Coptic Christians singing in Cairo metro spark controversy


Religion is a perilous subject in Egypt. A video of the Coptic Aghapy Choir singing in the Cairo metro has gone viral and has sparked controversy over public expressions of faith and religious intolerance in Egypt.

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The sight of young Copts singing hymns sparked a debate about the public expression of the faith, even within the Coptic community and among secular Egyptians. Nabila Makram, Minister of Emigration and Egyptian Expatriate Affairs and member of the Coptic Church, shared the video on her personal Facebook page to commemorate the feast of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary.

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the holiday on August 22, preceded by a 15-day fast. Estimates of the number of Copts in Egypt vary widely, with the community saying there are at least 20 million in a nation of 110 million, while the government puts the number at around half.

Ishak Ibrahim, researcher on minority affairs at the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights (EIPR), told The Media Line that “there are people who listen and read the Quran aloud, especially verses that declare non-Muslims to be infidels, and sing in a loud voice that is tired or exhausted while you are on your way. If you find yourself rejecting this, you shouldn’t.

The Greek and Coptic word agapy refers to the highest form of love mentioned in the New Testament. It can also mean a “feast of love” – a meal shared by members of the early Church expressing Christian fellowship and fellowship. The word can be spelled both “Aghapy” and “Aghaby” because Arabic does not have its “p”. The viral nature of the choral video is in itself a sign of its importance, noted Makarios Lahzy, a human rights lawyer.

“The incident is unusual, exceptional and has a measure of courage. It’s brave in the face of reality, ”he told The Media Line. “The reality is that Egyptian society does not tolerate the public expression of the faith of Christians. Sometimes they are not allowed to sing in their churches and it is possible to demolish those churches ”, despite their objections.

“The public sphere is supposed to be open to this kind of expression. At the end of the day, it’s a work of art like street theater, ”Lahzy said. “Not to mention that it is open to Muslims to express much more than that in public. Any discomfort resulting from this act should be investigated.

In December 2016, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stressed the importance of renewing interfaith discourse. Over the following years, he facilitated an annual interfaith dialogue at St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai.
EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a ceremony in Ismailia, Egypt, in 2019 (Credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)

Cairo International Airport Museum celebrates the holiday with a display in Terminal 3 of an icon of the Virgin Mary seated on a throne, holding the Infant Jesus and a golden halo surrounding her head, while two angels appear behind her.

Airport officials told Mobtada, a local news portal, that the Virgin Mary holds a special place in Islam and among Muslims. They noted that the Quran states: “Here! The angels said: “O Mary! Allah chose you and purified you – chose you above the women of all nations.

As the authorities make efforts to develop tolerance between Christian and Muslim communities, Christians in Egypt face an unwelcoming public space. Nancy Boktor, 36, a translator from Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, was accosted in a subway women-only car on August 29, 2019 by two Muslim women wearing niqabs, clothes that cover their faces while leaving their eyes exposed. .

They forcibly cut her hair, saying: “This is so that you learn to cover yourself!”

Attacks and incitement against Christians are not uncommon and create conditions conducive to sectarian violence and self-censorship.

Ibrahim said he saw no problem with “singing under exceptional circumstances, for once, and the result of chance, if there is no intentional normalization of the public display of the faith.”

However, he warned against the imposition of “a religious character on the public sphere and in particular on public transport”.

Boktor told The Media Line that “I get disturbed when there is a person sitting next to me in the metro and reading the Quran out loud and forcing it on me. I would also be annoyed if I found a Christian praising or singing because he is forcing it on me too.

She explained, “Years ago I saw an elderly person walking on the subway and screaming, ‘Kyrie eleison’ [Greek for ‘Lord have mercy’], as if he was singing in church. To me, this person is very annoying. The problem is that in Egypt we are used to attacking the personal spaces of individuals, especially in public transport.

Amany Fawzy, conductor of the Aghapy choir, told The Media Line that they did not infringe on the freedoms of others by singing hymns on the subway. It was 10 p.m. and there were no other passengers in the car when they drove off, she noted. “When some of the passengers entered, they were very excited by the joyful atmosphere presented by the choir,” she said. If anyone had objected, he “would have respected that immediately,” Fawzy added.

The Coptic Aghapy Choir organizes public events in cultural and public spaces, sometimes with Muslim artists performing and composing with them. The singers pointed out that the incident lasted for a maximum of six train stops, or about 15 minutes. They stopped when the subway started to fill up out of respect for other passengers.

Ibrahim said the other dimension is that “it is not a designated place for prayer and religious rites, even though the car has few passengers. This does not prevent the question from triggering a controversy. And I think that was their motivation to do this; if the metro was crowded I don’t think they would have done that.

Said Fayez, a Coptic lawyer, told The Media Line: “I think what happened is very good for many reasons, not for telling other Egyptians that Christians exist or for proselytizing, but for create greater interfaith understanding. “

He further explained that “Mina Daniel, who died during the Maspero protest in 2011, activist Ramy Kamel and I tried to do it in Tahrir Square during the revolution. We conducted the Coptic prayer in Arabic from the Tahrir Square stage in the hope of addressing the lack of public awareness around the Christian community. This deficit has led to the spread of misconceptions and urban legends such as Christians performing magical rituals or kissing inside churches. These misconceptions are used to incite against the Church and the Copts within the conservative rural community of Egypt.

The Maspero massacre took place in October 2011 when security forces attacked peaceful demonstrators protesting the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt allegedly built without the proper permit, killing 24 people and injuring 212 others.

Fayez is the defense lawyer for Kamel, a prominent Christian activist currently detained for his defense of the civil rights of the Copts. Kamel, also known for defending urban poor and rural Egyptian peasants, was charged in November 2019 with joining and funding a terrorist group and disrupting public peace.

“The incident [on the metro] is hailed as a triumph of freedom of opinion and expression, using the incident as proof that there is no sectarian problem and that there is space for tolerance and acceptance of the other, ”Ibrahim said. “It’s a good thing, but if you want the other to respect your personal space, you have to do the same. We must reduce religious expression in the field of public facilities.

If “the incident is a one-time event, it is acceptable in this context,” Ibrahim continued. “But repeating it is undesirable as it could trigger a cycle of reprisals and sectarian accusations on both sides. This would violate the privacy of individuals and their individual freedoms. “

Fayez notes that “of course, this does not mean that Christians have to impose themselves on others while declaring themselves”. But he clarifies that “we are just saying, ‘Know me as I know you’, in the hope of creating greater coexistence and reducing intolerance.”

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