A somber Easter for Christians amid Egypt’s coronavirus shutdown

A somber Easter for Christians amid Egypt’s coronavirus shutdown
Workers at a food bank prepare cartons for people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. (AFP)
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Updated 12 April 2020

A somber Easter for Christians amid Egypt’s coronavirus shutdown

A somber Easter for Christians amid Egypt’s coronavirus shutdown
  • Coptic Orthodox Church has suspended Holy Week services to abide by government orders
  • A congratulatory message from the PM has reminded the faithful to avoid large gatherings

CAIRO: Easter celebrations will be muted this year for Egyptian Christians under the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time in its history, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has decided to suspend Holy Week and Easter-time prayers and services as part of a nationwide effort to stem the spread of the virus.

The Holy Week, which leads up to Easter, commemorates Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion.

Basma Nassef had a flight booked from Cairo to Toronto to spend Easter with her father, but, like millions of people around the world, she has been forced to change her plans.

“The flight was cancelled,” she told Arab News. “I wish I could have spent (Easter) with (my father) so he’s not alone.”

As of Saturday, Egypt had recorded 135 deaths from 1,794 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 384 recoveries.

KEY DENOMINATIONS

  • Coptic Orthodox
  • Armenian Apostolic
  • Catholic
  • Maronite
  • Anglican

In response, authorities have imposed tough measures to limit social interaction in the Arab world's most populous country, including extending a nightly curfew by two weeks.

The government has announced a ban on gatherings and celebrations on Coptic Easter, the non-religious springtime holiday of Sham El-Nessim, and all congregational prayers and events that commonly take place during the month of Ramadan.

Those violating the measures could face fines up to 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($250) and jail sentences.

Authorities have also closed schools and universities, while air traffic has been halted until at least April 15.




The Coptic Orthodox Church has been forced to close ahead of Holy Week for the first time in its history. (AFP)

Copts in Egypt — and all over the world — have been disappointed by the suspension of prayers in churches during Easter — a time when Christians honor the memory of Jesus’ resurrection, although most understand the reasoning behind the decision.

“Of course we are unable to do any of those rituals this year,” said Nassef, who is spending Easter in Cairo.

“It’s devastating and heartbreaking to be honest. This is a huge part of our religion — everything we believe is centered around this one event. A lot of it involves going to church, even more than we usually do, during Holy Week to pray and reflect on ourselves. This is a time where Christian families come together.”

It is the final week of the great fast that lasts for 55 days, and is largely observed by the Coptic community.

During a 55-day fast, of which Holy Week is the final week, Coptic Christians abstain from eating from midnight until before dawn the next day, and do not consume any foods containing ingredients from animals.

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The fast is broken on Easter’s Eve, when Coptic Christians go to church for prayer, then gather to celebrate.

Mirna Samy, a Coptic Christian, said it is difficult to feel the essence of Easter without being able to observe its cherished traditions.

Samy’s family will not be inviting people over to their house as they normally do. “We’ll just celebrate at home, and greet relatives and friends over phone,” she told Arab News. “For us, this Easter is different. We’re not feeling it. It feels like any other day.

“I’m sure we will keep it simple and not cook too many dishes since everyone is ‘social distancing’ and we won’t have people coming over to celebrate with,” she continued. “We are praying that this all will end soon.”

It remains unconfirmed if the televised midnight mass held by the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II ahead of Easter will take place as usual.

To compensate for their inability to attend church this Easter, Samy and her family said they hope to be able to watch the mass on television.




Worshippers will not be able to gather for the Easter midnight vigil. (AFP)

“Prayer always feels different at church,” she said. “But we will watch the Pope’s mass on TV.”

Many Copts on social media are reportedly planning to participate in Holy Week prayers from home. The priest in charge of one Facebook page suggested that housebound worshippers could create a special corner with a picture of the cross or use an actual wooden structure of the symbol. They could also light a candle, bulb or oil lamp beside a black cloth, he said.

The priest further asked the faithful to recite from prayer books or use PDF files of prayer scripts or any suitable smartphone app.

In an address from the main Coptic cathedral, Tawadros said he was confident “God's hand” will intervene in order to protect Egypt and all countries of the world from the pandemic.

As the celebration of the resurrection approaches, “we have hope that this exceptional period will soon be over,” he said.




The closures come in order to stop the virus from spreading. (AFP)

Sameh Mahrous, deputy editor at Egypt’s Al-Gomhuria Newspaper and an expert on Coptic affairs, said the measures taken by the church are necessary ones.

“All religions put the safety of humans first,” he told Arab News. “The decision to halt prayers during the Holy Week stems from the Church’s keenness on public safety, despite knowing how painful it is for Copts to not mark the rituals. It is in line with the Coptic church's view that the nation’s interest is above us all.

“The prevention of gatherings at places of worship has happened to Muslims already, when they had their mosques closed as a part of the precautionary measures,” he added.

Last week, in congratulatory messages to Muslims and Christians alike on their upcoming religious occasions, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly underlined the importance of avoiding large gatherings.

“The unprecedented situation we’re going through calls for the need to avoid any gatherings, especially during the next weeks, which would see religious occasions for both Muslims and Copts,” he said.

Egypt suspended mass prayers at mosques on March 11. The Coptic Church suspended services on the same day.

Separately, the Islamic Endowments Ministry announced that public charity iftar tables, which offer free meals, will not be permitted this year. The ministry also said it will ban congregational prayers, including the taraweeh, which are only performed in Ramadan.


Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel
Updated 59 min 15 sec ago

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel

Jerusalem conflict stokes fears of civil war in Israel
  • Discriminatory system based on a supremacist ideology ‘will not hold forever’

AMMAN: The fight over the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, clashes in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police,  and the exchange of rockets, shelling and airstrikes between Hamas and the Israel Defense Force could turn into a civil war between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel, experts fear.

Palestinians, living in mixed Arab and Jewish towns like Lydda, Ramleh, Bat Yam, Haifa and Yaffo, have come under repeated attack in the past few days, with much of it motivated by racism.

Right-wing Jewish mobs yelling “death to Arabs” have beaten up individuals, vandalized homes and targeted shops belonging to Arabs — who make up 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry.

Wadie Abu Nassar, an honorary Spanish consul based in Haifa and a political analyst, said his daughters, as well as their cars and home in Haifa, were targeted by an anti-Arab Jewish mob.

Speaking to a local radio station, Abu Nassar said while his daughters were shocked at what happened, the deeper wounds are not physical. “While my daughters suffered some physical injuries, the much deeper wounds are the emotional ones caused by the revelation of this racism, that had been hidden for years,” he said.

Abu Nassar, an advisor to Catholic bishops in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, added that what happened has been truly revealing. “I am a firm believer in nonviolence, but it is clear that the Israeli public is now seeing the depth of racism, and that has happened only due to the fact that they were forced to deal with something that Palestinians have been dealing with for years.”

Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, former president of Al-Quds University, told Arab News that he sees two faces to the sudden Palestinian public revolt in Israel; one expressing a dormant, if not often visible, disaffection with the state of Israel, and the other an identification with the Palestinian national struggle and religious affiliations.

“The breakdown of the ‘civil state’ into mutual distrust, lynching, and disorder should be a clear sign for Israel that a discriminatory system based on a supremacist ideology will not hold forever and must be rectified if a day of reckoning is to be avoided,” he said.

“In the meantime, the rockets from Gaza, however inferior to Israel’s nuclear and military might, should forewarn Israel that the Palestinian national struggle will not go away, and will continue to pose a mortal threat to Israeli lives, and a political challenge to Israel’s image in the world,” he added. “Israel is obligated to look into the mirror and come to terms with the fact that until justice is realized it will never achieve peace.”

Dan Shanit, a retired Israeli physician and former head of the medical program at the Peres Center for Peace, told Arab News that he is disappointed with corrupt politicians. “The responsibility lies with the corrupt wish to hang on to power at all costs while others are exploiting religious and nationalistic sentiments in order to gain the support of the street following failed elections. The mob seems to have an upper hand while civilian blood is being spilled,” he said.

The Haifa-based Mossawa organization called on the international community to work toward achieving an immediate ceasefire and stop strikes against Gaza.

In a statement, it demanded the preservation of the right to freedom of worship for all, the right to freedom of movement, protection of the right to express an opinion and demonstrate without being subjected to security oppression or persecutions, and the rejection of any attempts to seize the property of Palestinian citizens.

The statement added that settlers had organized themselves throughout Arab localities and mixed cities with the intent of inciting clashes with Arab protesters.

“Screenshots of right-wing settler group conversations via (the) Telegram application were leaked showing the intent to kill and physically harm Arabs, as well as video evidence of settlers using live ammunition to shoot at Palestinian protesters. Many clashes were provoked and police arrests were discriminatory toward one side,” it said.

Botrus Mansour, a Nazareth-based lawyer, told Arab News that while the last few days have been very painful to see, it could have a positive result in the long term.

“For years we have been talking about the problems in the Arab community — the increase in violence — and we have also been expressing our worries that the anti-Arab racism condoned by senior officials will one day show its result on the ground,” he said. “What we are seeing now is the proof of the argument that for too long the successive Israeli governments have ignored both internal Arab violence and the incitement against Arabs by right-wing extremists. Now the country has seen the results of that wrong policy.”

Jamal Dajani, a Jerusalemite and former head of communications to the Palestinian prime minister, told Arab News that the situation in Israel is very volatile and could easily escalate quickly “because it is encouraged by Kahanists (an extremist Jewish faction) in the Israeli Knesset and (the) government. 

“What we saw in the past 24 hours, with Jewish mobs lynching 48 Palestinians and attacking their businesses, is something to be very worried about, especially if the war on Gaza continues,” he added.

Former Palestinian Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi, meanwhile, said the events of the past few days have had a galvanizing effect, uniting Palestinians in the West Bank including Jerusalem, in Gaza and across the diaspora.


Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’
Updated 45 min 52 sec ago

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’

Biden speaks to Netanyahu, hopes violence ending ‘sooner than later’
  • Blinken calls Mahmoud Abbas to urge an end to rocket attacks from Gaza

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden said that Israel has a right to defend itself but after speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he hopes violent clashes with Palestinians will end quickly.

“I had a conversation with Bibi Netanyahu not too long ago,” Biden told reporters. “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”

Biden said US diplomacy was in high gear with national security and defense staff “in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East — not just with the Israelis, but also with everyone from the Egyptians and the Saudis to the Emiratis.”

Biden spoke as calls grew internationally for a de-escalation of violence after intense hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians that have left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken by telephone with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to urge an end to the rocket attacks.

The rockets are being fired by Hamas, but the US does not speak with the group, considering it a terrorist organization.

The conversation between the top US diplomat and Abbas was the first high-level call between the US and the Palestinians since Biden was sworn into office in January.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority broke off contact with the previous US administration of Donald Trump in 2017, when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“I spoke with President Abbas about the ongoing situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza,” Blinken posted on Twitter. “I expressed condolences for the loss of life. I emphasized the need to end rocket attacks and de-escalate tensions.”

Earlier, Blinken announced that Hady Amr, the State Department official in charge of Israeli and Palestinian affairs, was leaving to the region to urge “de-escalation of violence.”

The diplomat also talked with Netanyahu, again pushing for both sides to step back from fighting.

Blinken “reiterated his call on all parties to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,” said a State Department statement.

The Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had called his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, and backed Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself and its people” while also urging steps to restore calm.

Blinken described scenes of dead Palestinian civilians, including children, as “harrowing” but defended Israel’s assault on Gaza in response to rocket fire by Hamas militants.

The White House said that during his call with Netanyahu, Biden “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 

He conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”


Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error
Updated 13 min 11 sec ago

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error

Israel says no troops in Gaza, cites communication error
  • Israeli army earlier announced that ground troops have entered Palestinian enclave
  • Army spokesman John Conricus confirmed the escalation 

JERUSALEM: The Israeli army clarified early Friday that its troops had not entered the Gaza Strip as it had earlier stated, blaming an “internal communication” problem for the confusion.

Just after midnight, the army sent a message to the media saying troops were in the Gaza Strip, and this was confirmed to AFP by the army’s spokesperson.

“Israeli planes and troops on the ground are carrying out an attack in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli army said in a brief message.

Army spokesman John Conricus confirmed the escalation without specifying the scale of the operation.

“We are prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios,” Conricus said, describing a ground offensive as “one scenario.”

Earlier Thursday, Israel said it was massing troops along the Gaza frontier and calling up 9,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, as the two bitter enemies plunged closer to all-out war.

Visiting a rocket defense battery, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told troops to be prepared for an extended campaign against Hamas. “It will take more time, but ... we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the state of Israel,” he said.

In Gaza, AFP photographers said people were evacuating their homes in the northeastern part of the enclave ahead of possible Israeli attacks, with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, warning of a “heavy response” to a possible ground incursion

Two hours later after announcing the entry of ground troops into the Palestinian enclave, the army published a clarification saying there were “no soldiers” in Gaza.

The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a bolstered police presence ordered by the nation’s leaders.

The four-day burst of violence has pushed Israel into uncharted territory — dealing with the most intense fighting it has ever had with Hamas while simultaneously coping with the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. A late-night barrage of rocket fire from Lebanon that landed in the sea threatened to open a new front along Israel’s northern border.

The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas, claiming to be the defender of Jerusalem, fired a barrage of long-range rockets toward the city in response to what it said were Israeli provocations. Israel quickly responded with a series of airstrikes.

Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza. The strikes set off scores of earth-shaking explosions across the densely populated territory. Gaza militants have fired nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel, bringing life in the southern part of the country to a standstill. Several barrages targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) away.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, with 530 people wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy.

 


Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties
Updated 14 May 2021

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties

Turkey’s notorious mafia leader claims close state ties
  • Concern over criminalization of politics as opposition calls for parliamentary inquiry

JEDDAH: Turkish government officials entered into a war of words with the country’s well-known mafia leader, Sedat Peker, who released a series of videos about schemes within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) involving some of its deputies.

The claims pushed opposition politicians to call for the truth behind the claims in order to fight against the criminalization of politics.

Ultranationalist convict Peker alleged that former interior minister, Mehmet Agar, and his son, Tolga Agar, who is currently a deputy for the AKP, were involved in the suspicious death of a 21-year-old Kazakh journalist, Yeldana Kaharman, two years ago, a day after she interviewed Tolga Agar.

Kaharman allegedly committed suicide, but it is claimed that the autopsy report shows otherwise. However, the case was quickly closed by the local prosecutors at the time.

Peker claimed that Agar was “the head of deep state” in Turkey.

Former justice minister of the ruling government and current member of the presidency’s higher advisory board, Cemil Cicek, urged the judiciary to investigate Peker’s claims about the Agar family.

“If even one-thousandth of these claims are true, this is a disaster and very problematic ... Turkey has had enough experience in the past concerning similar issues,” Cicek said on May 12.

“We should learn the necessary lessons. The relevant prosecutor needs to take action and do what is necessary,” Cicek said.

Mehmet Agar claims that the state can examine him whenever required.

The claims pushed opposition parties to try to make the government accountable for its ties with the mafia leader.

Last year, the Turkish government passed a controversial amnesty law that freed up to 90,000 inmates from Turkish prisons for nonpolitical crimes, but excluded dissident journalists and politicians.

The law resulted in the mass release of organized gang leaders, including Alaattin Cakici, a notorious mafia kingpin closely connected to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). During the time that Cakici was behind bars, his rival Peker consolidated his grip on the Turkish underworld.

The group deputy of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ozgur Ozel, said that Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was the connection point between the AKP, its ally MHP and the mafia.

Ozel also claimed that the interior minister was closely tied to mafia leader Peker and that the government turned a blind eye to Peker’s previous actions in the northern city of Rize, where he threatened the dissident academics of the country, saying: “I will shower them with their own blood.”

In the latest video he released, Peker confessed that he had played a role in the support shown for Interior Minister Soylu when the minister decided to resign from his post in April 2020. Peker allegedly organized a Twitter campaign to object to Soylu’s resignation.

Since 2019, Peker has lived in Balkan countries where he regularly met Bosniak political leaders. He claimed that he had to leave Turkey because of a personal hostility with the Turkish president’s son-in-law and former finance minister, Berat Albayrak.

After being arrested earlier this year in North Macedonia with a fake ID and passport, he was deported to Kosovo where he had a business residence permit. He is currently believed to live in Dubai.

Peker, with a strong network in Istanbul’s underworld, was previously blamed by some politicians, such as Baris Atay of the Workers’ Party of Turkey, for using gangs to attack dissidents in the streets. Atay was seriously beaten up in a busy street of Istanbul after he was verbally targeted by Soylu.

The opposition now urges the government to form a parliamentary inquiry commission and inform the public about these allegations.

Ayhan Sefer Ustun, former head of the parliamentary Human Rights Commission and founding member of the breakaway Future Party that is led by the country’s former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said the allegations should spark a serious campaign against “deep state” in Turkey.

“Turkey should launch a countrywide campaign against deep state and a widespread mafia structure that reached out to the inner circles of the state,” he told Arab News.

“A parliamentary commission should be established where each party at the parliament will be represented equally to investigate Peker’s claims,” he said.

“Any connection between the politics and public security should be put under broad daylight,” Ustun added, referring to the 1996 Susurluk scandal in Turkey where close ties between the state and the mafia were revealed after strong popular insistence.

Interior Minister Soylu will file a lawsuit against the allegations made by Peker, and he called on the mafia leader to surrender to Turkish justice.

Peker has been tried several times by Turkish courts over his involvement in criminal gangs.

He was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2007 for establishing and leading a criminal organization, and for forgery.

His sentence, however, was later reduced to 10 years and he was released from jail in 2014.

The number of Peker’s damaging video releases are expected to reach 12 in total.


Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war
Updated 14 May 2021

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war

Eid prayers return to Mosul mosque ruined in Daesh war
  • Groups of men entered silently and sat down to listen to religious recitals in the building

MOSUL: As dawn broke over Mosul on Thursday, worshippers knelt between piles of rubble while Eid Al-Fitr prayers took place in the city’s oldest mosque for the first time since Daesh was driven out of the area in 2017.

Groups of men entered silently and sat down to listen to religious recitals in the building, which dates back to the Umayyad period in the 7th century and remains largely in ruins following heavy fighting in Mosul’s Old City.

“The message is clear. The Al-Masfi Mosque is the Islamic epicenter and symbol of the area. It is not only Islamic, but also a symbol of the city,” said Ahmed Najem, a local academic, after prayers.

The mosque was partially destroyed during the brutal occupation by Daesh, which proclaimed Mosul the capital of its self-styled caliphate, and an intense campaign of airstrikes to liberate the city from the militants.

Like many other heritage and religious buildings in the Old City, it has been left in disrepair, with collapsed walls and mounds of rubble. Local campaigners say this is due to insufficient public funding allocated to reconstruction in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province.

“We need to accelerate its reconstruction,” said Najem.

Volunteers from a local group campaigning for the renovation of the Old City swept the floor and put down rugs ahead of the prayers for Eid, a holiday which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

“We are happy about Eid and other celebrations, but there is also heartbreak because of great destruction in Mosul until this day,” said Ayyub Dhanun, one of the volunteers.

Volunteer groups have sprung up in Mosul since its liberation, with many campaigning for funds to rebuild the city’s architectural heritage and identity.

They have organized events at mosques, churches and recently Mosul’s Spring Theatre, cleaning and tidying damaged buildings as best they can, often with no financial or other support.

“This is an invitation to rebuild this monument and to compensate Mosul residents by rebuilding their houses in old Mosul,” said Dhanun after prayers at the Al-Masfi Mosque.