Egyptian film takes on Christian-Muslim relations
CAIRO – A new film seeking to smash Egypt”s sectarian taboos takes a light approach to Muslim-Christian relations but critics say it fails to lay the blame for religious tensions where it belongs — with the state.
The big budget “Hassan wi Morkos” (Hassan and Morkos) traces the lives of Hassan, a Muslim sheikh played by the legendary Omar Sharif, now 76, and Morkos, a Christian priest played by comedy veteran Adel Imam.
The film opens with a scene at an annual Muslim-Christian dialogue convention, openly underlining the mistrust each has of the other through conversations on the sidelines.
As two priests discuss the lack of building permits for churches because of antiquated laws, two Muslim sheikhs whisper about Christians controlling the country”s wealth, in a stab at Egypt”s powerful real-life Christian tycoons.
A series of events puts both the lead characters” lives in danger and they are ordered by a senior state security official to go into hiding and take on new identities from the other side of the sectarian divide.
But despite the attempt to discuss such a sensitive topic, particularly in a time of deep tensions, the film fails to truly explain the root of the problem, ignoring the reasons behind some Muslim and Christian tensions.
“The problem with the film is that it does not tackle the issue with depth, ignoring the political, economic, historical and security challenges facing national unity,” film critic Tarek Shennawi said.
It only tackles one facet of Muslim-Christian relations: “You like the other until you find out their religion,” critic Ola Shafei said.
“The state is behind the spread of corruption”
Egypt”s Copts — the largest Christian community in the Middle East — account for an estimated six to 10 percent of the country”s 80 million inhabitants and some of them complain of systematic discrimination and harassment.
In June, the Coptic Ecclesiastical Council issued an unusually strongly worded statement urging President Hosni Mubarak to guarantee the safety of Christians in Egypt after a violent attack on a monastery in May in which four Copts were injured and a Muslim killed.
The film “does not come anywhere near to dealing with the problem because it is too deep, especially in the last few years, as opposed to the 1930s and 1940s when Hassan and Morkos would have loved each other,” Shennawi said.
Egypt”s Muslims and Christians have traditionally had good relations, often celebrating each other”s holidays together, but the rising fundamentalism of both religions of recent decades has seen each community adopting increasingly entrenched positions.
Shennawi said that the state”s security-heavy approach to social issues has caused Muslim-Christian relations to turn sour.
“The state itself is behind the spread of corruption among the security apparatuses who have taken on the sectarian issue, turning the tensions into the full-blown crisis that we are witnessing today,” Shennawi said.
Social issues become religious because Christians often cannot reach senior official positions without the backing of the church, because the state wants men of religion, be they Christian or Muslim to show loyalty, Shennawi said.
While the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest political opposition grouping in Egypt, Mubarak”s regime has sought to retain its own Islamic credentials through making many senior religious appointments political.
Today, the Grand Imam of Cairo”s Al-Azhar, the government appointed interpreter of Islamic law, play political roles for the benefit of the state in order to retain their jobs, Shennawi said