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Heated debate in Egypt after Christian women are told to cover up

Father Daoud Lamei, lambasted Christian women for attire that he deemed immodest.

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Coptic Christians take part in an Orthodox Christmas mass at the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral, in Cairo, Egypt

A Coptic priest’s comments about women’s clothing being too revealing in churches has sparked a heated debate this week among Egyptian Christians, the largest religious minority in the Middle East.

Father Daoud Lamei, a well-known parish priest in an upmarket Cairo suburb with a sizeable social media following, lambasted Christian women for attire that he deemed immodest.

“Why are girls and women even coming to church if they’re wearing revealing and inappropriate clothes?” he said in a widely-shared video.

“She who does, will be judged,” he added. “I personally think any man, who agrees to his wife leaving her home in that way, will be judged before God.”

Lamei made the comments in an April 30 sermon marking Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated by Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.

“At least during Christmas we don’t have to worry about racy clothes because it’s cold… we want it to be cold always,” joked the popular priest.

Coptic Christians make up around 12 percent of the conservative country’s population of 100 million, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Lamei’s remarks sparked a mixed response from women in Egypt, with some criticising his stringent tone while others praised the priest for giving worshippers guidelines.

“He is condemning these women… instead of explaining the appropriate dress code and attitude in church in general — for everyone,” said Sandra Awad, a 22-year-old student who has attended Lamei’s church in the past.

But another woman, writing on Facebook, said the priest “spoke with complete respect… so they can wake up and revere the church they’re entering.”

‘Cover up’ campaign

The debate comes in the wake of a controversial online campaign calling on Christian women to “cover up, so we people can pray”.

A parallel drive urging Egyptian women to cover up for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, also appeared this week with users drawing similarities between the two in the sexist language employed.

Lamei has denied on social media that he endorsed any online drives and did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment.

St Mark’s Church in the Heliopolis district, where he delivered the sermon, on May 6 published a link on its Facebook page to the full Easter speech.

The Coptic Church has become increasingly political under the leadership of Pope Tawadros II, an enthusiastic supporter of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. 

It has also taken on a more active role as the sole representative for Copts in public life as a discriminated minority.

“The clergy are role models for the community who see them as the guardians of their community, its traditions and its faith,” said Elizabeth Monier, an expert on Coptic affairs at the University of Cambridge.

“This is strongly the case when a community feels that it is under threat,” she told AFP.

The Coptic community has suffered a number of deadly attacks on its churches in recent years, while Egyptian authorities routinely turn a blind eye to sectarian violence involving forced evictions or the shutting down of churches.

“Perceived attacks on Coptic traditions or teachings are likely to lead Copts to rally around their clergy and uphold traditions more strongly,” said Monier.

‘Justify harassment’

A group of worshippers at a church in Upper Egypt started an online campaign last week urging fellow young women to dress modestly, which was vehemently criticised by Facebook users for its conservative language. 

Marianne Sedhom, 28, a lawyer in Alexandria who took issue with Lamei’s sermon, told AFP “women in the church need to speak up more against retrograde and male-centric ideas”.

Egypt is one of the worst offenders worldwide for sexual harassment — endured by more than 99 percent of women in the county according to a 2013 United Nations report.

The priest’s remarks were dubbed “Christian Salafism” by Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in reference to the dogmatic school of Sunni Islam.

Ibrahim regarded such rhetoric as hardening attitudes that “justify harassment” towards women.

“There’s a crisis in clerical education so clergy end up tying piety to modesty,” he said.

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Benin prepares to receive centuries-old artefacts taken by France

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Benin prepares to receive century-old artefacts taken by France
The entrance of the historical museum of Abomey, a 47 hectares site composed by a set of royal palaces, inscribed on the list of the world heritage of UNESCO since December 1985. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

The display cases at the royal palace in Benin’s southern town of Abomey are coated in dust and the exhibition halls plunged in darkness. But local tourism chief Gabin Djimasse hopes all this will change with the return of 26 artefacts from former colonial master France and the construction of a new museum to hold them.

“These objects are a chance for the survival of the site,” Djimasse said as he toured the vast courtyards lined with bas-relief dating back to the 18th-century Dahomey Kingdom. “They will allow us to build a new museum and make the royal palaces more economically sustainable.”

In November, President Emmanuel Macron took the landmark decision to return the artworks – including a royal throne – taken by French troops over a century ago and housed at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

Elected member of the Abomey City Council, head of the region’s Heritage and Tourism Office of the historical museum of Abomey, Bernard Gabin Djimasse speaks as he visits the historical museum of Abomey, a 47 hectares site composed by a set of royal palaces, inscribed on the list of the world heritage of UNESCO since December 1985. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

The move has piled pressure on other former colonial powers to hand back looted artefacts to their countries of origin – and fired up dreams of a lifeline in Abomey. The Kingdom of Dahomey reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and became a major source of slaves for European traders before the conquest by Paris in the 1890s ended its rule.

READ: Map-makers launch 21st-century national map in Benin

Now, a loan of €20 million from the French Development Agency will fund the new museum and aims to make the 47 hectares UNESCO World Heritage Site more attractive for visitors. 

While Benin has welcomed France’s decision to return the objects, it has cautioned against doing so too quickly. Macron wants the artworks returned “without delay” but the museum in Abomey is only set to be opened in 2021 and Benin’s heritage agency says the country needs time to be “truly ready”.

Great opportunity –

Djimasse said plans for the museum to showcase its history and heritage have already gone through several changes. At first “it was all 3D videos, and you would have thought you were at a theme park or in Dubai,” he joked. 

The latest project is set to be more low-key, fitting in with the local architecture and relying more on natural lighting and less on plasma screens. But building the physical infrastructure is only one part of the challenge.

Djimasse said the other major priority is finding people to work as guides and develop the expertise to properly care for and restore the artworks. “Four years ago, the Quai Branly in Paris wanted to train two young people from Benin in restoration,” he said. 

(Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

“We looked everywhere for scientists but we couldn’t find any — and in the end, we sent a history student.” At the School for African Heritage in Benin’s capital Porto-Novo, a dozen students aged from 23 to 53 are diligently working to be part of the project. 

This is the “first batch” of a new training programme aimed at cultivating the various skills required, said their teacher Richard Sagan. “At a museum, there is more than just the curator,” said Sagan, a specialist at Benin’s heritage agency.

“There is a whole chain of trades, from skilled technicians and craftsmen.” Those in the class have already been working in the cultural field and insisted they felt the return of the artworks from France could be a big boost. 

“It is a great opportunity for young people,” said Messie Boko, a 28-year-old student, and guide at a museum in the city. “It is our duty to know how to spread this heritage”.

World heritage –

Alain Godonou is called “Mr. Benin heritage” by his colleagues at the national agency. He may have studied in France but he has never gained access to the roughly 5,000 artefacts from the Kingdom of Dahomey held by the country. 

(Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

A former UNESCO official, Godonou said preparing for the return of the objects has been a “goal” of his life. But he insisted that Benin still needs to pass a comprehensive legal framework to protect heritage.

As for the 26 objects – they should just be the start of a broader process. Gordon said Benin wanted to “reclaim its property rights” over all the artworks held abroad – even if that doesn’t mean returning them home permanently.

“We want the works to move around, that is our philosophy,” he said. “In the end, they are part of world heritage.”

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Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt

A team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back some 4,000 years ago.

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A man brushes off dust from a sarcophagus, part of a new discovery carried out almost 300 meters south of King Amenemhat II’s pyramid at Dahshur necropolis, exposed near the Bent Pyramid, about 40km (25 miles) south of the Egyptian capital Cairo, during an inaugural ceremony of the pyramid and its satellites, on July 13, 2019. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Egypt on Saturday opened two ancient pyramids south of the capital Cairo and unveiled a collection of newly found sarcophagi, some containing well-preserved mummies. 

Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani told reporters the Bent Pyramid of King Sneferu, the first pharaoh of Egypt’s 4th dynasty, and a nearby pyramid would be reopened to visitors for the first time since 1965.

Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany speaks in front of the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

He also said a team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back to the Middle Kingdom some 4,000 years ago.  

The finds were made during excavation work in the royal necropolis of Dahshur on the west bank of the Nile River, in an area home to some of Egypt’s oldest pyramids.

“Several stone, clay and wooden sarcophagi were found and some contain mummies in good condition,” the antiquities ministry said in a statement. 

The ancient wall stretches some 60 metres and is situated south of the pyramid of 12th dynasty pharaoh King Amenemhat II, also in the Dahshur necropolis. 

The finds also included funerary masks as well as tools dating back to the Late Period — which spanned almost 300 years up to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC — used for cutting stones, the ministry said.

Egypt has in recent years sought to promote archaeological discoveries across the country in a bid to revive tourism, which took a hit from the turmoil that followed its 2011 uprising.

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eSwatini bans “weird” witchcraft competition

The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of and regarded as an anomaly in the country

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eSwatini bans "weird" witchcraft competition
(File photo)

A competition pitting witchdoctors against each other in a battle of skills this weekend in eSwatini — formerly known as Swaziland — has been banned, according to a government statement.

Organisers had planned to hold the competition in Manzini, the second city of eSwatini, a country in southern Africa ruled by King Mswati III, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.

“The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of in the country and it was regarded as an anomaly in the lives of the people of eSwatini,” government spokesman Percy Simelane said in a statement.

“Government will not sanction any competition of that nature. Anyone who will persist with any activity related to witchcraft will face the full might of the law.”

The statement, released on Tuesday, said the Witchcraft Act of 1889 defines witchcraft, sorcery or the practice of voodoo as a punishable offence.

“Government cannot sit back and watch while the lives of the citizens of this country are exposed to illegal and weird practices that have the potential to poison the minds of (Swazi people), especially children,” Simelane added.

“Government will not allow the voodoo competition — period!”

eSwatini has a population of 1.3 million people, with many following Christianity and indigenous beliefs.

The Times of Swaziland on Wednesday quoted “Africa Gama”, the organiser of the event, as saying the competition would have pit witchdoctors against traditional healers as under the previous king Sobhuza II, who died in 1982.

“The King was concerned about unnecessary competition among healers so he called them to one place so that they could demonstrate their powers,” he said.

“I was competing with traditional healers, doctors, and prophets from across the world.”

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