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.