Egypt mosque attack: Is Sufism a new target for terrorists in Sinai?

The magnitude of the attack that targeted worshippers in al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai is not only measured by the number of lives it claimed, estimated so far at 305, nor by the fact that it is the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history.

The rest of the details are equally disturbing. This is the first time a mosque is targeted, hence marking a clear departure from the sectarian agenda that characterized most recent attacks and also stirring away from the other traditional enemy represented by police and army forces. It does not, however, end at killing unarmed Muslim worshippers, since the association of that specific mosque to Sufism renders the issue more complicated and poses the inevitable question of whether a new war is just beginning.

Political analyst Mohannad Sabry argues that Sufis constitute a major threat to extremist groups like ISIS because they offer a totally different view of Islam, which makes them attractive for a considerable number of youths.

“The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organization in a way the military hasn’t been able to do,” he said. “And I believe that the most important point, for ISIS, is to eliminate their ideological rival rather than a military rival.” Since the Sufi community in Sinai is among the strongest in the country, Sabry added, extremists will attempt to undermine their influence. “They also happen to be one of the most loyal communities to the Egyptian state,” he noted.

Despite his conviction that Sufis in Sinai cannot be easily broken, Sabry expressed his concern that that the Rawda Mosque attack would not be the last and, as horrendous as it was, not the most brutal. “If it’s the beginning of a pattern it could be the beginning of a war against Sufis that could be much more terrifying”

Newsweek internal security and terrorism correspondent Jack Moore argued that for fanatic Islamists Sufis are not really different enemies against whom they wage war for sectarian reasons. “Sufi Islam is a mystical branch of the religion that worships saints and shrines, behavior that ISIS considers to be idolatrous,” he wrote. “In the same way that the group’s brutal jihadis view Egypt’s Coptic Christian community with hate, and revile the Shiites of Iran and Iraq, they detest the Sufi branch of Islam.”

Despite the unprecedented brutality of the Rawda Mosque attack, Moore said that it was not the first against Sufis in reference to the abduction and beheading of Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz in November 2016 in the city of al-Arish. The blind 98-year-old Sufi leader was accused of practicing witchcraft. Attacks against Sufis, Moore added, have been quite common across the Arab and Muslim region since the emergence of ISIS. “Elsewhere in South Asia and Middle East, ISIS has attacked Sufis, their mosques, their shrines and their gatherings. In 2014, they destroyed several Sufi Muslim shrines and tombs in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor,” he explained.

“In February, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked one of the most revered Sufi shrines in the world, Sehwan Sharif, located in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing 80 people and wounding more than 250.”

A sheikh’s beheading, shrines bombed

Journalist Rabei al-Saadani saw the attack on al-Rawda Mosque as an implementation of earlier threats that should have alerted security forces. He cited the example of a statement ISIS published in January 2017 in its magazine Rumiyah in which the group slammed Sufism: “They venerate tombs, perform sacrificial slaughter for them, perform tawaf around them, and so on.” The Nabaa magazine, also affiliated to ISIS, published in October 2016 an interview with the head of ISIS self-proclaimed moral police and in which he said that the group would wage war against all forms of “idolatry” and “blasphemy” including Sufism.

He particularly mentioned al-Rawda mosque as one of the Sufi lodges and specified the names of other lodges affiliated to it and said the group would eradicate it “as soon as it conquers the areas hosting these lodges.” The interview revealed the group’s knowledge of the different Sufi orders, where their members are concentrated, and which places they frequent such as “lodges in the neighborhood of Abu Jarir and the areas of Tawil and Sabah.”

Al-Rawda Mosque is home to the Gaririya Sufi order, one of the largest in North Sinai. The Gaririya, an offshoot of the Bedouin al-Ahmadiya order, is named after its founder Sheikh Eid Abu Garir, who is considered the godfather of Sufism in the Sinai Peninsula and hails from the Sawarka tribe, the second largest in North Sinai. Gaririya is one of the official Sufi orders in Egypt and is registered under law number 118 for the year 1976.

The beheading of Sheikh Abu Heraz was preceded by the bombing of two Sufi shrines in North Sinai in August 2013: the shrine of Sheikh Selim Abu Garir in the village of Bir al-Abd, where al-Rawda Mosque is located, and the shrine of Sheikh Hamid in al-Maghara region. Several village residents said extremists threatened them a few days before the attack to kill them if they celebrate the prophet’s birthday, which falls this year on November 30, since it is considered an un-Islamic “novelty.”

Church closures in Egypt: ‘We were silent when it was one, now it’s four’

“We said nothing when one church was closed, so it got worse and a second, then a third were closed, and a fourth is on its way as if praying is a crime for which Copts are punished,” said a statement issued by the Diocese of Minya in Upper Egypt.

The statement listed the names of the four churches, two of which were closed after being attacked by extremist Islamists, the third closed in anticipation of an attack that never materialized, and the fourth was besieged by security forces following an attack and is expected to be closed. “We are concerned that extremists will be able to impose their will on state institutions,” the statement added, calling upon the governor and security entities to interfere.

The statement issued by the governor of Minya in response gives, however, a totally different picture. According to the statement, the buildings that were attacked were houses in which prayers were performed without a license. “Two houses were attacked. Security forces arrested 15 suspects in the first and 11 in the second,” said the statement. “As for the other places, they were also houses owned by Copts but were not attacked at all.” The statement added that the governorates responds to all requests for the construction of churches and makes sure that their number is proportional to population increase.

“In fact, Minya governorate has the biggest number of churches, monasteries, and Coptic community service centers,” added the statement, which also called upon the diocese to verify the information it has.

Bishop of Minya Makarios said he would not comment on the governor’s statement. The dispute about whether the targeted buildings were actual churches or houses used for prayers started a debate over the legal status of churches and the long-overlooked licensing ordeal.

The “war of statements,” as journalist Mohamed Youssef puts it, signals the beginning of a rift between state and church officials. “The governor’s statement angered a lot of Coptic activists who called upon President Sisi to personally intervene through forming a neutral committee to look into the crisis in Minya,” he wrote. “Many of those activists believe that the new law on the construction of churches has not so far solved any of the problems pertaining to the legal status of churches.”

It is noteworthy, Youssef added, that neither Pope Tawadros nor the Coptic Orthodox Church have issued any statement on the matter while Bishop Makarios is the only one in charge. “The Pope has most likely assigned Bishop Makarios the task of speaking in behalf of the Copts of Minya and putting pressure on the governorate to reopen the churches and legalize their status,” he said. “The Pope does not want the matter to be escalated to a dispute between the church and the regime so he preferred to deal with it on a more local level.”

Journalist Girgis Bishry, who criticized the governor’s statement, argued that the absence of licenses was just a pretext used by the governorate to close the churches and that the whole situation was not dealt with in accordance with the law. “The governor resorted to reconciliation sessions between the assailants and the victims in order to solve the problem, which basically means that the perpetrators get away with what they did,” he wrote.

Bishry noted that Minya is the most affected by sectarian violence among Egypt’s governorates, with more than 64 churches burnt following the dispersal of the Islamist sit-in staged in protest of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood and attacks targeting churches and Copts still taking places. “This means that Minya is a hotbed of extremists and there is a possibility that the governorate itself is infiltrated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters who intentionally turn a blind eye to such violations,” he added. “If this is not stopped, we might wake up one day to find Minya an Islamic state.”

MP and political analyst Emad Gad explained that the law on the construction of churches, issued in 2016, is divided into two parts: the first is issuing licenses for new churches and the second is legalizing the status of already-existing churches. “Almost half Coptic Orthodox churches are not officially licensed,” he wrote. “Some churches had all the documents completed before starting construction and got permission for construction, but the Security Bureau never gave the actual license so that church remained technically without papers.

Other churches were built without any documents to start with because of the many obstacles security entities placed in their way and these became a matter of fact.” Gad added that the Coptic Orthodox Church submitted a list of unlicensed churches so that they can be legalized, but instead of starting the process of issuing licenses, local authorities started closing them because they are not licensed. “Those authorities totally overlook the fact that such actions are bound to increase sectarian tension as Copts would once again fell deprived of their citizenship rights, on top of which is the right to practice their faith.”

report by Girgis Safwat, Teresa Shenouda, and Ali Hussein quotes sources from the Coptic Orthodox Church as saying that the Diocese of Minya sent to the special committee established by the cabinet the document for 50 houses that turned into churches so that their status can be legalized. “Those were originally small houses that parishioners started using over the years for prayers with unofficial security approval so they gradually acquired the status of churches,” the sources said. “Ownership documents were submitted to the committee so that licenses can be issued and the houses can acquire the official status of churches.”

Meanwhile, lawyer and head of the Egyptian Center for Developmental Studies and Human Rights Joseph Malak sent official warnings to the Egyptian prime minister and ministers of interior, parliamentary affairs, and local development to demand stopping the closure of churches and the re-opening of any closed churches.

“This demand is based on the 2013 constitution and law number for the year 2016 on the construction of churches as well as ministerial decree number 199 for the year 2017, which stipulates legalizing the status of existing churches and particularly articles 8, 9, and 10 which consider all existing churches legal,” said the warning.

Is Cairo the ‘most dangerous megacity in the world’ for women?

Cairo is the most dangerous megacity in the world for women, according to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the first poll to be conducted on the conditions of women in cities whose population exceeds 10 million people, and which included 19 cities, Cairo was deemed worst in terms of sexual harassment.

While the results of this poll were far from surprising, especially for women rights activists and Egyptian women in general, they were labelled inaccurate by parties that underlined the survey’s failure to rely on confirmed data and scientific methodology.

The National Council for Women NCW was the first entity to question the accuracy of the poll, which, it argued, did not rely on Egyptian or international documented statistics or on recognized studies on women’s issues.

“This poll, on the contrary, based its conclusions on the impressions of a few women rights activists, only 15 to 20 from each city, without mentioning the criteria for choosing them,” said the statement issued by NCW in response to the poll. “All what the poll mentioned was that the interviewees were divided into five categories: academics, civil society activists, healthcare personnel, social commentators, and decision-makers.”

The statement noted that it was a “perception poll” that focused on experts’ views on a number of topics such as sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, under-age and forced marriages, and femicide. “This was done without any reference to internationally recognized indicators and without employing the necessary research methodology.”

The statement added that the poll overlooked the efforts continuously exerted to overcome challenges women face in Cairo: “The council is aware of the difficulties women encounter in Cairo and that is why the Women Empowerment Strategy 2030, approved by the president this year prior to the release of the poll results, was drafted, which demonstrates how the Egyptian state prioritizes women issues and gender equality.”

Professor of sociology Rashad Abdel Latif labelled the poll “unfair” and “illogical,” arguing that Cairo is much safer than many cities around the world. “In a city like New York, for example, women cannot walk alone after 10:00 pm for fear of getting mugged and assaulted, while in Cairo women can stay out till 2:00 am,” he said. “

I am not saying that Cairo is 100% safe, but it’s definitely not the most dangerous. At least we don’t have a crime problem like many major cities.” Abdel Latif, however, admitted that a lot needs to be done in order to make Cairo a safer place for women. “This starts with a strict law that deters anyone who engages in violent actions against women followed by dealing with the social problems that trigger the prevalence of these practices such as poverty and unemployment.”

‘Tarnishing our image’

Mervat al-Tellawi, chairperson of the Arab Women Organization, said that the poll aims at tarnishing Egypt’s image and that it was conducted for political reasons. “It is true that there are cases of violence against women in Cairo, but this poll makes it look like we live in a jungle,” she said. “There are countries where women live in constant violence and repression such as Yemen and Somalia.”

Tellawi stressed the necessity of firmly responding to the poll in order to present the Egyptian society for what it really is in front of the world.

MP and head of the Human Rights Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Margaret Azer had a similar view. “Cairo is a huge city with an extremely dense population, so incidents of sexual violence are always a possibility, yet they are not the norm,” she said. “Plus sexual harassment is a problem everywhere and alleging that Cairo ranks first is just an attempt to ruin Egypt’s reputation.”

‘Denying the threat’

Fathi Farid, coordinator of the Aman Initiative for countering violence against women, slammed the Egyptian government and critics of the poll for denying the growing threat of sexual harassment in Cairo and accused the state of not doing enough to stop this phenomenon. “In late 2014, NGOs were no longer given permits for field work, which drove volunteers to make themselves available in the streets in crowded places on holidays to protect women at their own responsibility,” he said.

“There were also reports that the police were sometimes involved in violence against women.” Regarding the projects and initiatives the state launches, Farid said that they cost a lot of money that is taken from taxpayers then no results are seen on the ground. “In fact, women are the ones who are now protecting themselves and are learning how to face sexual harassment.”

Women rights activist Azza Kamel argued that the debate about the accuracy of the Thomson Reuters poll is a waste of time since whether it is the most dangerous or not, Cairo is “a sexual harassment city par excellence,” as she put it. “The past six years witnessed horrendous sexual assaults that did not spare toddlers and we still hear people blaming the victim and talking about what women wear,” she wrote.

Kamel referred to a statement made by lawyer Nabih al-Wahsh in which he said that harassing and raping a woman who wears ripped jeans is a “national duty” and wondered how such an incident is overlooked in a city already plagued by sexual harassment and how instead there is focus on the credibility of the poll. “Isn’t this statement in itself a crime? How come nothing was done about it? Isn’t the state supposed to protect women from this kind of incitement?”

On a more personal note, TV anchor and human rights activist Shahira Amin summed up what it feels to be a woman in Cairo: “Everything about the city is difficult for women. We see women struggling in all aspects. Even a simple walk on the street, and they are subjected to harassment, whether verbal or even physical,” she said.

Is Egypt’s religious tourism industry ready for Christian pilgrimages?

Tourism in Egypt has been hit by successive blows that have driven several countries to warn their citizens of traveling there and have even led some, including Russia, to take strict measures towards the implementation of such warnings.

Pope Francis’s visit to Cairo in April, which went without incident, unlike many anticipated, inspired a new way out of the impasse.

Aside from beaches and historic landmarks, religious tourism would attract a different crowd and that was how the revival plan started to take shape.

The most significant step taken towards making this plan materialize was the flying of the Egyptian minister of tourism to Rome where he got the pope’s official blessing for the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt, thus putting the 25 sites by the which the family—Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and Joseph—passed on the global Christian pilgrimage map.

While this development seems to herald a new era in Egyptian tourism, it still brings back the same old concerns about general safety together with new ones about receiving large numbers of Christians in a country that is not exactly devoid of sectarian tension.

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the Religious Freedom Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argued that it is not possible to promote Christian pilgrimage in a country where Christians are marginalized. “We can’t be that detached from reality and that is why promoting Christian pilgrimage has to be accompanied by serious steps towards acknowledging Christian presence,” he said.

Ibrahim cited the example of text books that do not focus at all on Coptic history or the role of Copts in Egyptian civilization which, in turn, does not promote cultural diversity. “Pilgrims are not going to visit sites in a country whose citizens have no respect for their religion,” he added. Former deacon at the Coptic Orthodox Church Beshoy Sami agreed with Ibrahim and said that dealing with sectarian sentiments among Egyptians is the only ways Christian pilgrimage can succeed in Egypt. “The state has to stop solving Muslim-Christian clashes customary reconciliation sessions rather than the law and the people need to stop viewing Christians as inferior,” he said. “Some countries are not even aware that there are Christians in Egypt.”

Priest murder

Melbourne-based Coptic journalist Ashraf Helmi expected the recent murder in Cairo of Egyptian priest Samaan Shehata to have a negative impact on Christian pilgrimage trips, especially that the state did not handle the situation in the right way and only referred to the murderer as mentally ill. “Added to this is the number of religious edicts from extremist preachers who incite people against Christians and teach them intolerance,” he said in a statement. Helmi warned that Shehata’s murder might, in fact, lead many European countries to ask their citizens not to go to Egypt in general and for religious trips in particular.

In fact, journalist Mayada Seif sees the attack on Shehata as a reaction to announcement of starting Christian pilgrimage to Egypt. “It is like a message to the world that Christians who come to Egypt will be killed because Egypt is only for Muslims,” she wrote.

Journalist Osama Salama notes that the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism expects to receive two to three million Christian pilgrims annually and wonders how prepared the state is for such numbers. “The minister of tourism said a film will be made about the holy sites in Egypt to be marketed across the world and pamphlets in many languages are to be printed about those sites. But then what? Is this enough?” he wrote. Salama listed a number of problems that might make pilgrimage trips a failure. “Most of the sites in the journey of the Holy Family are in a deplorable state and need a lot of maintenance.

Time for change

The tree in whose shadow Virgin Mary sat in Cairo, for example, is totally neglected and the area surrounding it is filthy.” Salama cited other issues such as lack of good accommodation in most of the governorates where the sites are located as well the unpaved roads leading to them, which leads to a lot of accidents. “As for trains going to these areas, they are notorious for never leaving or arriving on time in addition to occasional breakdowns and accidents.”

For Salama, it is also not wise to start receiving pilgrims without training a team of tour guides that can accompany them and who should be knowledgeable about this historical era. “Most guides we have are trained in ancient Egyptian history and those won’t be fit for such a job.”

Economic expert Medhat Nafea is more optimistic for he does not believe that lack of hotels is an obstacle since it is a different type of tourism. “The spiritual nature of pilgrimages allows for a simple and rather primitive atmosphere where luxury accommodation is not needed,” he wrote.

While admitting that turmoil in North Sinai can be a problem, Nafea argues that this is bound to change soon. “With the Palestinian reconciliation and the rapprochement with Hamas, normalcy is expected to be gradually restored to Sinai, which makes it safe for pilgrims to visit sits of the Holy Family journey there.”

Nafea noted that Egypt does get tourists who visit holy sites, but they are few and are not part of a full pilgrimage program. “Most of them come from Jerusalem while many are already in Sinai for recreational purposes and that is why it is hard to know their exact number. They do not exceed a few hundreds in all cases.”


Are Egypt and Italy over the Giulio Regeni ordeal?

Almost a year and half had passed since Italy recalled its ambassador to Cairo over the latter’s reported lack of cooperation in the investigation of the torture and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in what seemed to be a long-standing diplomatic standoff. Sooner than expected, however, on September 14 to be precise, a new ambassador took up his position in Cairo. The decision came as quite a surprise, pleasant for some and alarming for others and while it was seen by Rome as a political necessity, it was frowned upon by parties that linked reconciliation with the full truth.

Commenting on the appointment of a new ambassador to Cairo before the completion of investigation on the Regeni case, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said that it was not practical for the deadlock to last longer. “It’s impossible for countries that are in front of each other not to have high-level political and diplomatic relations,” he addressed members of the foreign committees of both houses of the Italian parliament.

“Egypt is an inextricable partner of Italy, like Italy is an inextricable partner of Egypt.” Alfano stressed that the appointment of a new ambassador does mean the Italian government would give up on Regeni. He, however, admitted in the same address that Regeni’s death created dealt a major blow to bilateral relations between Egypt and Italy.

Regeni’s parents, on the other hand, viewed such a step as a form of abandonment on the part of the Italian state. “It’s only when we know the truth about who killed Giulio and why, when his torturers and all their accomplices are handed over to us, alive, that the ambassador can return to Cairo without trampling on our dignity,” they said in a statement.

Secretary General of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Tarek al-Khouly said that the appointment of a new ambassador indicates that Italy has finally realized that its relations with Egypt have been subject to a conspiracy. “This was not only demonstrated by the murder of Giulio Regeni, but also by the bombing that targeted the Italian consulate in Cairo.” he said, in reference to the attack that took place in June 2011. Khouly added that Italy was one of the states that supported Egypt following the June 30 protests, hinting at the possible involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Khouly, the tension between Egypt and Italy lasted for longer than it was supposed to because the Regeni case was blown out of proportion by several parties inside both Italy and Egypt. “But Italy was also wise enough to know that it is better to separate between diplomatic relations and the progress of investigations in Regeni’s case and members of our committee conveyed this to several Italian MPs.”

Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Haridi argued that three main reasons led to the return of the Italian ambassador to Cairo. “First, Italy must be satisfied with what Egypt has done so far in the Regeni investigations and realizes that Egypt is doing its best to reach the truth,” he said. “Second, the growing threat of terrorism in Libya and the impossibility of dealing with this threat without cooperation with Egypt owing to its influence in Libya.” The third reason, Haridi explained, is the problem of illegal immigration, which preoccupies Europe in general and Italy in particular and in which Egypt’s cooperation is also indispensable. “In short, common interests between Egypt and Italy are much more important than any passing crisis,” he said. Kamel Abdullah, expert on Libyan affairs at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, also said that Italy was concerned to see France starting to get involved in Libya. “Restoring relations with Egypt was then the way to protect its interests in Libya,” he said. Secretary General of the Arab Investors Union Gamal Bayoumi, noted that other interests are also involved between the two countries. “Italy is Egypt’s top trade partner in the EU and Italian tourists, who contribute a lot to Egypt’s tourism industry, are expected to come back after the crisis is over,” he said.

According to Jeremy Costa, the Italian government made a grave political mistake or “disaster” as he puts it by sending a new ambassador to Egypt. “Rome’s decision is seen to be largely (if not entirely) motivated by external, mostly economic factors, despite the foreign minister’s assertion that the decision was made to allow for closer collaboration on investigations into Regeni’s murder,” he wrote.

Costa saw economic interests between Egypt and Italy as the main reason for resuming ties and particularly mentioned the case of the giant oil and gas company Eni, currently drilling for natural gas off the Egyptian coast, and the billions of dollars such operations are expected to yield. This, Costa argued, is a bound to significantly harm the Italian government. “Perceptions that the decision is another example of the Italian government putting self-interest before the desires of the Italian people could prove to be extremely damaging for Gentiloni’s Democratic Party,” he explained. According to Costa, the Italian government not only let down it people when it gave up on Regeni’s case, but also risked having its image tarnished in front of the International Community. “The Italian government has given up a golden opportunity to not only show its people that it represents their best interests, but also to lead an international condemnation of human rights abuses in Egypt and around the world. By choosing to instead resume relations with Cairo, it may suffer the political consequences it desperately intended to avoid.”

Amid push for Palestinian unity, are Egypt and Hamas friends or foes?

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and a delegation of senior officials from the Gaza Strip recently went to Cairo for talks about reconciliation with Fatah and the possibility of forming a Palestinian unity government. Hamas’s pledge to dissolve the Gaza Administrative Committee, whose establishment further strained relations between the two factions, and its consent to holding general elections demonstrates unprecedented flexibility on the part of the Islamic militant group.

This remarkable shift is not only confined to Hamas’s stance on Fatah, but also extends to its relations with Egypt and which seemed to have soured beyond redemption following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013. Hamas is obviously having a change of heart at the moment as it seeks Egypt’s mediation, but Egypt’s position remains quite delicate.

In March, 2014, a court ruling banned all Hamas activities and ordered the closure of all the group’s offices in the country. In January 2015, Hamas’s armed wing, Ezz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was declared a terrorist group and in February Hamas was declared a terrorist group. In June of the same year, the second ruling was repealed, but the first was not. Another lawsuit was filed to put Hamas back on the list of terrorist organizations and a verdict is yet to be issued.

Those rulings cited Hamas’s rule in compromising Egypt’s national security through taking part in smuggling weapons to militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula and targeting Egyptian civilians and officials in separate incidents including the assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor General. Added to this is the fact that one of the major charges ousted President Mohamed Mursi face and is currently doing jail time for is spying for Hamas and the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt. All these factors complicate the situation between Egypt and Hamas and make it hard to envision a possible rapprochement.

Former MP and professor of political science Amr Hamzawy said that Hamas has taken several steps towards making an alliance with Egypt possible, which was particularly shown in the way the movement currently detaches itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamzawy explained that while Hamas’s original charter stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was the group’s patron organization, the updated one does not. “In the updated charter, Hamas dropped the reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and defined itself as a liberation and resistance movement for which Islam represents the final frame of reference,” he wrote.

“During the press conference in which he announced the updated charter, Khaled Meshaal stressed that Hamas has no organizational ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and that it remains an independent Palestinian organization that is not subject to any form of outside control.” Since then, Hamzawi added, several Hamas senior leaders stated at different occasions that they respect Egyptian sovereignty and understand Egypt’s security concerns. Hamzawi noted Egypt responded to Hamas’s show of goodwill with the regular opening of the border-crossing with the Gaza Strip and expected more “security-related demands” that Hamas would have would have to comply with if they want to stay on Egypt’s good side.

According to MP and expert in Palestinian affairs Samir Ghattas, establishing ties with Hamas is a strategic decision that serves Egypt’s security in the first place. “Gaza poses a direct threat to Egypt and reaching an agreement with Hamas is expected to curb terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said, in reference to the reported smuggling of weapons from the strip. Ghattas added that Hamas will be committed to block all sorts of possible passage ways through which militants or weapons can pass from Gaza to Sinai.

Expert on Palestinian affairs Hamza Abu Shanab argued that despite the positive steps takes towards bridging the gap between Egypt and Hamas, future disagreements are expected to emerge. “The two parties do not see eye to eye on a number of issues such as normalization with Israel, the extent to which the siege on the Gaza Strip can be lifted, and how far Hamas can secure the border with the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.

According to writer Samih al-Maaita, the question of whether Hamas’s entities will be disbanded poses a bigger problem. “Hamas has a military wing and security forces that have been working for years,” he wrote. “What will happen to these?”

Maaita added that it is important to take into consideration that Egypt was not Hamas’s first choice. “Hamas entered into a number of alliances that had a negative impact on its relations with neighboring countries, especially heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and this is when it started changing its strategy,” he wrote, adding that the sustainability of this alliance might also be put into question like its predecessors.

The Karakaria in Algeria: Religious group or ‘foreign conspiracy’?

A Sufi group, a cult, or a foreign conspiracy? Several questions were raised about that controversial group that emerged in Algeria and whose members walk around in colorful cloaks and call themselves the Karakaria.

While the group itself is not new, its emergence in Algeria is. It all started when Musa Belghith, a young Algerian man from the coastal city of Mostaganem, announced on social media that he joined the Karakaria after seeing “the light” and being taught “divine secrets” by his sheikh, in reference to Mohamed Fawzi al-Karkari, the current leader of the group and who resides in the town of Temsamane in Morocco.

As several youths followed in Belghith’s footsteps and people wearing the group’s cloaks appeared in the Sidi Lakhdar Ben Khloof shrine in Mostaganem, alarm bells were sounded across the city and the entire country over the threat Karakaria poses to Algerian national security.

No link to Sufism

Sheikh Hassani Hassan, head of the Qadiriyya Sufi order in Algeria and Africa, argued that Karakaria has nothing to do with Sufism: “Sufi orders are sometimes infiltrated by foreign entities and that is why every now and then you find a new trend that calls itself a Sufi order,” he said. “Is it a coincidence that this group emerged now? And where does it come from?”

Hassan added that many leaders of those groups use the internet to attract followers and spread chaos in order to steer people away from their beliefs. “What makes this possible is that there are no laws in Algeria that protect recognized Sufi orders or Maliki jurisprudence,” he said, in reference to the school of thought within Sunni Islam that is predominantly followed in Algeria.

Hassan did not, however, specify the type of foreign intervention he believes is behind the emergence of the Karakaria.

The President of the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars, Abdul Razak Qasum, argued that the Karkaria is a threat to the moderate Islamic thought adopted by Algerians, in reference to the Maliki school. “We belong to the Maliki school of thought and we do not want any other groups. We want neither the Ahmadiyya nor the Karakaria,” he said.

Ahmadiyya, an Islamic movement that originated in India, is frowned upon in Algeria and the authorities rejected the request submitted by Algerian Ahmadis to be registered as an association.

Likely to lead to conflict

According to Qasum, allowing those sects to spread will turn Algeria to a battlefield similar to countries that are currently witnessing sectarian conflicts in the region. “We have one religion and one school of thought we all follow and we don’t want such trends to cause divisions.”

Qasum also said he believed the Karakaria aims at “serving foreign agendas,” but still did not specify which.

Former advisor at the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs and expert in Islamic movements, Adda Fellahi, explained that Karakaria, which he said is linked to the Alawite sect in Algeria, goes back to the early 20th century and became visible in Algeria with the booming of religious tourism in the province of Mostaganem. “However, we have to admit that its emergence in Algeria now might have political implications,” he added. “This group could be supported externally, by Morocco for example, or internally to distract public opinion from pressing problems, especially with the presidential elections approaching.”

Fellahin predicted that the movement can spread easily in Algeria for several reasons. “First, if members of the movement get good financial support, it will be easy to recruit more due to economic problems in Algeria.

Second, the official religious discourse is too weak to counter such trends.”

Yet, Fellahi noted that the group will find it difficult to establish a headquarters from which it can promote its ideas because the state will not allow it.

Allegations of prosecution

According to journalist Mustafa Washlah, the reaction of Algerian authorities and the media to the emergence of the Karakaria group enraged human rights activists across the country. “Members of the group were interrogated by the Mostaganem security bureau and official media outlets directly accused Morocco of attempting to destabilize national security in Algeria,” he wrote. “Added to this is what happened before with members of the Ahmadiyya sect.”

Washlah explained that Ahmadiyya leaders were arrested and many got jail sentences and their offices were demolished and their books burnt. “So now rights groups are accusing Algerian authorities of persecuting religious minorities.”

Washlah also noted that the Ministry of Religious Affairs had earlier banned any religious books that are not in line with the official religious school of thought. “In addition to books related to the Ahmadiyya sect, this also included Shiite books in general.”

Tuhami Magouri, member of the Algerian Association of Muslim Scholars, noted that while the current headquarters of the Karakaria is in Morocco, it originated in Algeria. “The Karakaria is an offshoot of the Alawaite sect, which started in Mostaganem that is also home to dozens of Sufi orders such as the Rahmaniyya, the Tijaniyya, and the Qadianiyya among others,” he said. “It just returned to Algeria recently.”

According to Magouri, supporting Sufi orders is an international tendency that aims at curbing Islam and diving its followers among small groups whose members give priority to rituals over deeds. “Sufism also promotes a quest for solitude while Islam is about unity and sharing common characteristics,” he added.

“Also, Sufism is based on using a mediator between worshippers and God while Islam promotes a direct relation with God.”

Magouri, however, argues that some Sufi orders or cults are more dangerous than others depending on whether they violate basic Islamic principles. “The Ahmadiyya, for example, does not view Prophet Muhammad [Peace be upon Him] as the last of God’s messengers, which means they believe in the possibility of the emergence of other prophets. This is not the case with the Karakaria.”

The disappearing Christians of Iraq

The liberation of Mosul was heralded as a new era for Iraqi Christians who could go back to their homes following the defeat of ISIS.

However, this much-publicized triumph overshadowed a significant defeat that seems to shed a more realistic light on the fate of Christians in Iraq.

The capital Baghdad was, meanwhile, witnessing the permanent closure of eight churches. After a delegation from the Catholic Church regional authority visited those churches and following investigations that showed that attendance, if any, kept dropping in the past seven years, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate announced that the churches will be closed for good. While such decision seemed to have made a lot of sense, it leaves little space for optimism as far Iraq’s Christian community is involved.

Journalist Elsy Melkonian argues that Baghdad is different from Mosul, where the latter was occupied by ISIS, hence placing Christians under a direct threat that forced them to leave. For Melkonian, the remarkable decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad can be attributed to other reasons.

“It is not related to ISIS, but to the fact that Christians have generally become targeted by different militias since 2003,” Melkonian wrote. “They always kidnap Christians and ask for ransom and at times they would just kill the kidnapped person right away.”

This led many to flee Baghdad whether to other parts of Iraq or to other countries, she added. Melkonian said that violence against Christians continues till the present time and was especially demonstrated in the case of an old Christian woman who lives alone in Baghdad. In the first week of August, this woman was brutally beaten by a group of armed men and robbed. “This was a message for Iraqi Christians who fled to Kurdistan or Lebanon or other neighboring areas never to come back,”

Melkonian quoted William Warda, coordinator Alliance of Iraqi Minorities Network, as saying. Warda added that Iraqi Christians who still live in Baghdad are under a lot of economic and social pressure. “For example, shop owners have to regularly pay money to armed groups in return for protection,” he said. “Christian girls are also not capable of walking alone in several neighborhoods in Baghdad.” The state, meanwhile, is incapable of securing the capital and protecting its minorities.

Kaldo Oghanna, member of the central committee of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said that the decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad has been taking place since 2003, before which they constituted 20% of the capital’s population.

“Even though Baghdad has always been better than other parts of Iraq security-wise between 2003 and 2010, Christians remained the weak link that was targeted by different extremist groups,” he said. “The real turning point was the Our Lady of Salvation Church massacre in October 2010.”

According to Oghanna, this massacre drove a large number of Iraqi Christians to flee to Kurdistan or to the Nineveh Plain, having to flee the latter in 2014 when it was invaded by ISIS, while others made it to Western countries. “Christians realized that Baghdad is no longer a suitable place for them and that one group or another is always sending them a message to stay away.”

‘An easy target’

Journalist Sandra Elliot said that after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the main conflict in Baghdad was between Sunni and Shiite groups then starting 2005, Sunni extremist groups started targeting Christians in different neighborhoods across the capital. “It was commonplace for Christians to receive envelopes containing bullets and a threat from nearby extremists,” she wrote. “Messages promising bloodshed and death drove thousands of Christians from their homes in these neighborhoods.” Elliot explains that Christians were an easy target because most of them were unarmed and “with no help from a crumbling government, they had no choice but to flee their homes.”

Journalist Fadi Kamal Yusuf argued that the decision of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate came too late that it negatively affected the cause. “Churches have been empty of worshippers for years and the church should’ve taken such a step as soon as it noticed the decline in the number of Christians in the capital because then it would have alerted everyone to the problem,” he wrote.

“Now it is pointless and the issue is just a news story that no one paid attention to and the church can no longer ask people to stay.” For Yusuf, taking this step now will most likely lead to the migration of more Christians from the capital because they would feel they there is very few of them left already, but in the past they could have united to overcome the threats facing them and to keep the churches open.

“And very soon we will be hearing of more churches in Baghdad closing their doors especially that many of the ones that are still open are located in neighborhoods where Christian presence is remarkably dwindling.” Yusuf added that lack of religious will is also coupled with lack of political will to protect the remaining Christians in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. “Both religious and political authorities need to make use of the liberation of the Nineveh Plain, which received both regional and international attention, in order to give Iraqi Christians hope in going back to their homes. Otherwise, more churches will close and Christians will disappear from Iraq.”

Has the biblical city of Bethsaida finally been uncovered?

Excavations in northern Israel resulted in the uncovering of a fishing village that is believed to be the biblical Bethsaida, hometown of Jesus’s apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip according to the New Testament. The excavations carried out in the village of el-Araj, already in their second year when the discovery was made, were not the first of their kind. In fact, archeologists have for decades been searching for Bethsaida and three sites were actually identified as possible sites, but none had enough evidence to support this assumption. It was only during this excavation, carried out by a team from the Christian Nyack College in New York, that substantial evidence came into being and that biblical city by the Sea of Galilee might have finally been found.

According to head of the excavation team Mordechai Aviam, unearthed objects included remnants of a Roman bathhouse as well as coins and pot parts from the first to the third centuries, which is consistent with Jewish historian Josephus Flavius’s account of Bethsaida been turned around 30 AD from a small village into a city state or a “polis” by king Philip, son of the biblical Herod, who named it Julias.

House of Tsaida

“He didn’t specify whether he built it directly on top of the village or nearby, but the presence of a Roman bathhouse says this was once an urban area,” said Aviam, who is also head of the Institute of Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College in northern Israel. “We discovered a mosaic floor and other items that made it clear this was a Roman bathhouse.” The golden glass mosaics found at the site, Aviam noted, demonstrate that a church was built there, which coincides with eight century chronicles of a church called the House of Tsaida that was built in tribute to two of Jesus’s apostles, namely Peter and Andrew. “The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is ‘beth’ or ‘beit’ so the word Bethsaida means ‘house of Tsaida’,” said Aviam, adding that he is certain that more evidence will surface soon to confirm that this is the site of Bethsaida.

Steven Notley, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College, explains that the eighth century account of the church built in Bethsaida was that of Willibald, the Bavarian Bishop of Eichstätt, who performed a pilgrimage to the region around 725 and reported that a church was constructed over the house of Peter and Andrew. “[What Willibard’s account] tells us is that in the Byzantine period we have living memory of the site of Bethsaida and identifies it with the Gospel tradition,” said Notley. “Only time will tell if (1) our site has the Byzantine church, and (2) it is correctly situated on the site of first-century Bethsaida.” Notley, who is also the academic director of the excavation, says that the gilded-glass mosaics that were found are one that are only used in “ornate, important churches,” which supports the argument that it might be the church built to honor the apostles.

Sea of Galilee

Journalist Narjas Zatat argues that an error previously made about the Sea of Galilee would have excluded el-Araj as the site of Bethsaida, yet this is not the case anymore. “Calculations made near the site assume the level of the lake was 209 meters below sea level during the period that the city was thriving. However, this would mean the el-Araj site was under water until the Byzantine period, which cannot be the case,” she wrote. “Researchers found the Roman layer to be 211 meters below sea level, which would make sense if a city existed in the area at the time.” By the Roman later, Zatat refers to one of the two layers uncovered at the site, one from the Roman period and another from the Byzantine. The Roman layer was found six feet below the Byzantine one. )

Rami Arav, co-director of the excavation, argued that the evidence found so far at el-Araj is not enough especially when compared to that found at the village of el-Tell, another possible Bethsaida site in which Arav also worked. “All these and much more was discovered at e-Tell, hence the identification of e-Tell with Bethsaida as was confirmed by the place-name committee of the Prime Minister of Israel,” he said. Arav, who is also professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, noted that it was possible that two villages carried the name Bethsaida, hence making both el-Araj and el-Tell the right sites. “I suggested long ago, that el-Araj became Bethsaida in the Byzantine period (4th–6th centuries CE) after a geological disaster pushed the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee further south. In this period, the fishermen at e-Tell abandoned their site because it became too far from the lake and moved further south to the sea shore.” This, according to Arav, means that the old Bethsaida lasted for 300 years, after which migrations to the new city started. The third village that can potentially turn out to be Bethsaida is el-Mesydiah, yet very little evidence has supported this assumption so far.

The religious importance of Bethsaida is not only attributed to the fact that it is the birthplace of three of Jesus’s apostles, but also to the miracles Jesus performed there such as healing a blind man, who came to be called “the blind man of Bethsaida,” and feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, also known as “feeding the multitude.”

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.