Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi took to the streets of Cairo on Friday, just two days after hundreds were killed in clashes between protestors and security forces.
Since Morsi was ousted on July 3, the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters have been calling for his reinstatement. The Egyptian president was removed from office after months of protests against his rule.
Meanwhile, scores of Christian Churches have been attacked in the wake of Wednesday's violence, reportedly in retaliation for Morsi's ousting.
In an interview with ZENIT, John Pontifex, head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke about the escalating situation in Egypt, and what this means for Christian communities in Cairo and throughout the country:
ZENIT: In the days following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, there were some reporting a sense of hope for change. Is there still this sense of hope after Wednesday's clashes which, as of last report, claimed the lives of more than 600 people?
Pontifex: I appreciate that we are talking about a period of barely six weeks, but Egypt is now in a very different place to where it was just after President Morsi was ousted. We have seen a sudden and dramatic shift from political debate to full-scale violence with talk of this great country descending into Civil War. Morsi supporters and opponents were always at odds ideologically. What has changed is not only a complete breakdown of cooperation between the two but the emergence of raw anger and fear that has dire consequences regarding prospects for peace. There is a real concern now that the country could almost literally tear itself apart; as the passions have mounted, it has become clear that tens of millions are diametrically opposed in their struggle for the soul of the country. We have seen the vast crowds come out in support of Morsi but we must also remember the vast numbers perhaps 30 million or more who protested against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, encompassing the full spectrum of society. These are people who wanted at least a major change in the administrations policy agenda if not the downfall of the President himself. The one hope and indeed prayer is that what will prevail is the voice of those many people both Muslim and Christian who want to see the emergence of a tolerant country respectful of minority groups and where the dignity of the human person is safe-guarded.
ZENIT: How are Christian communities being affected by the violence?
Pontifex: I am still reeling from news received by us at ACN by the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate in Cairo giving a list of 23 attacks on Christian communities. These extend from Alexandria right down to Luxor, all the way out to Suez but centering on Upper Egypt. Bishops in the region have told us that the total figure is probably much higher. The date of Augustb14 2013 will be remembered for years to come. As well as churches set ablaze, there were attacks on Coptic pharmacies, clinics and schools. It is too early to make a proper assessment of the damage done but it is particularly distressing to read of the destruction of the Virgin Marys monastery in Delga Village, an institution that dates back to the third century. It is devastating to think that some of the churches that I saw when I went to Egypt as a guest of the Coptic Catholic Church are among those damaged and destroyed. It is even worse to think that those who kindly hosted our visit are among those whose lives now lie in tatters.
On Friday, August 16, we at ACN spoke to Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut whose diocese has been in the firing line. As well as spelling out the peoples fears about a continuation of the violence, he said the Copts are being falsely portrayed, he said, as key instigators behind the overthrow of President Morsi, despite clear evidence that a wide range of groups including leading Muslims stood shoulder-to-shoulder with General Sisi when he declared an end to the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
It is clear that the Copts are an easy target, that they are not going to fight back in the way that other groups would. Violence and persecution are not new in the experience of Copts; they live with it to a greater or lesser extent much of the time and perhaps it is this which explains why Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor told us today: We are happy to be suffering and to be victims and to lose our churches, our homes and our livelihoods to save Egypt for Christians and Muslims. They know there is a high price to pay for their commitment to faith and freedom.
ZENIT: Could the incident in Cairo have an impact on interreligious relations in Egypt, particularly between Christians and Muslims?
The most obvious impact of the violence would be to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims. Islamists are blaming Christians for the ousting of Morsi and are encouraging their co-religionists to punish them. In the meantime, Christians are increasingly living in fear of attack. But there is another story less visible to the camera lens as it focuses in on burning church buildings and people fleeing the scene of violence. And that is how young Muslims actually came together with Christians to stop their churches being burnt down and indeed stopped Islamists from physically attacking Copts. Bishop Kyrillos William described how Muslims effectively pushed back armed Islamists marching towards Christian areas in the Old City of Assiut. He said that young Muslims do not share the Islamists vision of a theocratic Egypt. The bishop added that, in the interests of freedom, many Muslims, as well as Christians, want to see a clear separation of religion and State. The Bishop said that in his experience a large proportion of Muslims were deeply disillusioned by the Muslim Brotherhoods hard-line policies. There is a genuine concern about the spread of Islamism not just in Egypt or indeed in the Middle East but across Africa and serious questions need to be asked about where such groups are obtaining their funding, training and most especially arms. They risk poisoning relations not just with other religions, including Christians, but with more moderate Muslims and are causing fracturing and conflict within the Islamic world. Time and again bishops have told us that their relations with their Muslim neighbors have been and in many cases still continue to be very good, but that they are being undermined and sometimes ruined by hardliners coming in from elsewhere.
ZENIT: What is being done on the part of the Christian communities to help the victims and their families?
Pontifex: Aid to the Church in Need is committed to providing practical, pastoral help to Christians who are persecuted and oppressed so Egypt ranks as a top priority in this time of crisis. The first element of any rebuilding has to be prayer. When I spoke to Bishop Kyrillos and asked him what we should do, he simply said: "We need your prayers and comprehension. What encourages us so much is the prayers we receive from our brothers and sisters throughout the world." That help needs to take practical form; as a charity we are committed to helping the faithful who want to build an Egypt for everyone. In practical terms, we will continue to help the Church supporting Sisters who minister to the poor and the needy as well as teach catechism, training seminarians and other prospective teachers of our faith; Mass stipends for priests remains crucial especially for clergy ministering in areas of persecution and extreme poverty, There are schools, Childs Bibles and pastoral centers as well as multi-purpose halls which all receive support. It is too early to suggest what might be needed in the wake of these devastating days but our project partners the bishops and religious superiors know they can turn to us confident of our support where at all possible. I also need to point out that because of the sensitivity of the situation, the charity cannot go into detail about specific elements of its work.
The plea is also for us in the West to wake up to the reality of what is happening in Egypt and put pressure on our own governments to insist that the ways of violence and oppression are stopped in their tracks. In interviews, Coptic bishops have made it very clear that peaceful protest and demonstration is one thing but unprovoked attack is quite another. As the country stands on the precipice, it is more urgent than ever that governments take this message on board.