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One Heart digs deep into sectarianism in Egypt

This well-researched documentary by independent filmmaker Samir Eshra takes a closer look into the sectarian events of Naga Hamadi in 2010

Menna Taher, Wednesday 9 Mar 2011
Christians demonstrate
Christians demonstrate in front of the Egyptian Television building to protest the torching of a church in the village of Atfeeh (Photo: Reuters)
Views: 3194
Views: 3194

Now that it has become clear that the government is one of the main reasons behind the sectarian strife in Egypt, a documentary entitled Kalb Wahed (One Heart) by Samir Eshra, shot in 2010 investigates the truth behind the shootings in Nagah Hamadi on the night of the Coptic Christmas mass on 6 January 2010, and delves into the roots of the issue.

On Tuesday 8 March the documentary held its second screening in the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), in downtown Cairo.

“Many cultural centres refused to screen my film including El Sawy Culturewheel,” Eshra told Ahram Online. “I was able to have it screened at the AUC (American University in Cairo) because I made the film with funding from the university.”

Problems with state security

Eshra also faced problems with the state security police when he was taken to be questioned about the contents of the film.

The well-researched documentary reveals the roles the government, education and the media have played. It also looks at the Sadat era and uses footage of some of his speeches, where he evidently ignites the hatred between Muslims and Christians.

Eshra interviewed political activists such as George Ishaaq, the founder of the Kefaya opposition movement in 2004 and Hossam Bahgat, the founder and director of  the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) among others. He also talked to many eyewitnesses of the Naga Hamadi incident and obtained footage of that night, as well as recordings from the trials.

“It wasn’t easy getting into the court where the trials took place.  My friend who is a journalist helped me with that,” Eshra said.  “The judge was really politicised and he always adjourned the trials in a hurry.”

Lack of security

The documentary briefly refers to the background information on the sectarian conflict in Naga Hamadi. The religious stigma had clear political motivations and had existed for a long time. Eshra does not delve into it in-depth, but he mentions the lack of security around the church, despite the constant threats.

According to an in-depth report by the EIPR, in 1997 three armed men from a Muslim organisation attacked civilians randomly in Bahgoura village and killed 13, nine of which were Copts.

The report also states that in the past ten years the political involvement of Copts has increased in the area of Naga Hamadi, which led Abdel Rahim Abou El Ghoul, who discriminated against Christians, to lose his parliamentary seat which he had held for thirty years.

In 2005 the Copts of Naga Hamadi were blocked from reaching the voting polls and thugs representing Abou El Ghoul went out in the streets chanting anti-Christianity chants and smashing the windows and doors of shops and houses.

All these political upheavals contributed greatly to what happened in Naga Hamadi on January 2010.

The myths that abound are used, especially by religious figures, to incite fear.

One of the residents said that it is said that Christians have a ‘lion in each church’, “so one day I went with my Christian friend to church and we played with the lion and lit candles afterwards,” he joked.

The lack of education

The lack of education has kept each side ignorant of the other and thus made such myths plausible.  “I never knew why Christians left the classroom in religion classes,” someone said.

Another said that children in school connect each other according to their religion.  When mentioning others in the classroom the name is always preceded with their religious identity.

The role of the media can also be cited in creating this rift.  When reporting a story of a man on trial for murder, Al Dostor  newspaper did not mention their religious identity, while Al Masry Al Youm  wrote that the man was put on trial for killing a “Copt”, emphasising the word.

After the screening a heated discussion ensued and included the events that have been happening in the past few days, such as the burning of the church in Atfih and Helwan, and the protests that have erupted as a consequence.

The discussion also included the position of the church and  the mosque in the revolution and how both conspired with the state against the revolutionaries, giving out pro-regime statements.

Article number two of the constitution, which states that Egypt’s constitution is based on Sharia (Islamic) law, was also discussed with some arguing that it is not that article that has made Christians marginalised. Among the topics discussed was what Copts expect from the country in the post-Mubarak era and the reasons behind their marginalisation.

The fear factor

The fear factor played a big role. “Priests intimidate church-goers and tell them that if they voice their opinions, they will be shot by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one Coptic girl “but Christians want what everyone in the revolution wants; a civil state, equal rights and political representation.”

Even if the state had a big role in the marginalisation of Christians, the ignorance that has accumulated through time and the long-held beliefs cannot be eradicated in a matter of days. 

The state has initiated this sectarianism and affected the culture and understanding of many. These cultural hindrances will be even tougher to surpass than those of the state.

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