Religion is a perilous subject in Egypt. A video of the Aghapy Coptic Choir singing on the Cairo Metro has gone viral and raised controversy over public expressions of faith and religious intolerance in Egypt.
The sight of the Coptic youth singing hymns has sparked a debate around public expression of faith even within the Coptic community and among secular Egyptians. Nabila Makram, the minister for emigration and Egyptian expatriates’ affairs, and a member of the Coptic Church, shared the video on her personal Facebook page to commemorate the Feast of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary.
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on August 22, preceded by a 15-day fast. Estimates of the number of Copts in Egypt vary widely, with the community saying there are at least 20 million in a nation of 110 million, while the government puts the figure at about half that.
Ishak Ibrahim, a minority affairs researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told The Media Line that “there are people who listen to and read the Quran aloud, specifically verses that declare non-Muslims to be infidels, and sing in a loud voice that is tired or exhausted while you are on your way. If you find yourself rejecting this, you should not do it.”
The Greek and Coptic word aghapy refers to the highest form of love mentioned in the New Testament. It can also mean a “love feast” – a meal shared by members of the early Church expressing Christian brotherhood and fellowship. The word can be spelled both “Aghapy” and “Aghaby” because Arabic has no ‘p’ sound. The viral nature of the choral video is itself a sign of its significance, noted Makarios Lahzy, a human rights lawyer.
“The incident is unusual, exceptional, and has a measure of courage. It is brave in the face of reality,” he told The Media Line. “The reality is that Egyptian society is intolerant of Christians’ public expression of faith. Sometimes they are not allowed to sing in their churches and it is possible to demolish those churches,” despite their objections.
“The public sphere is supposed to be open to this kind of expression. In the end, this is a work of art like street theater,” Lahzy said. “Not to mention that it is open for Muslims to express much more than that in public. Any discomfort resulting from this act needs to be examined.”
In December 2016, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi highlighted the importance of renewing interreligious discourse. In subsequent years he has hosted an annual interfaith dialogue at St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The Cairo International Airport Museum celebrates the feast with a display in Terminal 3 of an icon of the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne, holding the Christ Child and a golden halo surrounding her head, while two angels appear behind her.
Officials at the airport told Mobtada, a local news portal, that the Virgin Mary has a special place in Islam and among Muslims. They noted that the Quran states: “Behold! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee – chosen thee above the women of all nations.’”
While there are efforts by officials to develop tolerance between the Christian and Muslim communities, Christians in Egypt face an unwelcoming public space. Nancy Boktor, 36, a translator from Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, was accosted in a women’s only car of the metro on August 29, 2019 by two Muslim women wearing niqabs, garments that cover the face while leaving the eyes exposed.
They forcefully cut off her hair while telling her: “This is so that you learn to cover yourself!”
Attacks and incitement against Christians are not uncommon and create conditions ripe for sectarian violence and self-censorship.
Ibrahim said he saw no issue with “chanting in an exceptional circumstance, for one time, and the result of chance, if there is no intentional normalization of public display of faith.”
He warned, however, against the imposition of “a religious character on the public sphere and especially on public transportation.”
Boktor told The Media Line that “I am bothered when there is a person sitting next to me in the metro and reading the Quran out loud and imposing that upon me. I would also be annoyed if I find a Christian reciting praises or chanting, because he imposes it on me as well.”
She explained: “Years ago, I used to see an old person walking on the metro and shouting: ‘Kyrie eleison’ [Greek for ‘Lord have mercy’], as if he were singing in church. For me, this person is very annoying. The problem is that in Egypt we are accustomed to assaulting the personal spaces of individuals, especially on public transportation.”
Amany Fawzy, leader of the Aghapy Choir, told The Media Line that they did not infringe on the freedoms of others by singing hymns in the metro. It was 10 p.m. and there were no other passengers in the train car when they started, she noted. “When some passengers entered, they were very excited by the cheerful atmosphere presented by the choir,” she said. Had someone objected they “would have respected that immediately,” Fawzy added.
The Aghapy Coptic Choir organizes public events in cultural and public spaces, sometimes with Muslims artists playing and composing with them. The singers emphasized that the incident lasted six train stops at most, approximately 15 minutes. They stopped when the metro began to fill up out of respect for the other passengers.
Ibrahim said the other dimension is that “this is not a place designated for prayer and religious rites, even if the carriage has few passengers. This does not prevent the issue from igniting a controversy. And I think that was their motivation for doing this; if the metro was crowded, I don’t think they would have done this.”
Said Fayez, a Coptic lawyer, told The Media Line: “I think what happened is very good for many reasons, not to tell other Egyptians that Christians exist or to proselytize, but to create greater interfaith understanding.”
He explained further that “Mina Daniel, who died at the Maspero Protest in 2011, the activist Ramy Kamel and I tried to do that in Tahrir Square during the revolution. We led the Coptic prayer in Arabic from the stage in Tahrir Square in hopes of tackling the lack of public awareness around the Christian community. This deficit has led to spread of misconceptions and urban legends like that Christians perform magical rituals or that they kiss each other inside the churches. These misconceptions are used to incite against the Church and Copts within Egypt’s conservative rural community.”
The Maspero Massacre took place in October 2011 when security forces attacked peaceful demonstrators protesting the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt claimed to be built without the appropriate license, killing 24 people and wounding 212 others.
Fayez is the defense attorney of Kamel, a prominent Christian activist currently detained because of his advocacy of Copts’ civil rights. Kamel, also known for advocating for Egypt’s urban poor and rural peasants, was charged in November 2019 with joining and financing a terrorist group and disrupting public peace.
“The incident [on the metro] is being hailed as a triumph for freedom of opinion and expression, using the incident as evidence that there is no sectarian problem, and that there is a space for tolerance and acceptance of the other,” Ibrahim said. “This is a good thing, but if you want the other to respect your personal space, you must do the same. We have to reduce religious expression in the area of public facilities.”
If the “incident is a one-time event, it is acceptable in this context,” Ibrahim continued. “But repeating it is undesirable because it could trigger a cycle of reprisal and sectarian accusations from both sides. That would violate the privacy of individuals and their individual freedoms.”
Fayez notes that “of course, this does not mean that Christians should impose ourselves on others while declaring ourselves.” But he clarifies that “we are simply saying, ‘Know me as I know you,’ in hopes of creating greater coexistence and reducing intolerance.”