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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.


  1. I see it and feel so powerless to do anything about it. As a Christian I do not want to feel angry and enraged but I do, by the politicos, etc that accept and allow Islam to gain such power and privilege in our countries. Seeing it for years in the UK and now seeing Australia going the same way. We felt the uprising in the Arab states would not enable democracy to take hold, and feel things will only get worse.
    Listening to converts, it was stated that it is the only religion that has equality for women and they do not have to go through a man to reach God. A great ignorance of the Bible as well as the koran. I sadly feel this is the status of the wider populace. If your article says that Islam will prove much more enticing that Christianity because of appearances, I think it is well on the way. What churches are being built, what are the young seeing to attract them to Christianity, where is the power. I am afraid they are finding attractive another sort of power and it isn't The Holy Spirit. God help us.

  2. I was in the city on Sunday afternoon, and some Muslim evangelists had a table set up in the street where they were talking to passers by about Islam and giving away copies of the Koran, which I noticed were printed in Saudi Arabia. I understand that Saudi Arabia is using its oil revenues to finance Islamic missionary activity. Is this correct?

    I asked them about the Hajj, which all of them had done, their understanding of Jihad (striving to be a good Muslim), the jizya tax (not at all punitive or repressive in their view), and Shariah law, which he talked about in a positive fashion. I receive news emails from Barnabas Fund and Open Doors, and these emails tell a different story about what Shariah law means in practice.

    Were they being dishonest with me, or are they unaware of what militant Islam is doing in the world?

  3. Hi Ross - that Koran printed in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly explain (in the footnotes) the doctrine of jihad as warfare. Yes, the term 'jihad' is also used for striving to be a good Muslim, but they were perhaps not giving you the whole story: I cannot be sure without knowing more about them.

    The idea that jizya was a normal tax is often expressed by Muslims (see my book The Third Choice which discusses such arguments). You can assume that they believed this, although it is not historically accurate.

    Yes, many Muslims will say sharia is good - the pious must do so because sharia is a core part of the faith. But it is not good at all.

  4. One of them also spoke in favour of polygamy, and said some offensive comments about Jewish people and their alleged control of the international banking system.

  5. I find it ironic that Muslims like living in the west with all the great utility and freedom that a western society has, yet want to introduce 7th century sharia law, a practice that has abjectly failed in the countries they left. If the introduction of Sharia were successful western society would almost certainly decline, as freedom of speech and the tradition of inquiry and criticism essential for a vibrant scientific and cultural life disappear.

    The UK has instituted a trial Sharia court. They have caved in to the mullahs. Now women can be overtly discriminated against in these courts using Sharia. They do have legal recourse to civil courts but you can bet they will be coerced to use the Sharia courts.

    Austria now has blasphemy law. Its the start of the new inquisition. Germany allows polygamy...

    Where does this stop?

    The only short term solution I can see is limiting the number Muslims we have as immigrants.

  6. Hello Mark, I've just discovered this blog. It's so good to be able to access more of your writing. Your lucidity on this subject is second to none. I read The Third Choice about a year ago and it helped me clarify my understanding so much.


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