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Egypt government bears brunt of Coptic Christian anger

As protests continue in the wake of a Jan. 1 church bombing, the fault lines are growing between the Egypt's Copts and its secular regime.

By Correspondent / January 14, 2011

The Islamist bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day sparked widespread protests, such as this one in Cairo. Copts are angry with the government, which they see as discriminatory.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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Cairo

Sweet, smoky incense filled the dim sanctuary of one of Cairo's Coptic Christian churches recently as congregants gathered to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period for two young Coptic men killed in clashes with police.

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Women wearing bright head wraps and traditional dresses pressed into pews alongside worshipers in more urban dress as the priest chanted prayers at the Church of Archangel Sorial and St. Mina.

Reflecting the nervousness of a community still recovering from the Jan. 1 bombing of a fellow church in Alexandria, one woman grabbed the wrist of a visitor, flipping it over to check for the cross tattoo that most Coptic Christians bear. Outside, security forces ringed the block surrounding the church, while auto rickshaws whizzed by herds of sheep scouring the garbage-strewn streets.

It was in this neighborhood, Al Omraniya, that violent fighting erupted between Christians and police in November when local authorities halted construction on a church building.

The clash marked a rare outburst of anger that's been quietly building for years in Egypt's Christian community. That anger was ignited a month later by the New Year's Day bombing of an Alexandria church that killed 23 people and sparked widespread protests. Islamists are widely suspected in the bombing, which came just weeks after an Al Qaeda-linked website published a list of Coptic targets around the world, including the church in Alexandria.

But it was not Muslims who bore the brunt of Copts' anger after the bombing, as the government feared. Instead, thousands of passionate Egyptians protested against the government. Christians say they will no longer take the discrimination, injustice, and marginalization the regime has long subjected them to.

"There is no justice for us," says Yousuf, a young Copt from Al Omraniya whose brother was one of 157 arrested in the riots. "So why are we going to vote for them? The church should not support the National Democratic Party," he adds, referring to the ruling party that gained an even tighter grip on power in recent elections.

Coptic Orthodox Church leaders have supported the Egyptian regime for decades despite Copts' discontent, partially because they fear the alternative is an Islamist takeover of the country.

But the events of the past year have repeatedly put that relationship to the test, and now signs of fault lines are growing.

In parliamentary elections shortly after the Al Omraniya fighting, the head of the Coptic church, Pope Shenouda III, reportedly cast his ballot for an opposition candidate rather than the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Local priests, who normally encourage their congregations to vote, were silent. And after the Alexandria bombing, the pope issued a mild but rare criticism of the regime in an interview on state television.

"The state also has a duty. It must see to the problems of the Copts and try to resolve them," he said.

The growing popular outrage – hundreds of Copts protested again Wednesday after a policeman fatally shot a Copt on a train, though it was not clear that the person was targeted for being Christian – may be too much for the church to dispel without distancing itself from the government. That's an unwelcome prospect for a regime that is battening the hatches as it prepares for a new leader.

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