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Amid Turmoil, Armenians of Egypt Remain on Sidelines

As violence peaked in Egypt in recent weeks, and rumors spread about an attack on an Armenian church, the Armenian Weekly contacted members of the Egyptian-Armenian community for their interpretation of the events unfolding in the country.

Wedding at the Boghos Bedros Armenian Apostolic Church in Alexandria in 2008 (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

A wedding at the Boghos Bedros Armenian Apostolic Church in Alexandria in 2008 (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

For the most part, the community had resented President Mohamed Morsi’s policies, concerned that religious polarization was being encouraged in the country—with Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their Islamist allies on one side, and moderate Muslims, Christians, and liberals on the other. So when tens of millions of Egyptians flooded the streets calling for an end to Morsi’s rule, many Armenians supported the demands of the protesters, and some even joined the crowds.

In recent days, Armenians have stood on the sidelines, witnessing the burning of mostly Coptic churches. They still felt safe and, as our sources confirmed,  did not believe their lives or institutions were threatened or targeted, despite a recent incident in Cairo that endangered an Armenian church, and perhaps even lives.

“While police were dispersing the violent crowd at [Cairo’s] Ramses Square, some of the protesters hurled stones at the [St. Krikor Lousavorich] Church. As a result, the stained glass at the front of the church was affected minimally. Then, someone threw a Molotov cocktail. The bomb fell in the courtyard of the church, without any casualties or harm to the church,” a community leader* in Cairo told the Weekly.

“The Muslim Brotherhood knows very well what they are aiming at. They could have burned the church earlier while marching to Ramses Square. The incident happened later on, when they were dispersing. It wouldn’t be wise to exaggerate incidents we were not the targets of. Their targets are the Copts because they believe they were mainly responsible for toppling Morsi,” added the source.

Aan oral surgeon from Alexandria (Egypt’s second largest city, which was once home to a vibrant Armenian community) assured that members of his community were safe. “Some people are being killed, a lot of churches are being burned, but we, Armenians, are ok,” he said.

Yet, Armenians are remaining cautious, staying indoors whenever there is a threat of violence on the streets. An Egyptian-Armenian student said his family feels safe, since men in his neighborhood stand guard when mobs approach. Just hours before the Armenian Weekly contacted him, however, a protest by Morsi supporters outside of his apartment building concluded with gunshots fired into the air.

Churches ablaze

On Aug. 14, Morsi supporters targeted Copts and Coptic institutions in the country, setting fire to at least 50 churches, schools, and businesses, according to the Egyptian al-Ahram newspaper. These included one of the oldest churches in Egypt, the Virgin Mary Church in Minya that dates back to the fourth century, as well as Greek, Baptist, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. The perpetrators threw Molotov cocktails and firebombs at these establishments.

Remains of burned Coptic religious texts outside the al-Amir Tadros Church in Minya city on August 19, 2013 (Copyright Matt Ford-HRW)

Remains of burned Coptic religious texts outside the al-Amir Tadros Church in Minya city on August 19, 2013 (Copyright Matt Ford-HRW)

On Aug. 21, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the attacks, and the authorities’ failure to protect minorities. HRW compiled a list of 42 churches that had been attacked, and noted the shooting death of two Copts, and the murder of one Muslim and one Copt—co-workers that had hid in the bathroom of an establishment as a mob set it on fire. Meanwhile in the city of Minya, residents reported that Coptic-owned stores had been marked with a black “X” before being attacked.

Since Aug. 14, 100 police officers have also reportedly been killed. HRW condemned the attacks on the officers and on police stations, and noted two instances where policemen were executed (13 in one case) and mutilated (15 in another).

The organization also criticized the failure of the authorities to protect minorities. “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in Mohammad Morsi’s ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now dozens of churches are smoldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”

According to analysts, the attacks against Copts are at a scale never before seen. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has cancelled sermon for weeks in a row due to the looming threat of violence. In a public plea, Tawadros called on all Egyptians to refrain from violence: “I ask every Egyptian to preserve Egyptian blood and exercise self-restraint and stop any assault against anyone,” he was quoted by al-Ahram as saying. Meanwhile, pro-Morsi protesters chanted slogans against Tawadros and attacked three churches, Coptic-owned businesses, two schools, and an orphanage in Minya city, reported HRW.

The violence directed at Copts is not an attack against Christians, but against the Egyptian nation, said one Armenian source in Cairo. And thus, Christians and moderate Muslims are united in their struggle against Islamist elements that are supported by the West, he added.

The response from the West—mainly the United States—seems to be an issue of concern for our Armenian sources. “Don’t listen to what the U.S. media is telling you about the Ikhwan [Brothers],” pleaded the student from Alexandria. “They’re not telling the truth. These people are terrorists. They are ready to kill anyone… They have burned down and attacked churches all around Egypt, and still the U.S. and the EU are protecting them. We, Armenians, are supporting the army and the police against Muslim Brotherhood terror,” he added.

The oral surgeon from Alexandria agreed: “Most of this trouble comes from the West backing the Muslim Brothers,” he said.

Morsi ‘became a dictator’

Over 30 million Egyptians flooded the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation on June 30. Protesters waved signs that read “Erhal ya Morsi” (“Leave Morsi”). Some local Armenians joined the protests, in solidarity with neighbors and friends, and in fear of a future under Morsi.

The Rebel (also known as Tamarod) petition, which called for early presidential elections, reportedly garnered 22 million signatures that were authenticated through national ID numbers.

Protestors sought the army’s protection and support. On July 3, Morsi was deposed and power was entrusted with the Constitutional Court to run matters until a new government transitioned to power. Since then, around 900 people have been killed, including 100 police officers, and hundreds of Morsi supporters. Violence escalated when the army broke up two pro-Morsi protests in Cairo that ended in bloodshed. In recent days, a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been arrested.

Our source in Cairo said the protests and uprisings that led to Morsi’s removal from power were the result of popular will, “a revolution against a fascist regime that harbored terrorists.” He also rejected the notion that Morsi’s removal amounted to a military coup.

In his view, the army, under the command of Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, simply backed the will of the majority of Egyptians—the estimated 30 million protesters that poured onto the streets of Egypt almost two months ago—just as it had done in January 2011 when protesters demanded the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

“Why didn’t anyone call [Mubarak’s ousting] a coup? We are talking about 10 times that crowd.  The military helped [protesters] in that first uprising. Contrary to [reports by] the Western press, the military is the most stable element in the country,” he argued. “[Morsi’s government] was driving the country to hell.”

A stained glass window in a Coptic Church in Cairo (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

A stained glass window in a Coptic Church in Cairo (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

Those who called for Morsi’s resignation had much to blame on the new government, including intimidation and threats (even against elected officials), economic hardship, deteriorating security, political failures, and a drop in the standard of living. Morsi came to be viewed as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity whose interests differed from those of the majority of Egyptians, and whose agenda seemed cynical and dark, marked by greed for power and control.

“[Morsi] failed to provide Egyptians their basic needs. Instead of achieving what Egyptians had called for in the Jan. 25 revolution—‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice, and Human Dignity’—Morsi and the Muslim Brothers invested the past year in taking control, implanting their men everywhere,” said the source. “[Morsi] became a dictator.”

Among the protesters’ main grievances was Morsi’s move to issue a controversial constitutional declaration in November 2012 that concentrated more power in the hands of the president by exempting presidential decrees from judicial review.

In addition, religion seemed increasingly to be the order of the day: The new government made it legal for political parties to be formed based on religion; religious television channels were established that allegedly aired programs calling for violence and attempting to polarize the country based on religion; and it allegedly prepared a list of journalists, activists, intellectuals, judges, and politicians to be arrested.

“Unfortunately, President Morsi was nothing but the Muslim Brothers’ representative in the presidential palace,” said the source. “They used religion to seek power and remain in power. They opposed all factions in Egypt: intellectuals, Christians, the Azhar institution, the opposition, and even the Salafists, the largest Islamist faction, who had been their ally,” he added.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by the Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. The organization is active in most Arab states. The Brotherhood, which has renounced violence, aims to lead society through the Koran. In recent weeks some in the organization blamed Copts and “the church” for participating in Morsi’s ouster and threatened a “reaction,” while others urged their followers to refrain from attacking Copts or Coptic establishments, according to HRW.

U.S. reaction

Currently, the Obama Administration is considering whether to cut military aid to Egypt, and has delayed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to the country. But Obama’s government has also refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup.

“My sense…with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does,” said Obama during an interview on CNN on Aug. 23. “But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals.”

Obama also said that there is “no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual, given what’s happened… There was a space right after Mr. Morsi was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation… They did not take that opportunity.”

However, there are those in Washington who espouse a different view. In early July, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Ranking Democrat released a joint statement urging support for the Egyptian army. The statement by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) contended that Morsi’s government failed to pursue “real democracy.”

“The decision by the Egyptian military to take state authority out of the hands of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood government marks another sharp turning point in Egypt’s incomplete revolution. What the Brotherhood neglected to understand is that democracy means more than simply holding elections. Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights, and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat. As a result the Egyptian people and their economy suffered greatly,” read the Royce/Engel statement, adding, “We encourage the military to exercise extreme caution moving forward and support sound democratic institutions through which the people and future governments can flourish.”

Egypt and the Armenian Genocide

Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansoor, reportedly announced on Twitter that Egypt would sign the “UN declaration on the Armenian Genocide.” The story went viral despite the fact that such a declaration does not exist. It is also unlikely that the Twitter account actually belongs to Mansoor.

Turkey’s staunch support for the Muslim Brothers—both the leading Justice and Development (AK) Party in Turkey and the Brotherhood are two apples from the same tree (as is the case with the Syrian opposition, supported by the Brotherhood)—has given rise to anti-Erdogan sentiments among those who opposed Morsi. As relations between Egypt and Turkey continue to deteriorate, with both countries withdrawing their respective ambassadors, Egyptians have been increasingly  vocal about the events that took place in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century.  Most recently, Erdogan accused Israel of being behind Morsi’s ouster.

“Egypt has started a campaign against Turkey, systematically exposing the issue of the Armenian Genocide among other topics. The media, intellectuals, and politicians are raising this issue on every occasion. Human rights organizations are asking the Egyptian government to recognize the genocide… Everybody seems to be concerned about the Armenian Genocide, in every talk show someone is bound to talk about it,” said our Cairo source, adding, “Even the publicity going on about genocide is a victory in its own.”

Still, Egyptian Armenians seem to be holding out hope of their country officially recognizing the genocide.

Armenians in Egypt

Armenians began contributing to Egyptian culture starting in the 11th century, holding important positions including the role of vizier. Egypt’s first prime minister (1878) was an Armenian by the name of Nubar Pasha, who held that post three times during his career. At the turn of the 20th century, Egypt’s wealthy Armenian community helped to organize and support the post-genocide communities in the area.

However, many Armenians emigrated from the country after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 led by Muhammad Neguib, the first president of Egypt, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt. Once numbering 50,000, today’s Egyptian-Armenian population is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000.

Note: Due to safety concerns, the Armenian Weekly has refrained from identifying the names of our sources.

14 Comments on Amid Turmoil, Armenians of Egypt Remain on Sidelines

  1. What a well-written article. Since I lived and worked near Cairo in the early 1980s, I’ve been especially following the tragic events. I’m assuming most businesses are on a standstill. Again, such a sad time. I hope my experiences with the Egyptian people, in general, of a happy, humorous, laid-back, generous, life-loving, clever and peaceful people, will once again be visible to all.

  2. Thank you Naure Barsoumian for your excellent reporting. Keep up the good work. So glad Egypt is letting the world know about the Armenian Genocide. Hope peace comes to this beautiful country very soon.

  3. avatar Caroline Hovaghimian // August 25, 2013 at 11:55 am // Reply

    It is a true picture of Egypt and Armenian Egyptians in the current situation. A very well structured article that covered all aspects in relating to the unrest in Egypt with no exaggeration. I felt at ease reading it.

  4. avatar Caroline Hovaghimian // August 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm // Reply

    A very well structured article. A complete and true picture of Egypt and the Armenian Egyptian’s status with regard to the current unrest in Egypt. I felt at ease reading it.

  5. avatar Gassia Deuvletian // August 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm // Reply

    Thank you for an excellent analysis of the events.

  6. avatar Berdj Haladjian // August 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm // Reply

    Bravo Nanore, well written article.Enjoyed every word of it , true picture of Egypt today in general and Armenian Egyptians in particular, Hope peace will return to this beautiful country.

  7. avatar Abraham Keorhagian // August 26, 2013 at 1:25 am // Reply

    The burning and the destruction of the fourth century Church broke my heart. What a loss of history and irreplaceable and treasurable artifacts including books are gone forever.What a shame.

  8. avatar varouj chilinguirian // August 26, 2013 at 2:27 am // Reply

    a good shot ,with a clear focus ,from the right angle. this will definitely help people abroad get a sound image of the situation here, amid the unprecedented media manipulation.

  9. It can be argued that the present military rule is a less evil alternative than a totally Islamized Egypt to which direction the Morsi regime seemed to be moving.
    But regardless of this argument, the ouster of Morsi, a democratically elected president, as it happened was not a well-calculated act. At least on its face it was a coup. And though supported by the majority of Egyptians, it gave Muslim brotherhood supporters an excuse to allege illegal siezure of power. If there were really 30 million or so Egyptians on the streets protesting Morsi rule (I would like to see any links to show this), the correct course would be to let it develop into a real popular uprising which would cripple the country and bring Morsi down peacefully. The army would come to the fore at the end to ensure people’s victory. As it has turned now there is no guarantee that the army would be prepared to go back to barracks and Egypt will return to civilian rule any time soon.

  10. The Armenian genocide being recognized by a rogue government,a government which came on the tanks of the army does not add much to our cause. It is exactly similar to when Israel decided to recognize the Armenian genocide after the Marmara incident, when they murdered the aid workers on the ship. In both cases it is not their love of the Armenian people or their sense of right or wrong, it is merely a dumb political game… Also, stop putting all Armenians in one basket and assume we must think alike… many of us would still prefer to have president Morsi back, but put in a corner, so that we can have at least a pretense of democracy back again. As it stands now, they have totally erased the very essence of our 25th January 2011 revolution.

  11. It is quite myopic to assume that Mursi would have ruled democratically, he started acting as a despot by accumulating power shortly after coming to office, his ouster was very timely, good riddense to him and his Muslim brothers.

  12. I will quote a statement that says it all…
    “why must egyptian citizens wait years to un-elect the political filth. Egyptians did what we don’t have the guts to do. So modern America, let’s not menialize their revolution just because we’ll never have ours. This was not a coup d’etat. The people have spoken. “

  13. The following three statements
    – “Christians and moderate Muslims are united in their struggle against Islamist elements that are supported by the West”,
    – “the U.S. and the EU are protecting them”,
    – “the West backing the Muslim Brothers”,
    shows a breakthrough in awareness of what the West is going in the region.

    Since the 1990’s I have watched as the US (under three consecutive administrations) has aided and abetted jihadis in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, Egypt, and Syria that are raping and killing Christians and also Muslims that say No to the 7th century. The US has caused a Christian apocalypse of suffering in Iraq and the region and does nothing to help them. The US is also very close and supportive of the AKP in Turkey and the Saudi government that are both supporting jihadis in the region.

    Now that there is some awareness of the West’s despicable support of jihadis in the region begs the question: all my Armenian brothers and sisters that I knew or read were optimistic about the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian government before Morsi came to power. Why were you blind sighted? Can you critique or compare your thinking from then to now and explain the failure of your thinking? How could you not see this coming? And how can you explain the consistent US support for jihadis in the region since the 1990’s?

  14. The report below is from Yahoo!News at http://news.yahoo.com/jihadists-torch-statues-crosses-syria-churches-173644824.html, more of the handiwork of US supported jihadis:

    Beirut (AFP) – Jihadist fighters linked to Al-Qaeda set fire to statues and crosses inside churches in northern Syria on Thursday and destroyed a cross on a church clock tower, a watchdog said.

    Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters entered the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation in the northern city of Raqa and torched the religious furnishings inside, the Syria Observatory for Human Rights said.

    They did the same at the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs, and also destroyed a cross atop its clock tower, replacing it with the ISIL flag, the Observatory said.

    Most of Raqa, located on the banks of the Euphrates River and capital of the province of the same name, fell to anti-regime fighters in March.

    Where the ISIL dominates in the city, it imposes a strict version of sharia (Islamic law) on the populace.

    The London-based Observatory denounced these attacks “against the freedom of religion, which are an assault on the Syrian revolution.”

    Not only have there been attacks on Christian places of worship in Syria, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country wracked by more than two years of civil war, but also on Shiite Muslim mosques.

    Additionally, Christians clerics have been kidnapped, and some brutally murdered, by jihadists.

    In January, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: “The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country.

    “Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship.”

    The New York-based group said that “while some opposition leaders have pledged to protect all Syrians, in practice the opposition has failed to properly address the unjustified attacks against minority places of worship.”

    At the outset of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, rebels welcomed the support of jihadist groups, largely made up of foreign fighters.

    But the jihadists, where they have reached a position of dominance in specific parts of the country, are increasingly alienating the native population.

    On Thursday, an ISIL commander from the United Arab Emirates was killed in fighting with Kurds in the north of Syria, the Observatory said.

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