On the Coptic Question

Posted on April 13, 2006


Today I did the unthinkable and actually attended a campus lecture hosted by a club, dragging with me my highly tolerant friend S, my self-described “pseudo-boyfriend.” He performs many objectionable tasks, such as taking me to the nail salon and waiting for me while reading Elle and shopping with me for earrings and commenting on their relative merits. Unfortunately he accrues no boyfriendly benefits. Thanks, S!

On examining the poster, we found that free pop and pizza were to be served at the event. We had planned to go to lunch, but upon conferring agreed that freeness supersedes all other lunch considerations, including my no cheese diet and his Orthodox fast. We turned up at the appointed room and hovered hopefully, checking the horizon for pizza every few minutes.

The club was the Christian Legal Fellowship. I’ve never interacted with any of them before but found that many of the members were people I know but have never actually heard speak. Apparently they’re dynamic members of the Christian legal community – I guess law school has no wallflowers. Majed El Shafie was speaking. Apparently Mr. El Shafie is an Egyptian convert to Christianity who was subsequently tortured for conversion and proselytizing in an Egyptian prison, and then convicted of various related crimes. As he awaited the death penalty under house arrest his friends helped him escape to the Sinai where he lived as a Bedouin for some months while plotting to find a way across the Egyptian border into Israel. Eventually he stole a jet ski and used it to cross the Rea Sea, avoiding the Egyptian and Israeli coast guards by crossing between them in such a way that if they fired at him they would be caught in the crossfire. After being detained in an Israeli jail for over a year, the UNHCR and Amnesty International arranged for him to obtain asylum in Canada. He currently heads One Free World International, a human rights organization based in Toronto. Needless to say he cracked many Egyptian-style jokes during his talk which were received with polite titters. I don’t think anything knocks jokes-making out of an Egyptian.

I don’t question this man’s faith. It was evident in every word he spoke. But many of the details of his story, which you can read here, didn’t jive for me. House arrest? Bedouins? Jet skis? I don’t deny that the torture and prosecution he spoke of can and does happen in Egypt, or even that it happened to him. I just think he embellished on it quite a lot. I made numerous snorting sounds and rolled my eyes at S throughout, who was snickering to himself as he still finds Egyptian English accents amusing even after over 30 years of being one. When the lecture was over I charged down to the podium, S in tow, determined to speak to him, not, obviously, having thought through was I was going to say. That wouldn’t be me. Having introduced myself, I opened with this: “I don’t quite believe your story, but I was wondering where you get your statistics?”

S cringed. In retrospect I realize that no matter how incredible I found him, this was something I could have kept to myself. Moreover, what if he really is telling the truth? How horrible to have been tortured and not be believed. Anyway at first he said “You can believe what you want,” but having learned my religion chided me, as all religious people routinely do, with not having enough faith to believe him or something like that. When will people learn that when questioned about actual facts, alluding to the existence of a religious figure is not in itself an argument in support of their veracity? Sure, miracles do happen. So show me proof. I insisted that refugees often lied, and that as he should know courts need proof to determine questions of fact. He conceded this and offered to email me documents supporting both his own experience and the statistics on incarcerated Copts he cited, adding that I should operate on the presumption that refugees are telling the truth until proven otherwise. I replied that this was actually not how the Canadian refugee determination system worked since these people have not been charged with anything, and so the burden of proof is on them. Annoyingly he said, “I don’t care what they do in Canada. I care about the Bible,” or some such nonsensical answer. I presume he was trying to say that Christian practice dictates that people be given the benefit of the doubt, but he clearly did not understand the nature of the venue he was speaking in. If these persecuted people are going to be helped, we cannot depend on Christian charity to do it.

He also told me that the Israeli news documented his landing in Eilat and his subsequent detention. As he had changed his name I don’t see how I can find out more about this. I know that he testified before the Canadian parliament, showing them scars from his torture, but I need more. He claimed he had written a book about Christian persecution in Egypt, most copies of which he claims have been destroyed, but he still has one and is getting it translated and published soon. Of course, nothing will prove that he actually wrote this book in the late nineties as he alleges. He also claims to have established underground churches, a movement 24,000 persons strong, clinics. I will ask among the community to see if anyone recalls anything like this happening at the time (I know precisely the sort of persons who would be involved in an underground Christian movement with churches in mountain caves). I invite readers to assist me in the search, as I have no Arabic search engine. I want to determine not only the truth of his story, but obtain some real unbiased facts about Coptic discrimination and persecution in Egypt. You’ll tell me: has anyone any way of obtaining facts about what goes on in the dungeons of Central Security and Abu Zaabal, whoever the victims are? The whole thing is shrouded in mystery and corruption. All I want is some anecdotal evidence, some personal testimonies, some news items printed at the right time by the right people – not from the tabloid press or the paranoid (and distant) Coptic organizations in the diaspora. I want copies of the laws that make actually worshipping Jesus a crime, that Mr. El Shafei claims he was charged with. I want statistics on convictions. Because when I’ve gotten the real picture, I’m going to stop twiddling my thumbs and being, as so many of us are, afraid to speak up, focusing our energies instead on general political reform which will never change the prejudices of millions. Too many Egyptian Christians of my background try and act as if nothing is really the matter, never even bringing up the issue with their Muslim friends, not wanting to make people uncomfortable and attract what can only be harmful attention. Minorities are just that; people who have not the power of the majority. And it’s time that I stopped being such an apologist and scoffer and at least tried to determine what the real truth is.

Posted in: Copts, Egypt, food, friends