Is Egypt’s ‘Family House’ a model for religious coexistence?

In the recent Christian Islamic Forum, held at the Notre Dame University–Louaize in the town of Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, the deputy of al-Azhar grand imam Abbas Shouman called for the establishment in Lebanon of an entity modeled after the Egyptian “Family House.”

Comprised of Muslim and Christian leaders and chaired by al-Azhar grand imam and the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Family House was established in October 2011 and mainly was a response to the terrorist attack on January 1, 2011 against the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. The idea reportedly came to al- Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb even before that, precisely following the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010. Now that almost six years after the establishment of the House of the Family, a senior al-Azhar official is suggesting the it becomes a model to be emulated in Lebanon and later on in the rest of the Arab world, the question of what it did achieve in Egypt becomes inevitable.

In his speech to the attendees of the forum Shouman said that the Egyptian Family House managed to put an end to a number of sectarian disputes and to deal with the consequences of terrorist attacks. “Members of the Egyptian Family House were always quick to be present at the scene of such incidents in order to condemn all form of extremism as well as to offer support to the victims,” he said. “It also managed to highlight the close links between Islam and Christianity as a means of achieving coexistence between followers of the two faiths.”

Coptic analyst and founder of the Secular Christian Kamal Zakher Trend criticized the role the Egyptian Family House has been playing in settling disputes between Muslims and Christians in different parts of Egypt. “Such disputes are settled in a way that gives precedence to customs and traditions over the law, which means that no progress is actually made,” he said. “It is, therefore, an entity that is trying to solve sectarian problems in the same faulty manner with which they have been solved before and which makes of us more of a tribe than a state.” Meanwhile, Zakher added, the Egyptian Family House failed in what was expected to be its main duty, which is promoting the principles of citizenship and coexistence among Egyptians. “Are there any signs that sectarian sentiments among average citizens are declining?” he wondered. “I am concerned that this entity will only be a façade that hides a great deal of social hypocrisy.” Zakher’s statements followed a series of sectarian clashes that took place in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya and in which the Egyptian Family House interfered.

Coptic writer Gamal Asaad agreed that the Egyptian Family House mainly focuses on formalities manifested in constant meetings between sheikhs and priests, yet the results of those meetings are never seen on the ground. “Dialogue is essential, but it is not enough on its own,” he said. “We do not want meetings between priests and Islamic scholars. Such meetings should address citizens in streets to uproot extremism.” Asaad said that both al-Azhar and Egyptian churches need to make public any tangible steps towards making inter-faith dialogue part of everyday life.” Asaad comments were in response to Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt and which was seen by many media outlets as a result of efforts exerted by the Egyptian Family House in promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Member of the Religious Discourse Committee at the Egyptian Family House Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Naggar said that several steps are taken on the popular level to promote the values of coexistence. “This was shown in the way Christians took part in preparing public fast-breaking meals with Muslims,” he said. “This year, this was especially obvious since Ramadan coincided with the Apostles Fast so it was a spiritual time for both.” Naggar added that Muslims also helped Christians rebuild the churches that were destroyed by terrorist attacks. “The Egyptian Family House also involves Muslim and Christian youths in activities that are not related to religion such as charity, sports, arts…etc. to assert that they are all Egyptians in the first place.” Father Botros Aziz, member of the Follow-up Committee at the Egyptian Family House, said that the Egyptian Family House works on changing misconceptions about the difference between Muslims and Christians through different demonstrations of unity that would gradually affect average citizens. “We make sure that people see sheiks and priests walking together in the street. That was new at the start, but now it is starting to look normal,” he said. Aziz added that the Egyptian Family House organized several meetings for youths in different governorates across Egypt to clarify the similarities between Islam and Christianity. “We explained how Islam is the religion of peace and Christianity is the religion of love.”

The latest dispute in which the Family House interfered took place in the city of Hurghada between two families, one Muslim and another Christian, and clashes resulted in several injuries. Reconciliation took place when representatives of al-Azhar and the church in the Red Sea governorate branch of the Egyptian Family House mediated between the two parties in the presence of the deputy minister of Islamic endowment in the governorate and several dignitaries. The two families initially took the matter to the police, yet later responded to the Egyptian Family House’s initiative and the conflict was resolved.

Turkey’s Syriac community and the threat of ‘nationalization’

The ownership of around 50 churches, monasteries, and cemeteries that belonged to the Syriac Orthodox Church for more than 1,500 years was transferred to the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Dinayet), hence turned into public facilities.

The Syriac properties, which total hundreds of thousands of square meters, were annexed by the directorate following the decision by the government committee assigned the liquidation of assets whose ownership deeds expired. The decision sent shock waves across members of the Syriac community who started fearing that this could be the first step towards the extinction of their heritage.

Kuryakos Ergun, chairman of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation, said that an appeal filed against the confiscation, which included the fifth-century monastery, was rejected and highlighted the danger of losing this monastery, one of the world’s oldest operational monasteries, and other Syriac houses of worship.

“Our churches and monasteries are what root Syriacs in these lands; our existence relies on them. They are our history and what sustains our culture,” he said. “While the country should be protecting this heritage, we instead see our culture is at risk.” Ergun added that the fifth-century Mor Meliki monastery is also among the confiscated properties. “This monastery is set beside a spring revered by pilgrims for its healing powers and was tended by two Syriac families.”

Both monasteries are located in the Tur Abdin region in southwest Turkey between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and which is known to be the historic center of Syriac heritage and the heart of its monastic history. The name of the region is Syriac for “mountain of the servants of God” and the region is home to more than 80 monasteries.

Robert Nicholson, the executive director of the Philos Project, which addresses the problems of Christians in the Middle East, attributed the confiscation of Syriac properties to new policies adopted by Erdogan’s government to control minorities in the restive southwest. “In the case of the Syriac Christians, Erdogan is using legal pretexts to seize and redistribute lands and churches that have been owned by Christians for over a millennium,” he said.

Nicholson noted that Christians were generally not persecuted by Turkish authorities and did not face discriminatory practices under Erdogan, yet he argued that this seems to be changing. “But Turkish politics are changing, and it’s still unclear how minority groups like the Syriacs will fare in the end.”

Turkish journalist Uygar Gültekin explained that the whole process started when the province of Mardin, the eastern part of which is located in Tur Abdin, was officially turned into a metropolitan municipality, which allowed the government to form a Transfer, Liquidation, and Redistribution Committee to look into the status of properties located in the province. The committee placed the properties at the disposal of the Treasury, which then transferred them to Religious Affairs.

The Treaty of Lausanne

Gültekin noted that the decision to confiscate the Syriac properties is in violation of the Treaty of Lausanne, which was also mentioned in the appeal filed by the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation. “According to Article 42/3 of the Lausanne Treaty the Turkish Government undertakes to grant full protection to the churches, synagogues, cemeteries, and other religious establishments of the above-mentioned minorities (non-Muslims).

All facilities and authorization will be granted to the pious foundations, and to the religious and charitable institutions of the said minorities at present existing in Turkey, and the Turkish Government will not refuse, for the formation of new religious and charitable institutions, any of the necessary facilities which are granted to other private institutions of that nature,” Gültekin wrote.

According to the same treaty, Gültekin added, the Turkish government is not to issue any laws or take any procedures that overrule this principle: “Evidently this erroneous ownership status is in explicit violation of the Lausanne Treaty which is the founding Treaty of the Republic of Turkey.”

Habib Efram, president of the Syriac League in Lebanon, said that news of confiscating Syriac properties in Turkey went unnoticed as was the case with other violations to which the Syriacs in the Middle East were subjected.

“The world has been watching since the massacres committed against our ancestors in 1915 and which were neither acknowledged nor punished,” he said in reference to the mass killings of Syriacs by the Ottoman Empire during World War One and which happened alongside the Armenian genocide. “In addition to what is happening in Turkey, our legacy is being eliminated in Nineveh and Palmyra,” he added.

According to minorities’ expert Suleiman Yusuf, transferring the ownership of the Syriac properties to the Directorate of Religious Affairs means that they will be treated as Islamic endowments, which makes the future of all activities taking place in them uncertain.

“Millions of people perform pilgrimage every year to the monasteries that are now confiscated. Dozens of nuns and monks also live in those monasteries in addition to students who learn there,” he wrote. “Now all those will be under the control of the Mufti which means they can be turned to mosques or Islamic centers any time.”

The story behind US deportations and the Iraqi Chaldean population

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounded up 200 Iraqi Chaldeans -114 from the Detroit area and the rest from different parts of the country, for deportation. This step followed a deal in which Iraq accepted to receive deportees from the US in return for the removal of its name from Donald Trump’s travel ban imposed on seven Muslim-majority countries.

While this is also part of the crackdown enforced by the Trump administration on undocumented immigrants, the Chaldean issue is quite complicated since their deportation could be equivalent to sending them to their death and that is why pressure has been mounting to handle their case differently.

Gillian Christensen, representative of Homeland Security Department, explained that the decision to deport the Chaldeans is legal since all of them were convicted in different crimes in the past including “homicide, rape, aggravated assault, kidnapping, burglary, drug trafficking, robbery, sex assault, weapons violations” among others: “Each of these individuals received full and fair immigration proceedings, after which a federal immigration judge found them ineligible for any form of relief under US law and ordered them removed,” she said in a statement.

The ICE also issued a statement stressing that in the arrests its personnel have been doing their routine work of detecting “removable aliens” as the statement put it.

Targeted arrests

“All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day. The focus of these targeted enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE’s Fugitive Operations Teams on a daily basis,” said the statement.

Martin Manna, and Iraqi-American Christian and president of the Michigan-based Chaldean Community Foundation, admitted that the detainees do have criminal records, mostly for minor offences like shop lifting, the possession unregistered handguns, and marijuana use, all of which having been adjudicated.

In response to Christensen’s statement, Manna said that only 3-5 percentr of Chaldeans to whom a final order of removal applies have committed the crimes she mentioned.

Manna also clarified that they are not illegal immigrants as they might appear to be. “They all came to this country legally, they’re not undocumented, they came with their families, but they came as children,” he said.

“And for one reason or another the family didn’t apply for their citizenship and before they got their citizenship, they committed a crime unfortunately.”

Manna added that committing a crime robs them of the opportunity to apply for citizenship and makes them susceptible to a final order of removal even if the crime was committed decades ago, which is actually the case with many Chaldeans.

“People would say that if they’re criminals send them back. That’s the law, but there are also laws that protect people from being sent back to a county in which they will be harmed or persecuted,” Manna added, noting that the Congress unanimously agreed that attacks against Christians and other minorities in Iraq are classified as genocide.

“So how can we as a country send them back when we know they’re going to be put in harm’s way? Who are we to give them their death sentence?”

The Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a petition to stop the immediate deportation of arrested Chaldeans on the basis that they are going to be facing extreme dangers in their home countries.

“Not only is it immoral to send people to a country where they are likely to be violently persecuted, it expressly violates United States and international law and treaties,” said Kary Moss, the executive director of ACLU Michigan.

“We are hoping that the courts will recognize the extreme danger that deportation to Iraq would pose for these individuals. Our immigration policy shouldn’t amount to a death sentence for anyone.”

According to the complaint, detained Iraqis should be given the chance to explain to a judge why it is dangerous for them to go back to Iraq.

“[They] cannot be removed to Iraq without being afforded a process to determine whether, based on current conditions and circumstances, the danger they would face entitles them to protection from removal,” said the complaint.

The complaint did manage to stall the process and on June 22, a federal court issued an order to postpone the deportation for 14 days. The order is to expire on July 6.

John Moody, Fox News executive vice president and executive editor, argued that the deportation of Chaldeans is a misinterpretation of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. “That’s probably not what Trump intended when he ordered a round-up of alien criminals,” he wrote.

Moody added that even though arrested Chaldeans committed crimes in the past, they should not be punished for them by deportation: “To be fair, these aren’t saints. All of the detainees have criminal records, though their lawyer, Clarence M. Dass, argues the majority of the convictions are for minor drug offenses and financial crimes dating back to the 1990s. Some have already served prison sentences for their crimes, and thus, paid their debt to society.”

Persecuted under Saddam

Chaldeans, Catholics who speak Aramaic, were initially persecuted under Saddam Hussein and Chaldean refugees started flooding to the United States in the wake of the first Gulf War.

The taking over of the province of Nineveh, particularly the city of Mosul which was home to the largest Christian community in Iraq, drove more Chaldean refugees to the United States.

According to the Chaldean Community Foundation, around 121,000 live in the Detroit metropolitan area while another 200,000 live in different parts of the United States.