The world must heed the likely chilling effect of Islamic religious constraints on Egypt’s middle-class revolution, says a prominent church leader in Cairo.
Ramez Atallah, General Secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, who is Presbyterian, pleaded for the church to widen its sympathies in the wake of violence at St Mary’s Church in Imbaba, Cairo on 7 May, in which six Muslims were among those killed.
Copts should not ‘be alarmist about the likelihood of burning down churches all the time’, Atallah said in correspondence seen by Lapido. ‘Liberal Muslims are more at risk than Christians from stringent religious proscriptions, and Christians should speak up for them’, he said.
An extremist mob targeted the 50-year old church because it was relatively new, he said.
‘Older churches have a lower risk of attack because they are not associated with a new expansion of the Christian community’, he added.
Indigenous Christians would remain relatively safe only so long as they ‘remain in the confines of their churches and do not try any evangelistic activities aimed at Muslims.’
The Muslim Brotherhood officially denounced violence many years ago, and strongly condemned recent attacks believing it created the ‘wrong image’ of Islam as a violent faith, said Atallah.
‘What would better reflect the spirit of Jesus Christ and could capture the imagination of Muslims is that Christians and human rights groups would speak loudly for the rights of liberal Muslims in Egypt and the Arab world, and show empathy and concern for what is going to happen to them when and if a rigid Muslim state is imposed.’
He believed that restrictions on freedom of conscience for Muslims would be a more significant issue than violence.
‘Freedom to change one's religion is inconceivable in a Muslim society. Being a Muslim is as close as your gender identity,’ said Atallah. ‘When they talk about freedom in Egypt, the West misunderstands that.’
Restoration work on icons destroyed in the attack is being undertaken in record time by the Middle’s East’s largest contracting company,, Arab Contractors, with 60,000 employees and a presence in 28 countries.
Coptic iconographer Dr Jackie Ascott agreed that the problem was with newer churches rather than old. She told Lapido: ‘Older churches are less at risk of looting as they are not seen as part of a Christian expansion’, she said.
Her own son Gavin, 35, was shot in the eye from crossfire from security forces in Tahrir Square.
She said she welcomed the speedy restoration work, adding that the damaged icons would serve as a lasting monument to Egyptian endurance.
Dr Ascott, who gained her PhD at the Coptic Institute in Cairo, said that although the works of art could never be fully restored, they would serve as a reminder of the Coptic story.
She said: ‘As damaged, they may have some significance in the life and history of the Church – as a reminder of a time of testing.’
Extremists set fire to St Mary’s Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on 7 May. It is a poor area known for its high number of radicals. Witnesses watched as they hurled petrol bombs into the four-storey building after failing to get into the nearby church of St Menas.
According to state news agency MENA, they were incensed by false rumours that a female convert to Islam was being kept inside St Menas.
The mob managed to destroy 10 out of 27 icons beyond repair. Six Muslims, three Christians and a tenth person, whose religion was not known, were killed in the attacks. Nearly 200 people were injured.
Youssef Sidhom, editor of Watani, a Cairo-based national newspaper for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, praised efforts this week by the government to restore the Imbaba church in Cairo. Perpetrators have still to be brought to justice.
The country is due to go to the polls in September, followed by voting for a new president and rewriting the national constitution.