Islamic and Jewish groups share Ramadan meal at Cairo synagogue

The Egyptian Alliance for Minorities, including Arab and Jewish members as well as other religious, ethnic and political groups, united in solidarity for a Ramadan meal at a synagogue in Egypt’s capital as violence erupted in nearby Gaza

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Sunni or Shi’i, a believer or an atheist, Jewish or Christian. We’re all Egyptians. Citizenship comes first,” an Islamic cleric told journalists surrounding him at downtown Cairo’s most famous synagogue, on 9 July.

After praying at the entrance of the Sha’ar Hashamayim (Gate of Heaven) synagogue, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Nasr’s speech welcomed the first Iftar – an evening meal to end each day of fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan – ever held within a Cairo synagogue, nearly all of which have been closed for service for decades.

The event was organised by a coalition of ethnic, political and religious minority groups that first came together under the banner of The Egyptian Alliance for Minorities in 2012 to seek greater rights and freedoms in Egypt, and who believe all religions should be practiced freely within a democratic and secular state. The coalition includes Nubians, an ethnic group from the border area between Sudan and Egypt; Amazeegh, a Berber tribe that lives across North Africa, as well as Bedouin, Baha’i, Jewish, Christian and secularist groups.

In front of a meal of dates, meat and rice that was spread out over the long table covered in the bright Ramadan fabric so typical of Egypt, head of the Jewish community Magda Haroun said: “This collective Iftar came as a message of peace, to establish the principle of coexistence, and to send a message to the world that everyone in Egypt belongs to a single homeland.” Haroun was sat next to Sheikh Mohammed for part of the feast. The two sat laughing and chatting together as they ate.

“Events like this mean we can live together and talk together with our differences.”

Their Iftar coincided with the launch of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. Mina Thabet, a Christian member and co-founder of the alliance said: “We decided we would [break fast in the synagogue] two weeks ago – before knowing about Gaza. But it may send a strong message to the world that we can live under one roof. We are not against Judaism as a religion. But we are against what is happening in Israel as a country.”

The Iftar took place on the heels of a number of events targeting Egyptian minorities in the past year, part of a broader crackdown on oppositional elements in the country including journalists, activists and minority groups. It is estimated that there are between 16,000 and 36,000 political prisoners currently sitting in Egypt’s prisons.

Amnesty International deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said: “Egypt’s notorious state security forces – currently known as National Security – are back and operating at full capacity, employing the same methods of torture and other ill-treatment used during the darkest hours of the Mubarak era.”

In light of this, the real focus of the Egyptian Alliance for Minorities is changing legislation and rhetoric in Egypt. Following a violent mob lynching of Shi’a Muslims last June, a spate of assaults on Christian churches after the fall of president Morsi, and a widening crackdown on Egypt’s gay community, the group mobilised to put forth a document of 25 amendments to be discussed in constitutional committee hearings before the voting in of the 2014 constitution.

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According to Thabet, the alliance wrote five articles ratified in the 2014 document, including Article 53, which ushers in further protections against discrimination based on religion, gender, race, disability and class. Articles 243 and 244 stipulate provisions for parliamentary representation of farmers, labourers, Christians, the disabled and others.

“All Egyptian minorities have had problems in Egypt. We are trying to move on from this,” said Thabet.

Yet despite this, attacks on minorities continue. In recent weeks, Christian journalist Bishoy Armia Boulous was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly inciting sectarianism. In March of this year, Security Directorate chief Amin Ezz El-Din announced in a televised telephone interview that a police task force would be formed to arrest a group of Alexandrian atheists, who have voiced their opinions on social media. The predominantly Bedouin Sinai region also faces ongoing attacks as part of the government’s crackdown on terrorism since Morsi’s ouster.

In spite of the ongoing repression facing the communities that gathered on Wednesday night, individuals joined together as friends presenting a united front to the rest of the country. The host of the dinner Magda Haroun said: “Events like this mean we can live together and talk together with our differences.”