Marwa Helal


Sectarian Strife

Sectarian sentiment ran high in parts of the Greater Cairo Area in May as clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians in Al-Ayaat district of Giza.

At least 60 Muslim residents attacked Christian neighbors when rumors spread about a plan to build an extension to a church. Eleven Christians were injured and several cars and shops damaged before authorities quelled the assaults, arresting 35 Muslims.

Police are still investigating and are reportedly seeking 25 additional suspects.

State-run newspapers offered divergent accounts of how the trouble began, with some alleging that the fighting was due to alleged double standards in obtaining licenses to build churches and mosques. The tug of war is reportedly over a room annexed to a church. The room was being used by Muslims for prayer, but legally falls on church grounds, some papers reported. Pundits have criticized both Muslim and Christian preachers for inciting the violence.

The incident sparked a wave of discussion in national media over how to improve interfaith relations.

Shortly after the clashes broke out, a joint reconciliation session was attended by some 50 Azhar sheikhs and Coptic priests. According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, representatives of Al-Ayaat district in both the People Assembly and Shura Council attended the meeting, along with security forces and thousands of citizens from the village.

Some Christians were disappointed with the meeting’s outcome and consider the truce brokered at the gathering a shallow attempt to placate them. At the end of the session, it was agreed that Muslims would refrain from future violence; the room would be recognized as church property, but could not function as a church. Christians would not be permitted to hang a cross in the room, though Sunday classes would be allowed.

The violence brings back memories of one of the worst sectarian clashes in Egypt, that of the Upper Egyptian village of El-Kosheh seven years ago when 20 Copts were killed in a riot following an argument between a Muslim woman and a Coptic shopkeeper.

Code Crackers

Islamic scholars in the town of Sirss El-Lyanne, in Minoufiyah, claim to have cracked the code to the Qur’an. The researchers are saying they have unlocked the meaning of 14 isolated letters, known as the “letters of light,” that had until now remained a mystery to Muslims.

The discovery was made using a software program designed by a team of computer experts for the purpose of detecting codes within the verses of the Quran. The program, which was created by Islamic scholars based on former sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), ran numerical values assigned to these so-called letters of light.

The research team included former grand mufti of Egypt Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, currently a professor of Comparative Studies in Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University; Mohamed Shaht Al Guindi, a member of the Islamic Research Council and the Higher Council of Islamic Affairs at Al-Azhar; and Meer Hamza, the Dean of the Faculty of Management and Technology at The Academy of Maritime Transport in Alexandria, among others.

The touted findings, which reportedly took nearly 11 years of research, were announced at a press conference earlier this month at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza, after being reviewed and approved by the Islamic Research Council at Al-Azhar University.

While the Qur’an has always been considered a miracle in itself to Muslims, one wonders if the strength of our faith has become so fickle that we need a secret code to activate it.

No further information about what the find actually means and why it is so important were released by the committee. A source at Al-Azhar, who was approached to shed light on the matter, claimed he had not heard about the discovery. The sheikh did, however, express interest in the news, requesting that et send him whatever information we could track down about the elusive code.

Powers of Persuasion

US Vice President Dick Cheney made a brief stop in Egypt last month as part of his tour of the Middle East aimed at persuading major Sunni countries to help lure Iraqi Sunnis to the negotiating table.

After visiting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, Cheney met with President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Defense and Military Production Mohamed Tantawi to encourage them to use their influence over Iraq’s Sunnis in order to get them to participate in a peace process. Other topics of discussion included minimizing Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.

Gamila Ismail, wife of imprisoned political leader Ayman Nour, used Cheney’s visit as an opportunity to criticize the Bush administration for failing to pressure Mubarak into making democratic reforms.

Nour, former leader of Al-Ghad party, challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence after being convicted of forging signatures to register his party.

Ismail also claimed Washington had turned its back on her husband’s case to win Mubarak’s support for US policies in the region. “The American priority is to make Mubarak help them impose the American hegemony on the region and not to safeguard democracy,” she told the press after Nour, who has a heart condition and suffers from diabetes, threatened to go on hunger strike mid-May.

Nour’s announcement of a hunger strike came after he announced police transporting him from his prison cell to a court hearing allegedly beat him and dragged him down the stairs.

Shortly after the visit, US President George W. Bush telephoned Mubarak to wish him a happy birthday, congratulate him on his son Gamal’s marriage and thank him for agreeing to see Cheney. Mubarak celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday this year.

Read more from this...