CAIRO — Concerns about religious freedom were raised following the Egyptian judiciary’s decision to ban the annual festival celebrating the birth of the Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzeira, or Abu Hasira, at his shrine in the village of Damtu, in the Nile Delta.
The ruling, issued Dec. 30 by the Alexandria Administrative Court, abolishes the festival and rejects an Israeli request that Abu Hasira's remains be transferred to Jerusalem. It also overturns a decision declaring the shrine an Egyptian antiquity, a measure by former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, and requires notifying UNESCO of the ruling.
Immediately after the ruling, Egyptian officials proclaimed their commitment to implementing the verdict, showing no intention of appealing the verdict, perhaps so as not to generate a public backlash. The Jewish festival has been condemned in grassroots campaigns every year.
Muhammad Mehran, director of Jewish antiquities at the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “The mausoleum of the Jewish rabbi is not included in the ministry’s records, and the state does not handle it as a historic monument.” He stressed, “Although it was said that it is a historic monument, there were not any prior measures taken to register it.”
“There was an old decision by the Ministry of State for Antiquities to consider the shrine among the Islamic and Coptic monuments, but the court verdict has canceled it,” Mehran said. “The issue of Abu Hasira is political, and does not fall within the competences of the Ministry of State for Antiquities.”
Al-Monitor toured the village of Damtu, in the Beheira governorate, where residents expressed satisfaction with the court verdict. Khamis Qandil, a local, said, “The Jews coming to celebrate the birth of Abu Hasira did not socialize with any of the residents, but our problem is not with them.” He added, “The residents have opposed the festival celebrating the birth because of the strict security restrictions imposed on the residents of the village throughout this festive period.”
Qandil said, “During the festival, the village turns into a military barracks, and the residents are prevented from moving around for security reasons.” He further stated, “Although services are lacking in the village, we saw the government lavishly spending to protect the Jewish tourists and provide them with all kinds of services.”
Although the verdict was based on the idea that the Jewish festival celebrating the birth of Abu Hasira contradicts the people’s traditions and ethics — such as drinking alcohol — the residents of the village did not consider that to be the main problem.
Alaa Khiyam, a political activist and member of Bloggers against Abu Hasira, said, “We agree with everything stated in the verdict, and we totally welcome the ban of Jewish celebrations next to the shrine in the village.” Yet, he said, “We are not against religious rites and rituals of any denomination, as long as they are held in closed areas in order not to offend the village’s residents.” Khiyam also said, “We oppose the Jewish festival because it turns the area into military barracks to protect the Jews and halts all aspects of life.”
Khiyam added, “We are not sure whether or not the Jewish allegations that Abu Hasira is part of Israel are true, and we refuse to transfer his remains to Jerusalem.”
Magda Haroun, head of the Jewish community in Cairo, expressed her dejection over the verdict on Facebook, considering it unconstitutional and contrary to the rights of the believers of monotheistic religions to perform their religious rituals. She asserted that the judiciary still views Egypt’s Jews as insignificant.
A number of heads of Egyptian human rights organizations and others concerned with religious freedoms refused to comment on the verdict, requesting time to consider it and examine the extent of its contradiction in regard to the religious freedoms of the Jewish comunity in Egypt. Article 64 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution covers the freedom to hold religious rites.
Some human rights groups have remained silent about the verdict because of social and cultural pressures. Their silence is to prevent the new government from possibly being accused of favoring Israel or allowing the entry of Israeli tourists into Egypt under the pretext of celebrating Abu Hasira's birth should their objection to the court decision force the executive to overturn the ruling.
Ali el-Samman, president of the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC), told Al-Monitor, “Everyone is required to respect the judicial verdict and not to comment on it.” He denied rumors that the Abu Hasira shrine was a pretext for ulterior Israel motives. Samman explained, “Abu Hasira was born and died in the 19th century, which means before the establishment of the State of Israel, and has nothing to do with Zionism.” He added, “Some believe that this Jewish rabbi performs miracles, and there are Muslim women who visit the shrine to be blessed.”
Samman said that banning or holding celebrations is a governmental matter, but that it is not within the competences of the judiciary to ban a festival of a particular religious community. He said, “If the court verdict was based on the idea that the festival was contrary to general traditions, the executive authority can impose principles of moral obligation without banning the festival.”