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Egyptian riots reveal wide religious divide

Muslims and Christians in Alexandria called for calm after two days of clashes.

By Ursula LindseyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2006



ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT

An attack on several Christian churches in this Egyptian coastal city, followed by two days of sectarian clashes, raises fresh concerns that the social compact between the country's Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority is unraveling.

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While the government and many Egyptians say religious tolerance is the rule, some in the country's Coptic community view the attack, and the way the investigation is being handled, as evidence they are increasingly under siege.

On Sunday evening, Christians and Muslims came together for a peaceful march in a neighborhood where some of the clashes occurred. The demonstrators, led by Muslim and Christian clergy, chanted "Long live the crescent and the cross," referring to the symbols of their two religions. It's a slogan that has its roots in Egypt's 1919 Independence movements, when Christians and Muslims came together to protest British occupation, and the idea of "national unity" - regardless of creed - was forged.

But that solidarity has been under strain since the 1970s, which witnessed the rise of violent Islamist groups in Egypt and the increased religiosity of average citizens.

"Islamic fundamentalism is spreading," says Coptic writer and intellectual Milad Hanna. "Therefore many Muslims are not as tolerant as they were. Many Muslims think that Islam should be the only religion in Egypt if possible. This is not said in public, but in private."

Egyptian authorities say the man who stabbed 17 churchgoers at three churches Friday was mentally ill and worked alone. But some members of the Coptic minority - 5 to 10 percent of the country's population - are convinced he had accomplices, and think the official investigation is a coverup.

"How could one man go to so many churches at once? How could he do all of this alone? Is he Superman?" asked carpenter Milad Fawzy, a Copt.

For many Alexandrians, more disturbing than the attack (which left one dead and 16 injured) were the following two days, when some Christians and Muslims clashed in the street. A Muslim man was killed and up to a 100 people detained.

The violence began when Copts marched through the area in a funeral procession for the Coptic man killed Friday. The procession carried a cross and Christians chanted, "With our blood, with our soul, we will sacrifice for you, Christ." Some Muslims were reportedly incensed, and chanted their own religious slogans, such as, "There is no God but God."

"The reason [for the clashes]," says Mahmoud, a Muslim taxi driver, "was the Christian funeral procession. They insulted Muslims."

Christians and Muslims in the neighborhood on Monday played down the violence, saying it was the work of "outsiders," or "kids." They also said it had been used as an opportunity to steal from local shops.

But others say what happened in Alexandria can't be considered an isolated incident. Corneils Huylsman runs the Center for Arab West Understanding, which follows sectarian disputes.

"It would be an incident if it were the first time in 10 years," says Mr. Huylsman. "But we are seeing one incident after another. This type of attack creates feelings that are not good and separates the two communities."

Six months ago Alexandria saw days of sectarian rioting that left 100 wounded and three dead, when Muslim protesters descended into the street over a play performed in a church that they said negatively portrayed Islam. A nun was stabbed on the steps of an Alexandrian church, but survived the attack. In January, a sectarian clash in a village in southern Egypt left 11 wounded.

Copts also complain that they are the victims of daily discrimination. They resent limits on building churches, and point to the fact that very few Copts occupy high positions in the government.

But government officials say Copts have the same rights as other citizens. Most Egyptian Muslims agree.

"You can't diagnose that there is a religious problem in Egypt," insists Alexandria Muslim Brotherhood member Ahmed Mattar. "It's not like Lebanon. We [Muslims and Christians] share the same culture. Most Muslims have no problem having a friend, a partner, a neighbor who is Coptic. Our prophet told us we must treat all Christians very, very well."

Mr. Mattar blames the violence in Alexandria on deteriorating social and economic conditions. The Muslims who participated in the clashes "are low- culture people," he says. "They don't know Islam well. They have only emotions: They feel they have no money, no jobs, no opportunity to improve their life."

But Father Talkla, the priest who was officiating mass at the first church attacked, adds that "people in the media are always talking against us [Copts], and mosques in particular say very harsh words against us."

In fact, says Huylsman, Egyptian society is becoming increasingly religious. While imams may condemn "kafirs" (nonbelievers) in their Friday sermons, Christian satellite channels air shows dedicated to criticizing Islam.

Muslims and Christians "affect one another," explains Huylsman. "If you are making efforts to strengthen your own identity, then it has consequences for people living among you, who also have to strengthen their identity."

Demonstrations calling for religious tolerance started taking in several Egyptian cities Tuesday.

But some Copts put little stock in these events. "These demonstrations are fictitious," says Coptic intellectual Mr. Hanna. "[They're being held] under the umbrella of the government. They give a message that things are OK. But they are not OK." Until authorities address the grievances of Copts and engage in a real dialogue with Egyptians of both denominations, the sectarian problem will remain "recurrent," he says. "It will happen again in a few months' time."

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