The hashtags “Accept the Messenger of God” and “Punish Zakaria Boutros” went viral this week after videos emerged on social media of Zakaria Boutros, one time a priest in Egypt, deriding the Prophet Mohamed.
On Saturday, the Coptic Orthodox Church — to which the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belong — stepped in to the furore, clarifying that Boutros had had no links with the church since 2003, and saying Egypt’s Christians extend love and respect to all “Muslim brothers”.
“We reject all forms of abuse and defamation, which are incompatible with the true Christian spirit, and hold all our Muslim brothers in love and respect,” read the Coptic Orthodox Church’s statement.
Boutros, the church explained, had served as a priest in Egypt and was temporarily suspended because his teachings did not conform to Orthodox faith. Subsequently, he was transferred to Australia, and while the church worked hard at all stages to correct his misconceptions eventually, in January 2003, Pope Shenouda III accepted his request to abandon the priesthood. Boutros later travelled to the United States, hosting meetings in homes and hotels, forcing “the Diocese of Los Angeles to warn its congregation not to host him”.
Gerguis Saleh, a former secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches, said the speed of the intervention showed the church’s determination to contain the fallout from the emergence of the videos on social media.
“The recycling of these old statements is contrived. It is an attempt to stir up sedition by inflaming emotions,” Saleh told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Saleh is the current head of the emergency committee of the Egyptian Family House which includes Muslim and Christian clerics and promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
“The timing of the resurfacing of these statements, when Egypt is enjoying a period of calm and stability, is suspicious,” Saleh said.
On 8 November, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, and Pope Tawadros II, the patriarch of the See of St Mark and leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, attended a celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the Egyptian Family House. The organisation, which was established in 2011, was the brainchild of Al-Tayyeb and the late Pope Shenouda. Its avowed aim is to preserve national unity and restore Christian and Islamic values.
“Just as I object to those who denigrate Christian religious symbols, so I object to those who denigrate the religious symbols of my Muslim brothers,” said Saleh.
In 2003, Boutros began hosting a programme broadcast on Al-Hayat Missionary channel, presenting content criticising Islam. In 2010, BBC Arabic said it had received a message confirming that Al-Hayat channel had decided to stop broadcasting Boutros’ programmes without specifying their reasons for doing so. In 2011, Boutros launched his own channel, Al-Fady, broadcasting from the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly