12 January 2017
The canal running through Izbet Chokor, called Al Bahr by locals, acts as a lifeline to the village.
(photo: Don Duncan)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the ways Christians and Muslims are Finding Common Ground in one Egyptian village. He offers some addition reflections on his visit below.
I was living in Lebanon when the series of national revolutions known as the “Arab Spring” broke out. At the time, I was covering the region as a freelance journalist. While I had been to Tunisia shortly after that inaugural revolution of the Arab Spring had kicked off, once the news started to hit that Egypt was following suit, everyone knew that this was big, big news.
Many in the region view Egypt as the “beating heart” of the Middle East. It is a large country — in terms of population and of historical significance — and it acts as a sort of fulcrum between various parts of the Arab world: between the Levantine countries; the Arabian Gulf area and Iraq on one side and the Maghreb and the other Arabic-speaking African states on the other, such as Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan.
Sitting in my living room in Beirut, with my flat mate Dia, we watched agog, as pictures of thousands of people streaming onto Tahrir Square in Cairo flickered across our TV screen. Within a few days, I myself was in Egypt covering the events as they unfolded. But it wasn’t until months later, when the dust started to settle, that the new dynamic and primary currents in post-revolution Egypt began to come into focus.
In early 2012, a year after the beginning of the Egyptian revolution stated, I returned to Cairo to make a video documentary for the website of The Wall Street Journal about these new currents in Egypt. Among the various changes apparent in post-revolution Egypt, some of the big changes we covered in this documentary included the sudden rise and expanding power of the previously repressed Muslim Brotherhood organization. In parallel, another current was the growth in persecution against Egypt’s Christians, who represent some 9 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. The vast majority of that number is Coptic Orthodox, but it also includes minorities within the Egyptian Christian arena: Coptic Catholics, as well as various Protestant churches.
Across the broader Middle East region — since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the other Arab Spring revolutions post-2011 — the same narrative has played out: dictatorial regimes have fallen, giving rise to the emergence of hitherto repressed Islamist movements, leading to increased persecution of Christians. Apart from the Egyptian example, this has occurred most notably in Iraq and Syria.
However, on arriving at Izbet Chokor, I found a completely different picture to the one that had been so often presented by the media. Izbet Chokor, the village on the outskirts of Al Fayoum city, some 60 miles southwest of Cairo, is the place I traveled to in order to report my most recent story for ONE magazine. There, I found a village with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims who live in peaceful co-existence and love. This was due, in large part, to the Service Center, run by the Coptic Catholic church there, which offers educational, healthcare and social services to all the residents, regardless of religion.
It was a big surprise to me to learn that the major center of religious tension in Izbet Chokor was not between Christians and Muslims but rather one that was intra-Christian in nature — between Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic.
According to many people I spoke with, some of them members of the church, the rivalry and tensions between the majority Coptic Orthodox and minority Coptic Catholics in Egypt are fierce, mostly manifesting itself in the form of verbal attacks, intimidation, and bullying.
This is a religious face-off I have never heard of in the current context in the Middle East. I wondered why. Is it because it is of less geopolitical value than the Muslim vs. Christian narrative? Is it because it is happening within a minority? Is it because Christians prefer not to air their “dirty laundry?”
Regardless of the reason(s), this discovery showed me that inter-religious fear and animosity can exist anywhere where ignorance is allowed to breed. It is not about some clash of civilizations or age-old incompatibilities, as the media subtext regarding Muslims and Christians seems to suggest. It is about ignorance and manipulation by politicians or the media, often both.
So, in this time of heightened tensions, misunderstanding and suspicion between the West and the Muslim world, I feel it is incumbent on us as Christians and human beings to do our utmost to re-inject humanity and nuance into the divisive, fear-inducing and dehumanizing media discourse we are subjected to by our politicians and media.
Read more in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE. Meantime, get another glimpse of the Service Center in the video below.
Tags: Egypt Muslim