Religion: between spirituality and dogmatism

Sent On: 
Sun, 2022-04-17
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Western Christians celebrate Easter while our Coptic Orthodox brothers and sisters are going now in the Holy Week, the last week before the celebration of Easter.


Ramadan for Muslims and Lent for Christians are supposed to be periods of spiritual reflection, strengthening the personal connections of believers to God which adds to meaning in life, but sadly many people confuse spirituality with dogmatism, the belief that particular religious principles are undeniably true, without consideration of people with different beliefs. Truly religious people can apply rules in their own lives, but some believe they have the duty to enforce them in public places upon people with different convictions.


On April 7 a 60-year-old man stabbed the Alexandrian Coptic Orthodox priest Arsanios Wadid [Arsāniyyūs Wadīd] to death. The reasons for this stabbing are not known. Was this because the man had developed a hatred for Christian clergy and the priest was walking in his priestly robe in the street (as all Orthodox priests do)? Or did the two know each other and was the murder related to a personal vendetta?

Pope Tawadros [Tawāḍrūs] said in a sermon at the Saint Bishoi Monastery in the Wadi Natroun that the Church is waiting for the results of the investigations into the murder. He also expressed his hope for the results of these investigations to be publicly released, Egyptian Streets reported on April 14. It is important to make the results of investigations public since that will not only help the government but also the church and other actors in society to address possible reasons behind this attack.


Coptic social media users claimed on April 5 that Mariam Waheeb [Maryam Wahīb], a Coptic Orthodox woman from Beni Suef had been kidnapped by Muslims. On April 12 Mariam responded publicly in a live video stating that she had converted to Islam. On April 14 the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Beni Suef issued a statement that Maryam had safely returned home after prayers of the Pope, Bishops, family and friends. The statement also thanked the national security services for their efforts in finding Maryam Wahīb and her daughter and handling the crisis, with special thanks to president al-Sīsī, the Ministry of Interior, and the governor of Beni Suef. MP Nader Youssef Nassim [Nādir Yūsuf Nassīm],deputy head of the religious affairs committee in Parliament, denied claims on social media that Maryam had been kidnapped. According to him it was only a family issue not a sectarian conflict and that the problem had been contained. He too thanked Egypt’s national security agencies in handling the problem with wisdom, credibility, and professionalism.


Maryam Wahīb is a young mother of three who took her baby with her when she disappeared. The various announcements around Mariam, remind me of Kamilia Shehata [Kamilya Shiḥāta] who left her husband, a priest, in July 2010. This immediately sparked rumours about Kamilia having converted to Islam. I have later met with Kamilia and her husband and small child through the mediation of an Orthodox bishop after the couple had gone into hiding after rumours of conversion had sparked unrest. There had indeed been marital problems. It is very common in Egypt that women with marital problems would seek a hiding place where husband would not be able to find her. In fact, my Coptic wife and I have, in the 1990s, hosted such a woman for a few days. These rumours are also related to the Coptic Orthodox Church not allowing divorce except in rare circumstances. A number of Christian women who wanted divorce have for that reason converted to Islam as conversion to Islam is reason for divorce in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The reference of Nādir Nassīm could be an indication to such marital problems. Coptic social media users would have done well not to rush to claims of kidnapping. In response to their claim Muslims around Kamilia asked or pressured her to make a statement that she had converted to Islam. That in turn is risky since this may motivate some Islamists in claiming that she indeed converted to Islam but that she was pressured by the church and/or her family to return to Christianity as had happened in the case of Kamilia Shiḥāta which forced them to go into hiding and later leave Egypt.


The thanks given to Egypt’s security forces, the governor and the President indicate that the church has sought on the highest-level possible connections to Egyptian authorities in an effort to seek a solution. This confirms what one often hears in Egypt that the current relations between the church and state are good.


I have investigated numerous similar stories in the past and one should always be cautious with claims of kidnapping, since this is a term that suggests the use of force against someone’s will but the reality of the cases I have seen were always more complicated and involving numerous social issues. Conversions from one religion to the other are highly sensitive in Egypt. They are seen as a shame for the family and community of the converted person and thus the tendency is to immediately accuse the community the person has converted to. Please see our report on conversions, the translation of my 2011 Dutch report about Coptic Orthodox marriage law and divorce contributing to tensions within interfaith relations. We have also numerous other reports and articles in our database about conversion issues.


On April 10, a certain Selvia Botros [Silviya Buṭrus] wrote on her Facebook page that she had taken her daughter to a koshary restaurant and had ordered food just before the fasting was to be broken. The child (no age was mentioned) at a small amount of food before iftar time and was rebuked by the waiter, Egyptian Streets wrote. This is, however, such a trivial issue. Prior to iftar restaurants in Egypt are full of people waiting for the moment that their fasting can be broken. Egypt’s Christians are fully aware of this tradition, and I expect Christian parents to teach their children to wait in public places until they can eat just as their fellow Muslim citizens. Two days later, Al-Masry Al-Youm [Al-Miṣrī al-Yawm] published an article that asked whether “infidels” should be served food before iftar [ifṭār]. Not the incident itself but the article in Al-Masry Al-Youm is shocking. Al-Masry Al-Youm is seen as a liberal quality newspaper but this incident is truly small. Koshery restaurants are frequented by lower income people. It is not only reporting about something very small, the style of reporting blew this out of proportions. The use of “infidels” is totally inappropriate. Some Muslims use this as a denigratory term for Christians. Christians dislike this very much. It is surprising that such an article passed editorial scrutiny. The newspaper later publicly apologized for the headline and stated that it did not represent the values of the newspaper.


Pope Tawāḍrūs II found it necessary to reflect on these various incidents. This is a “

blessed month of fasting and worship,” the pope said in reference to both Ramadan and Lent. “So it is inappropriate to publish articles or broadcast videos that harm or offend any religious group in Egypt, to preserve the safety and stability of our country, and prevent the distortion of its image in front of ourselves and abroad.”


Pope Tawāḍrūs II, naturally, called for steps to be taken to strengthen coexistence in Egypt. He spoke of a renaissance led by President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi [ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī]. This needs the renewal “of minds and thoughts through education, correcting concepts, strengthening values of coexistence and true citizenship, and preserving the bonds of national unity.”


These are very good words but these need to be implemented through concrete actions. Egypt is working on this but much more is needed in a country with many believers who believe that only the principles related to their faith need to be implemented and that the faith of others does not count. We have to be careful in what we publish. Blowing up stories, including claims of kidnapping without evidence of forced conversions or attributing denigratory names to other people, should be avoided at all times.


Wishing our readers, a week that will be spiritually uplifting,



April 17, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Dialogue Across Borders