CAIRO — Egypt’s Coptic Christians have become used to visits by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. On Jan. 6, for the third year in a row, Sisi celebrated Coptic Christmas at the Abbasiya Cathedral in Cairo, extending Christmas wishes to the country’s Copts and Tawadros II, the pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark.
This year, the celebration was different. The cathedral where Sisi addressed the congregation and delivered Christmas wishes stands just meters from St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church, where an explosion during a service on Dec. 11 claimed the lives of 27 people and wounded 48, mostly women and children.
Sisi responded to the attack not just by visiting the church, but by announcing a 100,000 Egyptian pound (roughly $5,200) personal donation toward building a church and mosque in the new administrative capital of New Cairo.
Hamdi Rizq, the host of the show "Al-Nazra" ("The View") on satellite TV channel Sada al-Balad, reacted by announcing during his show Jan. 6 that donations were being collected for the building of a mosque and a church in the new capital.
Amina Naseer, a professor of religion at Al-Azhar University and a member of parliament, who also serves on the parliamentary education committee, said in a Jan. 7 phone call on "Al-Nazra" that she had also donated 100,000 pounds to be split equally between the mosque and the church.
During the same show, other donors came forward: Farag Amer, the chair of the parliamentary committee for youth and sport; member of parliament Mustafa Bakry; and businessman Mohammed Abul-Enein, the owner of the Sada al-Balad network.
“The president’s call for donations for a mosque and a church should be an example to all,” Alaa Wali, head of the parliament’s housing committee, told Al-Monitor. “I suggested setting up a fund to receive donations for places of worship in general, including for renovating churches damaged because of terrorist attacks, but the priority will be a mosque and a church in the administrative capital so they can be as beautiful as possible.”
Naseer told Al-Monitor she had urged all members of parliament to donate to the fund. “Those donations are for all Egyptians, not just for the Copts,” she said. “It is true that they will go toward building a church, but that is a reaction by all Egyptians against everyone who tries to impose a foreign mandate on us, as the US Congress tried to do.”
Naseer was referring to a bill debated in Congress on Dec. 28 that would require Egypt to report annually to the US State Department on its work to restore churches vandalized by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was toppled from power in July 2013. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeed rejected in a press statement issued on the same day the bill and the debate, calling it flagrant intervention in Egypt’s affairs.
While Sisi’s donation was welcomed by some, the suggestion that Egyptians should donate to the fund was slammed by his opponents. Lawyer Tarek Elawady wrote on Facebook Jan. 6: “Sir, Egypt does not need mosques and churches; it needs schools, factories and workplaces.”
Magda Ghonem, a professor of economics and rural development at Ain Shams University in Cairo, tweeted on Jan. 7: “We have a surplus of places of worship, no smaller than the surplus in outbidding and hypocrisy. What about building the biggest home for street children, or the biggest university, or the biggest training center?”
In a lengthy post on Facebook Jan. 7, Cairo University political science professor Hazem Hosny said that the state may not have allocated the necessary funds for a church or a mosque, rather intending to rely on donations made by the citizens. “The president made the first donation, but the whole thing is an attempt to get Egyptians to pay for the new capital under the pretext of building a mosque or a church,” Hosny wrote.
Political activist Mamdouh Hamza satirized Sisi’s donation, tweeting Jan. 7: “Donate for the building of a mosque or a church, because the faithful are lining up outside thousands of mosques and churches; there’s a critical shortage of places for prayer.”
While some critics played down the importance of building mosques and churches at the present time, other bloggers and anonymous activists condemned the idea of donating for church building on religious grounds, saying it violates Sharia.
“The Christian faith is in opposition with Sharia and Islamic doctrine on many issues,” a Salafist scholar who asked not to be named told Al-Monitor. “It is haram for Muslims to donate to the building of any institution that will be a base for discussion and promotion of anything that contradicts Sharia and Islamic doctrine.”
For his part, Abdel Fattah Idriss, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “There is no jurisprudence proof or any sunna in the holy Quran that prohibits a head of state from donating funds for the building of a church or any other house of worship for the monotheistic religions. Islamic Sharia had approved of this as per Prophet Muhammad who gave the right for Jews of Medina to build their temples.”
Idriss said, “The donation made by a head of state is widely welcomed, as he is considered the [protector] of all communities residing in Egypt and has the complete authority to build houses of worship. Such donations strengthen people’s patriotism and make them feel part of the nation, qualities that Islam has always sought to instill.”
He added, “In addition to making a donation for the building of a church, [Sisi] also donated his money to establish a mosque, thus putting both communities [Christian and Muslim] on the same pedestal.”
A similar controversy broke out in 2009 regarding Sharia rulings on Muslim donations for the building of churches. The sheikh of Al-Azhar at the time, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, met a delegation from the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, headed by Naguib Gibrael, an adviser to the Orthodox Church. The media reported he had ruled that Muslims donating for church building was permitted by Islamic law. His office denied the reports after a wave of opposition from scholars at Al-Azhar.
Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa, a government body that advises on Islamic religious affairs, ruled on Jan. 7, 2016, “Christians in Egypt may, according to Islamic law, build churches if they need that for their worship, and Islam demands they be allowed to remain, according to the laws laid down by the Egyptian state. There is nothing in any reliable text on Islamic law to prohibit that.”
Sisi’s attempt to rein in the anger of the Copts after the bombing attack of St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church thus prompted a range of criticism. But it appears that the opposition comes from a pre-existing state of antagonism between him and his critics who bemoan the lack of social, economic and educational progress in Egypt.