Problems on hold
The mighty security apparatus, Udysat
With the assault on its church on the evening of Wednesday 18 January, the village of al-Udeisat in Luxor, Upper Egypt joined a list of other Egyptian villages that had lived in age-old obscurity until some violent sectarian event moved them into the realm of international limelight. Shame indeed! Instead of gaining world renown on account of being the birthplace of a son or daughter who realise some unprecedented feat; or a site of a historic discovery, an ultra-modern facility, or a global event; these modest, hitherto unheard-of villages carved a place for themselves on the world scene as sites of ferocious violence. Mobs terrorised, injured, and murdered peaceful residents, looted their property and set it aflame, for no reason other than that these residents differed in their faith, and had the temerity to worship in small, modest churches which they built and the interior of which they renovated years later. The villages of Kafr Dimian east of the Delta, Girza in Giza, Beni-Walmes and Tahal-Aameda in Minya, Upper Egypt, have all claimed places on the world map of events throughout the last decade. Will other villages or hamlets, the names of which we never heard before, join them?
A look at the factors that led to the Udeisat attack highlights several problems, and raises the bitter question: Till when will such problems remain shelved, or placed on hold? How can the perpetrators of violence escape unquestioned and unpunished, either because the inadequacies of the security apparatus remain beyond accountability, or because of the so-called cosmetic and ineffectual “reconciliation sessions” in which the victims and attackers are brought together by the local councils for an official reconciliation following attacks.
The quasi-governmental al-Ahram Cairo daily termed the Udeisat church a ‘guest house’. This is a flagrant fallacy intended to establish the concept that the irregular worship held in the church since 1970, which was sometimes open for prayers and sometimes closed by the authorities, was illegal since the building had not been licensed as a church. It should be noted that the Udeisat church is no exception, but stands as one in a long line of churches the licensing of which was for decades placed on hold, despite arduous efforts by church officials to obtain licences. The issue exposes a morbid situation where the Constitution stipulates freedom of belief and equality between citizens regardless of their religion, while in fact the security authority grants or withholds rights of worship according to the whim of its chiefs, with ignominious bias towards one religious sector and against the other.
A series of presidential decrees was issued since February 1998, the last of which was last December, to phase out the legislative restrictions on church building, restoration and renovation. Local and security authorities however, especially in Upper Egypt, are unable to grasp that the real implication of these decrees is to establish equality between Egyptians. Instead, they hold on to their dominion over the fate of churches, those in charge of them, and their congregations. Udeisat is a case in point; no sooner had Holy Mass been conducted in the church following restorations—which, according to the last presidential decree, may be conducted once the local authorities are “informed” of them—than the district security chief dropped in. He raged at the priest for resuming religious services and left in anger, threatening that the matter will not be overlooked. So, instead of propagating among the population a culture of acceptance of the other, as implied by the presidential decrees, the security authorities—secure in their immunity to questioning or accountability—propagated an entirely different message. They made it clear that presidential decrees meant nothing to them; they were the powers that be.
Such behaviour on the part of the security authorities encouraged the fanatics in the village, who could not accept that a Christian would ever be equal to a Muslim, to conduct their infamous raid on the church. These security officials should thus be brought to account, since their attitude led the mob to understand that heinous acts against Christians would go unpunished.
Other details beg explanations. Why was there no security presence whatsoever at the site of the Udeisat church following the wrathful visit of the security official? It could not have escaped the authorities that the general mood, especially between the Muslim fanatics, had become strained. And who had access to cut the electric current off the district of the church, thus facilitating its attack by the mob under the cover of the dark? Unless all the above issues are investigated transparently and candidly, similar events are sure to recur.
I do not regret my call to dedicate 2006 to the cause of national reconciliation, and am not going back on my effort to promote pro-activity between Muslims and Copts as an antidote to their mutual alienation and antagonism. But it should be very clear that the Udeisat attack is no mere antagonism; it is an act of outlawed hooliganism run wild, and should be accounted for before the law. Infringements on equality and public order cannot be forgiven, and this should in no way be confused with reconciliation.