، هذا إذا كان هناك نية للتغير لكن الظاهر للعين أن تعميق وتثبيت هذه الأفكار يسير بخطى سريعة جداً فى مصرنا العزيزة.

    لك من كل الإحترام والتقدير

    • Thank you so much for sharing this ya Ihab.. You articulated yourself very well and I appreciated the post in Arabic🙂

      You are right tab3an, and so is everyone… The thing with religion is that the person who believes, of course, feels they are right… and if they are, then the other is wrong… this is where it gets complicated in my opinion….

      I was born to parents of mixed religion and one day I will post my experience with this… but for now, what I am concentrating on is how we can live with each other without fear, without a type of fear that makes muslims harm christians and makes christians hide in their shell… fahimny?

      Thank you for following my posts and your support…
      Your new friend,

      Nelly

      • Dear Nelly, I love your writings and every night I look for your posts. You are a person of great values and you are acting upon them. Keep up doing your great work. We should not judge God by the deeds of the believers for humans are weak and vulnerable. Only God is perfect.

  8. للاسف هذا هو الواقع
    الخطباء في الجوامع بتحرض المسلمين على المسحيين
    شيخ اتكلمت معاه بيقولي احنا لازم نعامل المسحيين بكل قرف قولته هو دينك قال كدا قعد ساكت
    حتى لو دينه بيناه عن هذا الامر هيعمله لانه ميعرفش حاجه عن دينه و لا عن الانسانية
    وواحد جالي فيه جرح في رأسه بيقولي مش هسيب المسيحي اللي ضربني وعورني لو كان مسلم كنت سبته
    وعشان كنت بدافع عن المسحيين في مذبحة ماسبيروا قالوا لي انت غيرت ديانتك
    المجمتع بيحاول ينشر فيك افكار قذره تجاه الاخرين ولو انت انسان هترفضها
    كان لينا جار مسيحي مكنتش الزيارات بتنقطع في اي مناسبة لينا و ليهم احنا جيران
    والناس يقولك انتوا بتتعاملوا معاهم ليهم سيبك منهم
    تروح تشتري من مسيحي ليه ويقول ما تروح تشتري من المسلم , انا مستريح في التعامل مع اللشخص ده اي كان , انت ايه شأنك
    انت الوحيد اللي ممكن ترفض الافكار العنصرية انها تدخل دماغك اي كانت عقيدتك
    مش بعرف اكره شخص لانه على غير دينتي او لانه مختلف معي فكريا , ايه المبرر اني اكره حتى لو ضرني انا هتضايق من تصرفه او عشان عمل غلط وربنا اللي هيحاسبه مش انا وهتجنب التعامل معاه ولو هو كويس وحس اني متجنبه هيسأل ايه اللي خلاني اتجبنه ممكن يكون الخطأ ده غصب عنه او ميعرفش ان ده غلط بس لو اصر على ارتكاب الخطأ يبقى هو شخص سيئ
    بس اللي اتزعت داخله الافكار القذره والعنصريه صعب انها تتمحي

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