Conflict & Justice

Embassy Violence: Coptic Christians in the crosshairs


Egyptians protest at the American Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012 against a film deemed offensive to Islam that may have been supported by Coptic Christians abroad.



As a violent mob scaled the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo yesterday and hoisted an al-Qaeda flag, the world watched nervously.

Next a crowd in Benghazi, Libya attacked the consulate there, causing the death of four Americans including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Both events were part of an angry chain reaction by some Muslim faithful to an American piece of right-wing anti-Islam propaganda depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed as an imbecilic, sinful and hypocritical character.

But while the embassies burned and riots continued, in Tahrir Square, a different kind of protest was taking place. Quietly, a group of Coptic Christians gathered to condemn the film as well. They held banners and signs and were led by Mary Daniel, the sister of beloved Coptic revolutionary Mena Daniel, who was killed last year.

Many Egyptian Copts have decried the film, called "Innocence of the Muslims," saying they were "the first to express strong condemnation to all sorts of contempt or disdain against any religion, as well as to the sowing of sedition between people who embrace different religions."

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"The Egyptian Orthodox church of Alexandria was first to condemn the film and its makers," wrote a blogger who only goes by the name Zeinobia author of the popular Egypt Chronicles blog, from Cairo. "Already I can not tell how many tweets I received from Christians in Egypt and outside it against the insulting film and its makers, it was overwhelming." 

At the Embassy, too, Copts protested the film in solidarity alongside Muslims, but there was anger aimed them as well. Signs reading "We are All bin Laden, You (Coptic) Dogs of the Diaspora" and others saying Egyptian nationality should be revoked for expat Copts were also draped over the walls of the US Embassy, according to blogger Jayson Casper, who was at the heart of the protests yesterday and posted pictures of the Coptic solidarity protests. 

A Coptic youth group called the Maspero Youth Union — formed after the Egyptian military put down a protest, leaving 27 Copts dead — has also protested against the film in Cairo, reported, holding a vigil Wednesday "to protest against the film that insults Islam and the Prophet Mohamed."

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Copts in Egypt have long been on the receiving end of violence and marginalization by Muslims, a conflict that spans centuries. Bombings of churches and razing Christian villages are almost commonplace, and the minority Copts have had little recourse. 

However, there has been hope recently that with a new, democratically elected government, Christians might have a place at the table in Egypt, something President Mohammed Morsi has encouraged by promising to appoint Christian ministers. And he may have to move on that sooner than later to keep the peace. 

"It's a powder keg and it's the duty of everyone - citizens and governments - to be aware of things and situations that might be incediary and might add fuel to the fire," said Randa Hudome, a member of the board of the American Egyptian Strategic Alliance. She was also close friends with Ambassador Stevens.

"President Morsi has promised to appoint Coptic Christians to his cabinet, and he needs to pay attention to the strife that's going on and to be able to address those issues very forthrightly, openly, and transparently."

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The events of the past day may be damaging in the long term to whatever peace was forged between Copts and Muslims in Tahrir Square during last year's revolution. 

Revelations that the "Innocence of Muslims" film was promoted (and even possibly acted) by Egyptian Coptic expatriates in the US has poured fuel on the fire, and some fundamentalist Muslims are alleging the Coptic community is behind the movie, despite attempts by Coptic groups to distance themselves from it. 

"The media reports are conflicting about who produced [the film], who's funding it, and who was behind it," said Hudome. "We're not clear on the facts of the film, and any attempts to smear the Coptic community all over the world is misguided at best."

However, it is clear that a lawyer named Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian Egyptian expat living in Washington DC, promoted the film alongside Florida Pastor Terry Jones, and is the head of a group called the National American Coptic Assembly that has been a vocal opponent to Islam for years.

Sadek is a dual citizen of Egypt and the US, and has continuously maintained that Islam is a violent religion and that the Prophet Mohammed was a deciever and a hypocrite. 

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“The violence that it caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people are and it is evidence that everything in the film is factual,” Sadek said in a telephone interview with the Wall Street Journal today.

Meanwhile, Sadek and nine other Copts have been added to an arrivals watchlist by the Egyptian head prosecutor for their alleged involvement in the film and "insulting the Prophet," a move that some on social media sites are calling a "witch hunt."

Hezbollah and other Islamist leaders have accused the filmmakers of using the movie as a tactic to draw Coptic Christians and Muslims into conflict, according to Lebanon's English-language paper, The Daily Star.  

“This [film] is a suspicious work behind which stand extremist Coptic and Jewish financiers. [It] aims to fuel the flames of hatred and raise the level of tension between Muslims and Copts in Egypt so as to drag them into accursed strife,” Hezbollah said in a statement. 

The Coptic Church, too, has implored hard-line Islamists to look past the propaganda and work together. Egyptian weekly paper Watani reported that in a statement yesterday, the Coptic Catholic Church of Egypt "called on all parties to forget the past and to strive to achieve understanding, solidarity and cooperation in order to preserve common values."

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of Egypt's continuing revolution, check out our Special Report "Egypt Votes: From Tahrir Square to the Ballot Box."