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In Egypt, Christians celebrate Easter Sunday under shadow of Christmas attacks

Many Christians in Naga Hamadi are approaching Easter Sunday with trepidation just months after a striking episode of sectarian violence took place in their quiet city on the banks of the Nile.

By Correspondent / April 2, 2010

In this Jan. 8 photo, an Egyptian man passes two destroyed vehicles at hospital a day after clashes between Coptic Christians and Egyptian police in the town of Naga Hamadi, Egypt. As Easter Sunday approaches, many Egyptian Christians believe they are treated as second-class citizens.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP


Naga Hamadi, Egypt

When Kamal Nashed Deryes Ghobrial celebrates Easter Sunday this weekend, it will be under the shadow of one of the most striking episodes of sectarian violence in Egypt in years.

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Mr. Ghobrial’s son was one of seven young men, six of them Christian, who were killed after Christmas Eve mass. The shooting was followed by three days of violent clashes and attacks against mostly Christian shops and homes in the small town and nearby villages.

When Ghobrial took his son’s body to church for the funeral the day after the shooting, he says Muslims pelted him with stones. Then he watched from his window as men fought over the loot taken from a Christian neighbor’s destroyed shop.

“I am not afraid, because there is nothing worse that could happen to me. After this event, we are more and more attached to Jesus,” says Mr. Ghobrial, who adds that others lack his resolve. “A lot of people will stay here and not go to church on Easter because they are afraid. We don’t know when this injustice will stop.”

Though the violence of the attack in Naga Hamadi was startling, it was not an anomaly; attacks against Christians have become more frequent throughout Egypt in recent years.

It is driven, most agree, in part by the government’s refusal to acknowledge the problem and its failure to prosecute perpetrators, leading to an environment where such attacks can occur with impunity. Some say it is also a result of the increasing Islamicization of society, with Christians complaining of being treated as interlopers in their own country, instead of citizens.

“Over the past three years we’ve been documenting an expansion in the scope of these violent episodes and an increase in the frequency, as well as the government’s failure to appropriately address the violence with prosecution of the perpetrators and compensation of victims,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Muslims see 'problems'; Christians see discrimination

Many Muslims, and some Christians, in this southern Egyptian city of 50,000 say that people live side by side as brothers and sisters. Even Christians who are outspoken about the discrimination and injustice they say they face are quick to point out that they have Muslim friends, customers, and employees with whom they have good relationships. But when pressed, some admit that there are tensions.

“There are some problems with Christians, we don’t deny it,” says Muslim resident Mustapha Shady, drinking tea on the banks of the Nile here in Naga Hamadi. “I cannot say there is discrimination, but there are some problems,” he says, such as the difficulties Christians face in building new churches. “These problems make the Christians feel that they are discriminated against.”

But Christians – who make up less than 10 percent of Egypt’s nearly 80 million residents – see persistent discrimination and subsequent alienation, stemming from school curriculums they say are anti-Christian and teaching in mosques that describes them as infidels. It is nearly impossible to obtain permission to build new churches, while new mosques can be easily constructed.

Conversions from Islam to Christianity are not officially recognized, though the right is guaranteed in the constitution. And disproportionately few Christians hold positions of power in government. (See related Q&A on the wane of Christian populations in the Middle East today.)