bad news

January 21, 2005

Recently, a number of livejournals have cited a story from ANI (Asian News International) that got picked up by Yahoo News India, called “Villagers Furious with Christian Missionaries.” It describes an incident in which Xian “nuns” withhold disaster relief from non-Xian victims of the tsunami – a crime so morally repugnant that it blackens the name of all Xians – if indeed it took place. Those who find the Xian evangelical imperative morally repugnant in the first place have no trouble giving credence to the story – those who know the difference between evangelism and thuggery, and rightly expect most Xians to know the same, have enormous trouble giving it credence.

Anyway, I think the project of observing how the Xian life is not lived out in practice is an interesting one, if one that has little bearing on the perennial question of why anyone should or should not convert to Xianity. In that spirit, I thought I'd bring this one to everyone's attention before others bring it to mine.

It would appear that some Xians in Jersey City are having a hard time with forgiveness. That would be bad enough, but it appears that even before their failure to forgive, they are failing in a more fundamental Xian duty: that of giving others the benefit of the doubt. They are assuming, in other words, that there is something to forgive in the first place. The situation is complicated by many factors, and I imagine if I were in their shoes I wouldn't be so quick to judge. But I'm not, and so I am, and I have no problem with my fellow Xians doing the same to me. So here are some highlights from the article.

A Bloody Crime in New Jersey Divides Egyptians

(NYTimes, 1. 21. 2005)

JERSEY CITY, Jan. 20 – Muslim and Christian students of Egyptian descent suddenly no longer sit together during lunch at Dickinson High School on Palisade Avenue. At Halal butcher shops and Christian-owned grocery stores, sales clerks speak in equally hushed tones about the unsolved murder last week of a Christian Egyptian family, wary of who may be listening.

And friendships that were once free of religious division are now strained, in ways subtle and blunt, as speculation that four members of the family were killed because of their religion has run rampant, even though there have been no official findings by the authorities.

For years, Mohsen Elesawi, a Muslim Egyptian, shared shisha pipes and games of chess with Christian Egyptians at the Christian-owned El Saraya cafe on Vroom Street. Now, when he walks into the room, he often hears a quiet pause, “like a subject change,” he said.

“Now there is no trust between Muslims and Christians and there is a lot of anger,” said Mr. Elesawi, 52, a limousine driver who immigrated to Jersey City 21 years ago. “It's changed dramatically.”

In the words of Fakher Fahmy, 53, a Christian Egyptian who owns a construction company in Jersey City, Muslims and Christians “spoke as friends” before the murders. “Now everybody is scared of everybody,” he said.

For decades, Jersey City has been an experiment in peace between Muslims and Christians from Egypt. At odds in their homeland, the two groups had bonded as immigrants, mingling at the same cafes, schools and taxi stands, glued by one language and national identity. They shared eagerly in forging a new, American life.

But in the week since four family members, including an 8-year-old girl, were found in their home here with their throats slit, a centuries-old rift has come to the surface.

To the outsider, the extent of vitriol and near-paranoia provoked by the slayings seems hard to fathom: the police have yet to make an arrest and believe that robbery was a motive. Still, in the days after the four victims were found bound, gagged and stabbed to death, the scant known facts of the case have been supplanted by a swirl of rumor and innuendo that the victims were the targets of Muslims, leading to scenes of chaos at the funeral, with mourners shoving each other and threatening to beat a sheik who attended.

The murder case, while tragic on its own, has opened a wound and produced an outpouring of emotion that even Egyptian Christians and Muslims struggle to explain. The answer is layered: there are old-world grievances, a largely unspoken anger toward Egyptian Muslims after 9/11, and a newfound immigrant power that has left the Egyptian Christians – a repressed minority in Egypt – unafraid to assert their voice here.

The murder victims – Hossam Armanious, 47, Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8 – were Copts, or members of the Coptic Orthodox church. In Egypt, Muslims are the majority and Copts, who are roughly 10 percent of the population, live with varying degrees of social, political and religious discrimination, according to the United States State Department and human rights groups.

But in Jersey City, which has the largest Coptic Egyptian community in the United States, Copts are estimated to outnumber Muslims, and the balance of power between them is more equal.

Many Copts, along with Muslims, have enjoyed financial success. Fred Ayad, a Copt who left Cairo for Jersey City 35 years ago, rose to become deputy mayor. And Copts from all walks of life, from surgeons to cab drivers, will attest that in America, they have found a new social comfort. They no longer live on the margins of society: they are among the religious majority.

But if anything altered that newfound comfort, and helped stoke the recent friction over the murder case, it was Sept. 11.

Muslims in the United States were not alone in suffering a social backlash. Arabs of other religions have also been subjected to hate crimes, searches at airports, loss of jobs and other problems experienced by Muslims after the attacks. But that shared distress has wrought some hard and painful realities within the Arab community, with non-Muslims wishing to distance themselves from Muslims.

“Here in the United States, they think all Egyptians are alike,” said a 51-year-old Copt from Jersey City who identified himself only as A. Iskander. “We have nothing to do with 9/11. It makes me angry.”

That anger strikes many Muslim Americans as deeply unfair – they often make a point of saying that they, too, had nothing to do with 9/11. But it may explain the rather startling scene that unfolded on the steps of the slain family's church on Bergen Avenue last Sunday. Hundreds of Copts stood watching as members of the American Coptic Association gathered before television cameras and declared the family's murder a religious “execution,” drawing comparisons to slayings by terrorists in Iraq and Egypt.

“Wake up America!” yelled Dr. Monir Dawoud, the president of the group. If newcomers to the Arab community found the image of Arabs denouncing other Arabs as terrorists surprising, it was not unusual for Dr. Dawoud, whom some have criticized as using the murder case to advance Coptic rights in Egypt.

Almost immediately, rumors flew: Mr. Armanious had engaged in fiery debates about Christianity and Islam in Internet chat rooms, and may have been threatened with murder, his friends said. The police would not confirm or deny that, but discounted newspaper reports that a tattoo of a cross on Sylvia Armanious's wrist had been stabbed.

Muslim leaders responded by condemning the killings, but also decrying the recriminations against their religion, at a news conference on Wednesday. They invited a representative of the Coptic church to speak, but no one came.

“It's not the time for us to speak about anything now,” said the Rev. David Bebawi, a priest at the slain family's church, St. George and St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church. The press conference was “appropriate for them,” he said. “It's not appropriate for me. We are grieved.”

It is impossible to know what permanence, if any, the friction in Jersey City will have. There are still moments of harmony – Copts and Muslims continue to share tables at El Saraya, for instance, and Copts still shop at King M & M Halal Meat on West Side Avenue. But many Muslims and Copts agree that, for the time being, a shift has occurred. It is both subtle and nakedly obvious, if perhaps short-lived.

The city's first Egyptians, both Copts and Muslims, began noticeably arriving here in the 1960's. Today, both groups number in the tens of thousands. (The census does not track religious affiliation, but both Coptic organizations and the Jersey City chapter of the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations estimate the number of Copts to be above 30,000 and Muslims to total about 25,000, out of the city's population of 239,000.)

The city's oldest mosque and its oldest Coptic church – the pillars of the Egyptian community – stand five blocks apart. Both were built in the 1970's, and are filled with hundreds of congregants every week. But when they are not worshipping apart, Muslims and Copts are working, shopping, walking and studying in many of the same places. And until this week, they seemed yet another example of how immigration to a new world can breed peaceful plurality.

“In my country, I can't have one tenth of this,” said Mr. Ayad, the Copt who served as deputy mayor in Jersey City for nine years, until 2001. Mr. Ayad, who is also a Coptic deacon and a real estate investor, said he dreamed of being a politician in Egypt but never had the chance, given his religious affiliation.

And then there are the clashes between the groups, which date back more than 1,300 years, to when Islam took over as Egypt's leading religion. The most recent large-scale strife, in the upper Egyptian town of El Kusheh in 2000, left 20 Christians and one Muslim dead.

In June, the country's highest court upheld the acquittal of 94 suspects who were charged in the incident, leaving public prosecutors and human rights activists with no further legal redress, according to the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report.

The rage felt by many Jersey City Copts at the murder of the Armanious family was tethered, in part, to resentment over the Kusheh massacre, many Copts who were interviewed said.

“Why did so many people go into the streets, expressing their anger and belief that this is terrorism?” Dr. Dawoud asked. “Because the same things happened in Egypt.”

Egyptian Muslims often provide a different portrait of life in their homeland, characterizing the complaints of Copts as far-fetched or exaggerated.

“If you go there, you wouldn't see what you hear here,” said Hamed Elshanawany, the vice president of the Egyptian American Group, a nondenominational organization based in Jersey City.

Despite the lack of confirmation by the police, numerous Copts interviewed, from entrepreneurs to blue-collar workers, said they were sure the slaying was an act of religious hatred, given the way in which the victims were killed.

But that notion does not sit well with Muslims, who have grown weary of seeing their faith tainted by extremists.

“I don't know what being slaughtered the Muslim way means,” said Mr. Elesawi, the Muslim limousine driver. “The person who does such an act does not belong to any religion.”


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