Closed: Last Synagogue in Egypt
by Shiraz Maher
Where religious fanatics have started by persecuting minorities, it has not been long before they turned on their own, accusing them of irreligiousness, heresy and insidious betrayal. The religious freedoms of all Egyptians are in peril.
Fears for the future of religious minorities in Egypt were accentuated last week when it was announced that the last synagogue in the country would be closed down. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, which had operated in Alexandria, was the last functioning center of Jewish life in the country. It is now clear that its cavernous halls, built in the nineteenth century, will not be open to worshippers hoping to mark Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services this year.
Traditionally, the synagogue has been managed by an Israeli rabbi of Egyptian descent who frequently returns to the country to lead services there. Although there are many synagogues around Egypt, the one in Alexandria is the only active one, the others having been turned into tourist sites.
This year, as Rabbi Avraham Dayan was making preparations for the High Holidays he was told that the Egyptian authorities could not guarantee the safety and security of those wanting to attend the synagogue. Dayan told Ynet:
"This year there have been some violent demonstrations in Alexandria, and they [sic] are afraid to take responsibility over people…We are trying to organize a quorum, but because of the security-related situation we are not really succeeding. We are still in touch with the Egyptian security organizations and are trying to make some progress.
Sectarian tensions across Egypt have been heightened ever since last year's revolution, with Christian minorities bearing the brunt of the violence.
One of the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring is the guarantee of security – long assured by the region's old dictators; it has been cast away by the tide of popular unrest sweeping the region.
The power vacuum and instability caused by the overthrow of Mubarak empowered Salafist and Brotherhood activists who increasingly stoke sectarian tensions. Last October, when Christian activists took to the streets of Cairo to protest their mistreatment, they were first involved in scuffles with radical Islamists before the army moved in. During the resulting crackdown, more than 25 Christian protesters were killed and more than 300 injured. It marked one of the most bloody and shameful sectarian episodes in Egypt's recent history. A Copt protester, Alfred Younan, told Reuters:
Why didn't they do this with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organized protests? This is not my country any more.
This kind of instability has meant the Jewish presence in Egypt has steadily declined over much of the last century, and has now dwindled to just a handful in Cairo and Alexandria. A study by Stanley Urman of Jews for Justice from Arab Countries has found that this exodus started with the first Nationality Code in Egypt, passed in May 1926.
The Code stipulated that an Egyptian born to a 'foreign" father – even if the father had been born in Egypt and had been previously recognized as Egyptian – was only able to claim citizenship if the father could prove that he:
…belonged racially to the majority of the population of a country whose language is Arabic or whose religion is Islam.
This law effectively blocked Jews from claiming Egyptian citizenship and relegated them to a lesser legal status in their own country. Later, because the Jews were not officially Egyptian, the government was able to expel a number of them.
This problem was accentuated in 1947, when amendments were passed which stipulated that at least 75% of administrative employees in any company had to by Egyptian, while 90% of the overall workforce also had to be Egyptian. This, of course, struck against Jewish commerce in the country, placed stifling strictures on some of their business, and accelerated the departure of more Jews.
The news that Egypt's last synagogue, the Eliyahu Hanavi, will now be unable to hold services effectively brings an end to any remaining semblance of Jewish life in Egypt. This is something which should concern not just Jews, but Muslims too, as it epitomises growing intolerance and persecution of a minority. Where religious fanatics have started by persecuting minorities, it has not been long before they turned on their own, accusing them of irreligiousness, heresy and insidious betrayal. The religious freedoms of all Egyptians are in peril.