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Egypt Soap Opera Sparks Controversy

December 24, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ A soap opera featuring a Coptic Christian woman married to a Muslim man kept Egyptians riveted night after night, although its frank talk of sex and religious differences has outraged conservatives.

The three-week-long ``Awan al-Ward,″ or ``Time of Roses,″ was one of the most-watched television shows this Ramadan season, when Egyptians tune in for special sunset-to-sunrise holiday programming.

``It is the best serial this Ramadan. It is a new topic, something we face in our daily life,″ said Nadine el Hosseini, a 17-year-old Muslim.

Egypt is predominantly Muslim, with Christians making up 10 percent of the population, but marriages like the one in ``Awan al-Ward″ are not uncommon.

However, the Coptic Christian church does not condone interfaith marriages, and some groups accused the makers of the show of promoting the unions.

``It ignores the teachings of the Bible, which stipulate that a Christian should not marry a non-Christian and it also violates the laws of the church, that a Christian should not marry a Muslim,″ said Father Markos Khalil of Cairo’s Hanging Church, so named because it appears to be suspended from ancient walls.

``Awan al-Ward,″ the first series on Egyptian state-run television to portray an interfaith marriage, tells the story of a Coptic Christian woman married to a Muslim man who raises her daughter as a Muslim.

According to Islam, if a Muslim man marries a Christian woman, she can keep her faith but their children must follow the religion of the father. A Christian man would have to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman.

Scriptwriter Wahid Hamid, a Muslim, said the minister of information had asked him to write a TV show about national unity. He chose interfaith marriage.

Director Samir Seif, a Copt, said the programmers wanted to stir things up. ``We tried to make an entertaining dramatic TV serial, but not a superficial one, something with a core, with controversial content,″ he said.

Stir things up they did. Earlier this month, a group of Coptic Christians asked a court to ban the soap opera, calling the series offensive to Christians. Another suit asked that the show be ``filtered″ of ``theological mistakes.″

Some Muslims also were displeased with the program. After one character appeared in a bikini, Voice of Al-Azhar, the newspaper of mainstream Islam’s most prestigious institution, called it a ``horrible lapse″ in programming to expose flesh and discuss virginity. The newspaper said the depiction was offensive and defamatory to Muslim women.

The government may have been trying to bring Muslims and Christians closer together through the soap opera, but their choice of topic was ``irresponsible,″ said Amin Fahim, a Copt.

Samar, a 30-year-old Copt who has been married to a Muslim for six years, said she stayed tuned into the program ``to see what will happen.″

Samar, who did not want to give her last name, said her family disowned her and threatened to kill her when she first married. Now, she said, her marriage is falling apart because her husband has asked her to convert to Islam.

The soap opera ``is not how it is in real life,″ she said. ``Religion is more important than everything else.″

Such orchestrated portrayals of national unity between people of different religions is just ``an ointment that covers a cancer,″ said Milad Hanna, a Coptic writer who campaigns for better representation of Coptic culture.

The issue of Muslim-Christian relations has been a touchy one in Egypt for years.

Early this year, 21 people, most of them Christians, were killed in southern Egypt in Muslim-Christian clashes considered the worst the country has seen in decades.

Coinciding with the broadcast of ``Awan al-Ward,″ 96 defendants from the clashes were released this month.

The judge asked the oldest of the Coptic and Muslim defendants to shake hands. Instead, the two men hugged each other to cheers from the public gallery.

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