Nation & World

Debate over Easter greetings roil Egypt’s sensitive religious tension

As Egypt prepares to celebrate Orthodox Easter this weekend, controversial comments by a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood have sparked debate over whether supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who rose to prominence through the group, can wish their Christian countrymen “Happy Easter” without being considered un-Islamic.

The latest flare-up between Morsi supporters and Egypt’s minority Christian communities has renewed fears that a democratic Egypt does not welcome its largest religious minority and that Morsi is not a national figure but an Islamist one.

In a fatwa issued a week ago, Abdel Rahman al Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau and dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Mansoura, said that Muslims could only mark Easter to Christians in a greeting “so long as this greeting does not come at the expense of our (Islamic) religion.”

Many here interpreted his statement to mean that “Happy Easter” or “Hope you are well this year,” as the Arabic phrase is translated literally, was considered un-Islamic. The greeting appears on Easter-related decorations and signs across Egypt.

The Orthodox Christian Easter is a national holiday in Egypt. Feasts and eggs mark the holiday for both Muslims and Christians; Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet but do not believe he was the son of God or that he was crucified.

Al Azhar University, the premier institution of Sunni Islamic thought and scholarship, quickly condemned the statements and al Barr said his statements were misconstrued. Morsi, during a trip to Austria, also wished Christians there a Happy Easter.

But al Barr’s statement seemed to be less about religion than how much Morsi and his supporters are willing to embrace Christians here, who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million inhabitants.

Morsi has done little to assuage concerns that he does not care about the concerns of Christians. He did not attend the naming of the new Coptic pope, Pope Tawadros II, in November. He also was slow to condemn the latest round of sectarian violence last month, which the pope then described as “negligence.” He also has no plans to attend Easter services this weekend , as was common for former President Hosni Mubarak.

While Morsi, once a top member of the Muslim Brotherhood, officially resigned his post in the group when he became president in June, his administration and his Cabinet continue to be heavily influenced by the Brotherhood. Indeed, the line of between the Brotherhood and the Morsi presidency is increasingly blurry.

Egypt’s newly drafted constitution, which was hastily passed in December, calls for no discrimination based on religion. But many Christians here believe that the government is not committed to the article, and thousands line up at embassies each month seeking visas to leave.

Both Morsi and the Brotherhood have stressed they want to be inclusive.

“I am most baffled by the huge uproar and flurry of media coverage surrounding my clear position with regard to congratulating non-Muslims on their feasts, to the extent that a journalist claimed that my views are contradictory, and even constitute a doctrinal coup. In fact, the problem is in their misunderstanding of my comments,” al Barr said in a statement issued by the Muslim Brotherhood. “I do not see anything wrong with congratulating Copts on the birth of Jesus, for example, since we believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) is a Prophetic Messenger, and that his birth was a sign of God, good for mankind.”

Still, al Barr, even while saying Happy Easter is “acceptable,” did not offer those words in his statement.

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

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