Egypt's Copts ever more wary after deadly clash with Muslims

After a Christian protest in Cairo turned violent Tuesday, many Christians worry they will be even more marginalized in revolutionary Egypt.

By , Correspondent

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    In this photo taken Tuesday, March 8, Egyptian Copts carry a cross, a picture showing saints along a banner in Arabic that reads 'God is our shelter and strength, he will help us in hard times,' during a protest in downtown Cairo, Egypt.

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Deadly fighting Tuesday between Christians and Muslims in Cairo killed at least 13 people and wounded 140, deepening sectarian tensions and raising many concerns among Christians about their place in the new Egypt.

The violence erupted during a protest in the Manshiyet Nasr slum, a community of mostly poor Christians who work as garbage collectors. About 1,000 Christians were blocking a road to demand that the government rebuild a Christian church outside Cairo that was destroyed last Friday by Muslims.

Not long after the demonstration began, Christian eyewitnesses say they were set upon by hundreds of Muslims who used Molotov cocktails, sticks, and knives to attack the rally. But residents of a nearby by Muslim neighborhood said the Christians struck first.

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Ashraf Ramzy, a Christian whose head was bandaged after the fighting, described being terrified because, he says, the Army did not intervene. Mr. Ramzy said the crowd pulled him from his vehicle, beat him, and set his car on fire.

“[Muslims] were standing behind the Army, and chanting ‘the Army and the people are one,’ ” a common chant during Egypt’s revolution, he said. “Are we not people?”

Egypt’s revolution was not led by Islamists, and was characterized by a remarkable show of unity and solidarity between Egyptians of different backgrounds. But some Christians, who have long lived with discrimination and injustice, worry that the limited freedoms they have now will be further marginalized by the majority Muslim population.

"We as Christians are worse off after the revolution," said Mina Magdy, a young Christian. "Look at what's happening to us. Mubarak was bad, but now it's worse. The Army isn't doing anything to protect us."

Attacks on Copts increase

The recent rise in tension came after a Muslim mob burned a church in the village of Sul, south of Cairo. They were reportedly angered by an affair involving a Christian man and Muslim woman that had turned into a deadly family dispute.

These kinds of attacks on Christians have increased in recent years. Under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, the government refused to acknowledge sectarian-motivated violence against Christians. Justice was routinely denied and perpetrators often escaped prosecution or received light sentences.

Since Sunday, thousands of Copts have been demonstrating in front of Cairo's state television building to protest the church burning. In addition to asking the government to rebuild the church, they are seeking protection for Copts who return to the village after fleeing last week's attack. They also want those responsible for destroying the church to be held accountable.

On Tuesday, many Muslims came to the protest in a show of support. “I am a Muslim and I came here to stand with my friend,” said Rafiq Ibrahim, who shouted to make himself heard above the roar of the crowd that held crosses aloft. “What will happen to him will happen to me. We don’t say Christian or Muslim, we say Egyptian.”

But those words ring hollow to some Christians, who don’t want to sweep injustice and discrimination under the rug in the name of national unity.

“I am very happy that our Muslim brothers came to be with us, but we should be honest and say there is discrimination here,” said Michael Attiya. “Every year lots of Christian people die, and nothing is done. We need all the Muslims to say that what is happening is wrong, because we are citizens, too.”

An overburdened hospital

In Manshiyet Nasr, at the tiny hospital run by the local church, director Samuel Maher said nine of the fatalities were caused by gunshot wounds, and that more than 100 people were also shot.

An eyewitness not involved in the fighting said he saw men with guns in the crowd fighting the Christians, and also saw Muslims in that crowd with gunshot wounds. Some Christian witnesses said the Army opened fire on them. An Army lieutenant colonel at the scene denied those charges, saying the Army had tried to break up the fighting.

“Look, if we had taken a side and fired on the crowd, there would have been thousands of casualties,” he said. He blames the violence on thugs who had stolen weapons and were taking advantage of Egypt’s tenuous security situation.

But the hospital, unequipped to handle such serious injuries, called ambulances to take the seriously wounded to larger hospitals. The Army would not allow the ambulances to come, Dr. Maher said, and lives were lost as a result.

As he spoke, a woman wearing a purple hijab, an Islamic veil, walked into his office bringing donated medical supplies. Sondos Shabayek said she had heard through Twitter that the hospital desperately needed supplies, and so she pitched in. “The Army officer warned me not to go into this neighborhood because I’m wearing the veil,” she said. “It’s tense here, but no one said a bad word to me.”

Maher said seven doctors volunteered their time at the hospital to treat the wounded, and many others, Muslim and Christian, pitched in to help.

What sparked the violence?

Residents of the Christian neighborhood stayed home from their jobs Wednesday out of fear that they would be attacked if they left, and rumors swirled that gangs were coming to attack them.

In the wake of the violence, many were debating what motivated the attacks. “They want Egypt to be an Islamic country,” said one young Christian named Ashraf. “They don’t want any Copts in Egypt.”

Another speculated that the violence had been fomented by the state security agency to make people regret Mubarak's ouster, an explanation seized on and echoed by many Egyptians as attacks were reported across Cairo Wednesday.

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