Coptic Play Shadows Egypt’s Legislative Polls
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, October 23, 2005 (IslamOnline.net & News Agencies) – The sectarian tension in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria over an anti-Islam play produced by an Orthodox church is casting a shadow over the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Arab worlds’ most populous country.
The Coptic candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in Alexandria, Maher Khella, was in a fiery mood insisting that the play at issue did not convey an anti-Islamic message and decided to withdraw from the parliamentary race “to defuse tensions” and in protest at the Muslim demonstration.
“The (Muslim) demonstrators burned copies of the Bible yesterday. This is unacceptable and right now we can’t even accept excuses,” Khella told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Sunday, October 23.
“I have presented a request to my party demanding my candidacy in the elections be withdrawn in an attempt to defuse the tension,” he added.
At least three people have been killed and around 60 injured in violent clashes Friday, October 21, between thousands of Muslim protestors and police in the coastal city amid mounting tensions over a DVD release of the play produced by the Mar Girgis Church two years back.
Entitled “I was blind and now I can see”, the play tells the story of a young Christian who reverted to Islam and is exhorted by a sheikh to kill priests and destroy churches.
Abused and maltreated by the sheikh and his group, the young man eventually abandons Islam. The play further mocks at the bases of the Muslim faith.
One of the protesters categorically denied in statements to IslamOnline.net’s correspondent that copies of the Bible had been burned.
“We only chanted pro-Islam and pro-Prophet Muhammad slogans,” he said energetically.
“Muslims holds the Bible in high esteem and see Jesus as one of the messengers of Allah. All we demanded during the demonstration was a clear apology from the church.”
Friday’s mass rally erupted after the expiry of an ultimatum demanding a formal apology from Coptic Pope Shenouda III.
Calm had returned to the streets of Alexandria Saturday, October 22.
But IOL’s correspondent says tension between Muslims and Copts in this coastal city is to aggravate unless the Church leaders listened to the voice of reason and offered an apology via the media in case they wanted to nip the sedition in the bud.
An NDP source criticized Khella’s “escape” from an expected crushing defeat at his constituency in the parliamentary elections due to kick off on November 15.
“He might have felt unlikely to win the election, and took advantage of the incident to evade the loss and retreat from the contest,” said the NDP official, hitting out at Khella for linking his election bid to the current standoff.
“Add to that, Khella is not representing the Muharram Bek constituency where Mar Girgis church exists.”
Khella is not even popular at his Ghorbal constituency, added one of the district’s eligible voters.
“The NDP has fielded him because he is a business tycoon who owns one of the country’s largest spirits factory,” added the voter, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The incident also played well into the hands of other candidates.
Independent Mohammad al-Badrashini was so keen on showing up daily in the troubled district, though he was running in another constituency.
A number of NDP candidates have also appeared in the area during the demonstrations, and some of them tried to convince church leaders to say sorry.
The candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood further demanded the Coptic Orthodox Church to clarify its position on the play.
“I”m not asking for an apology but the Church must make a clear statement because the DVD was watched by many and it clearly harms the image of Islam,” Osama Gado told AFP.
The liberal opposition Ghad party candidate, Tamer Harfush, also stepped in and lambasted the play.
“The play compares Islam and Christianity, Jesus and Prophet Muhammad, presenting the first as a man who sacrificed his life and the second as more preoccupied with earthly pleasures,” Harfush said.
Pope Shenouda III and the Church”s lay council issued a statement stressing that the play had been performed only once two years ago and accusing the Egyptian press of fanning sectarian tensions.
“Should Christians be blamed for mere rumors that are spread by newspapers?” Shenouda asked in the statement, which was carried by the official MENA news agency.
Another statement was issued by Pope Shenouda III and Al-Azhar Grand Imam Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, calling on all sides to practice restraint.
“As we celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, we gather around one table to break the fast, Muslims and Christians together,” it said.
The pope”s scheduled participation Saturday, October 22, in an Alexandria Iftar was postponed.