by ABDELLATIF EL-MENAWY
Since the late 1970s, huge numbers of Egyptian workers have been streaming into Arab Gulf countries as a result of the dramatic upturn the region has seen thanks to increasing oil prices. Saudi Arabia received the greatest number of Egyptians from all intellectual and social levels.
Later on, millions of workers, including educated, semi-literate and illiterate people, returned to their country with a new mentality, as if they were born there again. This seemed like a result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration of Gulf societies after the group was repressed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. This infiltration found a strong ally in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Sahwa (Awakening) project. The interaction between these two fundamentalist groups created a hybrid group of many names, giving Egyptian society a new ideology and new approaches. This hybrid group returned to Egypt, and called on Egyptians to follow a new religion, antagonizing Christians and Sufis, even making them apostates. This group behaved similarly to Al-Sahwa members in Saudi Arabia, dressed like them, grew their beards like them, and thus they seemed to many people like real Saudis.
Al-Sahwa’s ideology often arrived in Egypt in a fierce and aggressive manner. The group attacked Coptic beliefs from the minbar (pulpit) of mosques. For years, it was not uncommon for an imam to question Copts’ beliefs during his khutba (sermon) or even insult them verbally. Mosques’ microphones used to deliver these attacks to people all over Egypt. Some Islamist groups even issued fatwas (decrees) giving the right to take Christians’ money and property, and sometimes even their lives.
On Fridays, Copts used to hear imams in mosques near their homes mocking and insulting their beliefs with the most hideous words. This situation lasted three decades, until January 2011. After that date, this movement became even more aggressive. Its followers broke into the political sphere and its symbols became ever more present on the cultural and political scenes. Fatwas banning Muslims from greeting their Christian neighbors on their religious holidays were issued, when previously Muslims and Christians were used to sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. Greeting Copts on their holidays became prohibited by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who used to appear on TV in Saudi uniforms and associate themselves with the approach of the Saudi intellectual school.
This created a link between what Salafist non-Azhari missionaries in Egypt were doing and Saudi Arabia. Copts became strongly persuaded that all of the above was Saudi Arabia’s jurisprudence, religion and ideology, as if the Kingdom was the one pushing these non-religious members to provoke sedition.
“Pope Tawadros II was extremely thrilled and emotional about welcoming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he and all the leaders of the Egyptian church were well aware of the value, importance and symbolism of their meeting.”
Since becoming Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman has made many decisions and taken many stands that have had great resonance, and they are considered important indications of the change he is leading. But his visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo this week and his meeting with Pope Tawadros II was one of the most important and significant positions that not only Egyptians, Copts and Muslims will not forget, but also the radical Islamist groups that considered the intellectual and religious direction in Saudi Arabia similar to theirs, including being very hostile to Christians.
Egyptians, Muslims and Christians have never witnessed happiness and joy on the face of Tawadros more than they did when he greeted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The symbol of Orthodox Copts was extremely thrilled and emotional about the visit because he and all the leaders of the Egyptian church were well aware of the value, importance and symbolism of the visit.
This visit tells Copts: As of today, Saudi Arabia will not allow anyone to attack you. Saudi Arabia will no longer allow anyone to attack people from other religions in its name. Saudi Arabia accepts religious diversity, believes in forgiveness, and promotes coexistence among members of different religions. Saudi Arabia, represented by its crown prince, visited the Coptic Cathedral, and thus it is no longer acceptable for missionaries to associate themselves with the Saudi doctrinal school and issue fatwas banning the greeting of Christians. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself visited Copts and greeted them on a normal day, not even on a holiday, and he sat in their church.
After all that has been said, is it now acceptable to ask the question concerning the greeting of Copts on their religious holidays? Coptic writer and thinker Dr. Kamal Zakher said: “The visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Egyptian Cathedral is a response to the radicals. It is impossible to be as Islamic as Saudi Arabia, since it is the origin of Islam. It also has unique sacred Islamic sites and, when it extends a helping hand to the Copts, that by itself is a response to the radicals who prohibit such things and target Copts.”
The objective reading of this visit stresses the policy of openness and political change Saudi Arabia has been witnessing lately. With this visit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shown that the recent changes in the intellectual, arts and cultural fields in Saudi Arabia come from heartfelt convictions, delivering a message to the world that he is standing by his position regarding intellectual openness.
The majority of Arab and foreign presidents and political leaders insist on meeting with both Tawadros and Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam when visiting Egypt, in order to deliver a message that the Christian church and Al-Azhar Mosque are Egyptian institutions that complement each other outside of political contexts.
Tawadros was pleased to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. He reminded his visitor, who stressed his great love for Copts, of King Salman’s visit to Egypt two years ago and of the good ties between President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called on all Copts to visit Saudi Arabia, led by their Pope. A Copt commented on social media by saying: “I hope they will allow us to take our holy books with us without confiscating them at the airport.”