The Dhimma Time Warp Returns for the Copts of Egypt

The Dhimma Time Warp Returns for the Copts of Egypt

In recent weeks a series of incidents in Egypt give evidence that, post-Mubarak, the Copts are being pressured to assume the time-warped status of dhimmis, a captive people in their own native lands, whose status is to be tightly circumscribed by traditional sharia law.

The ancient dhimma pact, which determined the status of non-Muslims after Muslim conquest and occupation, includes specific regulations limiting the construction, repair and maintenance of churches, as well as the public display of religious symbols and public performance of rituals.  Muslim legal authorities based these regulations on the model of the Pact of Umar, a treaty attributed to the second Caliph, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, around the time of his conquest of Syria in 634-638.   A version of this pact can be found in Ibn Kathir’s highly respected commentary on the Qur’an (see here), from which various quotations below are taken.

Now, 1400 years later, a series of assaults on churches in Egypt have demonstrated the enduring power of this piece of paper to control the lives of Middle Eastern Christians today.

In one incident, Muslim radicals occupied the entrance to the church of St John the Beloved in the village of Kamadeer, praying and sleeping there, while thousands of local Copts stages a sit-in in front of the governor’s offices in Minya, demanding the return of their building.

Why would Muslims not want Christians to use their church?  The explanation can be found in the Pact of Umar.  Back in the 7th century, the Christians of Syria agreed, as a condition of their surrender, that they would not build or repair any churches:

When you (Muslims) came to us we requested safety for ourselves, children, property and followers of our religion. We made a condition on ourselves that we will neither erect in our areas a … church …  nor restore any place of worship that needs restoration

In the Pact of Umar, Muslims also were given the right to occupy churches if they wished:

We will not prevent any Muslim from resting in our churches whether they come by day or night…

The Muslims who have occupied the church in Kamadeer this past week did so because they objected to a plan to repair it.  As Mary Abdelmassih for the Assyrian International News Agency reported:

The problem started when the heavy rain in January 2011 caused the church, which is built of clay bricks and has a timber roof, to suffer severe cracks. The Copts requested from the military permission for repairs. Last week inspectors from the local council visited the church and confirmed the church is dilapidated and poses a threat to the parishioners and must be repaired.

When Muslims saw that the Copts were going to get permission to repair the building, they occupied it, saying ‘we allowed you to pray here, but there is no question of any building work to be done, this will have to be over our dead bodies’.

Why would fixing a crack in a roof be a matter for which these Muslims are prepared to sacrifice their lives?  The reason is devotion to sharia: the dhimma laws forbid Christians from repairing churches after Muslim conquest.

The Muslims in Kamadeer also demanded that the Christians move their church to another site, so, after a process of ‘reconciliation’ the Copts have been compelled to relocate to a site 200 meters away from the old church.  The new building is to be strictly limited in size: it must be one story high – not two as the old one was – and must not have any recognizable signs, visible or audible, of being a church, such as a dome, cross or bell.

Why these specific conditions?  The reason is that the dhimma demands them.  As the Pact of Umar puts it, Christians living under Islam are to refrain from all public displays of their religion:

We will not … publicize practices of Shirk [‘idolatry’ – i.e. non-Islamic belief]… We will … refrain from erecting crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets. We will not sound the bells in our churches, except discretely, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims, nor raise our voices [with prayer] at our funerals, or light torches in funeral processions in the fairways of Muslims, or their markets.

The restriction on the height of the new church is also determined by dhimma regulations, which demand that non-Muslims’ buildings cannot be as high as the houses and mosques of Muslims.

In another incident, Muslims demanded that approved renovations to St. George’s Church in Beni Ahmad, 7 KM south of Minya, be demolished, or else they will destroy the church.  This also accords with the dhimma pact.  The authorities have backed the radical Muslims, telling the Christians they must comply with these demands.

Part of the Pact of Umar is permission clause given by the Christians that if they breach any of the pact’s conditions, they can be treated as rebels (i.e. killed, looted and enslaved):

These are the conditions that we set against ourselves and followers of our religion in return for safety and protection. If we break any of these promises that we set for your benefit against ourselves, then our Dhimmah (promise of protection) is broken and you are allowed to do with us what you are allowed of people of defiance and rebellion.

This is the threat which is forcing the Christians to accept such demeaning outcomes:  if they attempt to pursue justice by appeals through the  courts, and insist on their right to repair their churches, their whole community could be attacked, and the church destroyed and looted. Through acts of ‘reconciliation’ Copts are being forced to accept the demands of the Muslims for the delapidation or relocation of their churches, and the removal of overt Christian symbols from their buildings.

There is no justice here for the Christians, not in any reasonable understanding of the word.  The Egyptian authorities have failed them, by acquiescing to the revival of the dhimma in the streets of Kamadeer.

This is the  consequence of the collapse of the Mubarak regime, which devoted much of its resources to suppressing radical Islam.  Now the suppression is gone, supporters of the Islamic revival are gaining confidence to restore sharia law, including implementing it on the heads of their Christian neighbours.  With Mubarak gone, the state authorities seemingly have little will to stand in their way.

Of course, not all Egyptian Muslims wish to destroy Christian churches in this manner, so as to send the Copts back into the grim past!  But those who do have enough self-confidence and aggression to intimidate the rest.  Sadly, the worst is yet to come.

All across the Muslim world there are signs the dhimma is returning.  The Copts of Kamadeer are not suffering alone.  The whole point of the dhimma system, as the eminent (and mainstream) Pakistani jurist M. Taqi Usmani explained in his Islam and Modernism, is to demolish the ‘grandeur’ of non-believers, so that Islam will be attractive for all to follow.  Such is the utopia which the Islamic revival movement offers to the world.

It would be completely irresponsible and misleading to refer to such events as the destruction of the church in Kamadeer as a manifestation of ‘sectarian conflict’, ‘ignorance’ or ‘extremism’.  Those who have worked for this outcome include trained religious scholars, and they have the solid backing of 14 centuries of Islamic jurisprudence behind them.  It is entirely correct to call such people ‘radicals’, because they understand and wish to revive the the radix or ‘root’ of their faith.

The real problem is that this legal foundation remains unrenounced by so many of the leading Islamic jurists of our day, and unacknowledged too by so many among the scholarly and political elites in the West, including those church leaders who know more about interfaith schmoozing than about radical  Islam.

Bringing the dhimma back is not extremism, but ‘mainstream-ism’ and it will remain so until both the Muslim and Western ‘mainstreams’ reject the dhimma comprehensively and without apology or camouflage, as an instrument of oppression best left to languish in the dark ages of Islamic history.

The destruction of the church in Kamadeer is a witness to the collusion of so many Western scholars and political leaders, who have proclaimed for more than a century that non-Muslims enjoyed unparalleled ‘tolerance’ living under Islamic rule.  The dhimma, we have been told, provided for an enviable conviviencia between faiths in a golden past.

What we are seeing in Egypt gives the lie to such claims.  To call the bitter dhimma conditions ‘tolerance’ only gives implicit support to such assaults as have been played out in Kamadeer this past week, for if the ‘golden’ Islamic past under dhimma conditions was the epitome of tolerance, then modern-day rigor in re-imposing these very same conditions on the heads of Egypt’s Christians must also be quietly accepted as ‘tolerance’ too.

The demolition squad for the church of St John the Beloved is not only composed of the hot-blooded Salafi Muslims who have been rolling out their prayer mats in its entrance.  It also includes a legion of others, the cheer squad of silence, pursuing respectable and irenic careers in the West.

The ahistorical cant which eulogizes the dhimma has become a poisoned chalice for the Copts of Egypt today.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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