This Sunday, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, including the 10 million Orthodox Copts of Egypt, who belong to one of the oldest churches in the world. After a long fast of 55 days they feast on meat and sweets and exchange greetings of well-wishing with their Muslim neighbors. In the midst of frequent occurrences of inter-religious violence since last Easter, these greetings are more welcome than ever.
For the service, many will gather in the St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo that made the international news when it was attacked by a group of Muslim radicals on Sunday, April 7th. The cathedral is the center of the Coptic Church where all major events take place and the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, lives and works.
As is the custom, Pope Tawadros has sent out official invitations to Egypt's high-ranking state officials as well as to Islamist President Morsi to attend the Mass. The Cathedral has a special section for such visitors who only stay for the formal part of the service when mutual greetings and wishes of well-being are being exchanged. By the time the Easter Communion Liturgy is celebrated, the guests will be long gone so they don't need to worry about having to be present during the actual worship. The Pope returns the courtesy by attending major Muslim celebrations such as the Feast at the end of the fasting during Ramadan.
These visits are exercises in confirming Egypt's national unity. They convey the message that in spite of disagreements and recurring incidents of sectarian violence "we are all Egyptians, tied to the same soil." The word "Copt" means Egyptian and Copts belong to Egypt, just as the pharaohs and the pyramids do.
Egyptians are sure that the President will avoid the Easter service. In spite of his lofty words: "Any attack on Egypt's Christians is an attack on me personally," he is afraid of what hard-line Salafi Muslims will do when he becomes too friendly with Egypt's Christians. For the same reason he stayed home on Nov. 18, 2012, when Tawadros II was enthroned as the 118th pope of Copts.
Less than one year after Morsi assumed office, attacks on Egypt's Christians have increased. This chilling reality could not move the President to attend the Mass on the eve of Coptic Christmas in person. Some Salafi leaders had issued fatwas declaring Muslims who extended Christmas greetings to be traitors and apostates. Just to be on the safe side the President sent a representative.
Now with Easter there is another round of fatwas, widely announced on the news. Salafi leaders keep insisting that just a greeting is forbidden. This time there are also some issued by Mufti Abdel Raham al-Barr, one of the religious guides of Morsi's organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. al-Barr reasons that Easter celebrates an event that according to the Muslim creed did not happen; Christ was neither crucified, nor resurrected. So in his view it is "haram," forbidden, to congratulate someone on something that, according to Islam, is a falsehood. Other influential Muslim leaders such as the Egyptian mufti Dr. Shawqi Allam have protested against this fatwa. Dr. Allam sees no harm in a kind human gesture of sharing joy and comfort in these difficult times. President Morsi, however, cannot defy the religious advice of his own organization so a presidential representative will have to convey the Easter greetings.
So, what exactly do Egyptians say for Easter greetings? Christians tell each other "`Ied Qiyama Magid," "Happy Feast of the Resurrection." But all Egyptians can wish each other: "Kulle sanna wa enta tayyeb." May you be well every year! Muslims as well as Copts value this annual ritual and many Muslims are defying the fatwas. Millions have started to phone their Coptic friends or have texted Easter greetings.
So why the hype about what is a basic form of well-wishing?
It comes down to what such a fatwa means in real life: it segregates. Greetings on the occasion of a feast, Muslim or Christian, create space for spontaneous interaction in a time that the entire nation feels the stress of political, economic, and sectarian chaos. It is a tiny space that represents hope. This year it symbolizes a window on a future when things will be well again. Closing that window makes Copts feel even more invisible and marginalized than they normally are. Some Egyptians want the future to be without them. It also deals a blow to Muslims who disagree with these forms of exclusion.
The fatwa segregates. But whether some Muslim leaders like it or not, Muslims and Copts are part of the same Egyptian tapestry. Taking the Copts out affects the whole fabric and in the long run will tear it apart.