(AINA) -- Bishop Bishoy, secretary of the Coptic Church's Holy Synod and the second highest authority in the church, caused a Muslim furor last week when the media published excerpts from a lecture he was due to give later to the clergy during the "Coptic Faith" Seminar held in Fayoum, south of Cairo on September 23.
He was questioning whether some verses inferring that "Christians were infidels" were added to the Qur'an after the death of Prophet Muhammad by one of his successor Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (644-656), suggesting that they may have been inserted for religious/political purposes. Bishop Bishoy's lecture was later canceled for unknown reasons.
Angry Muslims considered his queries about the time frame of these verses as accusations that the Qur'an was distorted, since they believe that all verses were received by Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel during his lifetime and that the words have remained undistorted since then.
In an effort to diffuse the situation, Coptic Pope Shenouda III apologized on state-run TV on Sunday September 26 saying: "I am sorry if our Muslim brother's feelings were hurt. Debating religious beliefs are a red line, a deep red line."
Bishop Bishoy told the clergy audience in Fayoum that his questions were merely about the time of the verses, which say "Verily they are disbelievers and infidels who say 'The Messiah, son of Mary, is God.'" (Qur'an 5:17). He believes these verses contradict the Christian faith. "I don't understand how that can be turned into an attack on Islam," he said, insisting that his remarks had been taken out of context.
Many Copts were against the Bishop's remarks, especially coming at a time of heightened tension with Islamists, when demonstrations were being staged by them in front of mosques against the Coptic Church and Pope Shenouda, with false accusation like the abduction of a converted to Islam priest's wife (AINA 9-17-2010) or the Church stockpiling weapons to wage war against Muslims (AINA 9-21-2010).
On Friday, September 24, thousands of Islamists demonstrated in front of Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria demanding the detainment of Bishop Bishoy and insulting Pope Shenouda and throwing shoes at his photos.
Members of al-Azhar's Islamic Research Council held an emergency meeting led by the institution's head, Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, repudiating Bishop Bishoy's comments and accusing him of provoking sectarian tension.
A "Statement to the Nation" was released by the Council on Saturday, September 25 in which al-Tayeb said "This kind of behavior is irresponsible and threatens national unity at a time when it is vital to protect it." He also warned against repercussions these sorts of statements can have among Muslims in Egypt and abroad.
The Statement went on to say the Council stresses the fact that Egypt is an "Islamic State" according to the text of its Constitution, which represents the social contract between its people. "From this stems the rights of citizenship, as taught to us by the Messenger of Allah in his pact with the Christians of Najran, in which he decided that they were to enjoy rights and duties as the Muslims. However, these rights are conditional to respect for the Islamic Identity and the citizenship rights as set by the Constitution."
The Christians of Najran, Medina, refused conversion to Islam in 631 A.D. and offered Mohamad to maintain their faith, accept the dominance of Muslims and pay an annual tribute (the jizya), he accepted and the pact was sealed between them.
Magdy Khalil, head of the Middle East Freedom Forum, issued a press release on September 27, saying the Al-Azhar's "Statement to the Nation" brings us back to the era of Dhimmitude. He thinks this statement, which is addressed to the Islamic nation and Muslims in Egypt and abroad, undermines completely the concept of modern citizenship, replacing it with their perception of an alternative Islamic citizenship, which corresponds to that promoted by various groups of political Islam. "citizenship in the traditions of the Islamic Research Council is conditional to non-Muslims in the Egyptian State by their acceptance of the Islamic State, respecting the Islamic identity and accepting the rule of Sharia," said Khalil, "meaning that the Council has reproduced the unfortunate Dhimmi status as a condition for the Copt to being a citizens in his own country."
He believes the "Statement to the Nation" does not strengthens national unity in Egypt but rather contributes to the increased agitation of the Islamized people, increases the feeling of religious superiority towards the Coptic minority and contributes to the destruction of what remains of the pillars of the civil state.
Partners for the Nation, an Egyptian Coptic organization, slammed the Al-Azhar statement. "The secular Coptic community completely rejects al-Azhar's statement that Egypt is an Islamic state. We are a civil state. We reject a state religion and no religious institution should interfere in political matters or bypass the role of the state," said Mamdouh Ramzi, head of the organization, in an interview with Al Arabiya.net. He added the expression "Egypt an Islamic state" is "totally false" and seeks to spread hostilities between Muslims and Christian Copts in Egypt and undermine efforts toward democracy.
He said trying to impose Islamic law in Egypt would possibly lead to a situation similar to that in Sudan, when a bid to impose the Islamic law lead the Christian south to demand secession. Ramzi demanded that Al-Azhar withdraws its statement, holding the institution responsible for any consequences of its announcement, which he said could lead Egypt down a dangerous path.
Magdi Khalil further criticized the Al-Azhar statement for falsely claiming that "all beliefs are considered a red line not to be crossed." He accused Al-Azhar of having a basic plan through its curriculum, educational books and preaching "to ridicule the beliefs of non-Muslims, challenge their faith and their holy Books, a line not constrained by the Al-Azhar since its inception in 972 A.D., and until the present time under the chairmanship of Dr. al-Tayeb, who challenged the validity of the Bible from the rostrum of the state-run Nile television, when he was rector of Al-Azhar University."
"We refuse to bow to their condition of respecting the Islamic Identity, in order to get our citizenship rights," said Coptic activist Selim Riad. "We have our separate Coptic identity, and our rights are not at the disposal of Muslims setting conditions for us to obtain them."