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Sectarian violence in Cairo has Egypt on edge

Egyptian military rulers are promising swift justice for participants in sectarian riots in Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo that left 12 people dead.

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The walls and ceiling of the room are blackened, a ceiling fan’s blades melted into haunting shapes. A partially burnt altar curtain sits in the corner with children’s Bible story books. Acrid smoke hangs in the air.

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Hossam Bahgat says the attempt to break into a church to rescue an alleged hostage is "unprecedented." Bahgat runs the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a group that has documented sectarian attacks for years. He also says it is “disturbing” that Christians reportedly used violence in response to the attack. The sentiment that seems to be growing among the Christian community is that “they are going to use force to protect themselves if the state continues to fail to protect them.”

“This is why I think we're seeing this time such a strong response from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the Cabinet,” he says. “They seem to finally realize that the number one priority now, as far as the sectarian violence is concerned, is physical protection of individuals, communities and places of worship.”


The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military government running Egypt, said it had arrested 190 people in connection with the attacks and would try them in military courts “as a deterrent to all those who think of toying with the potential of this nation." Egypt’s prime minister delayed a trip to the Gulf to hold an emergency cabinet meeting and Egypt’s justice minister announced Egypt would use an “iron hand” against those trying to “tamper with the nation’s security.”

The violence started when rumors spread that Christians had abducted a woman who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man, and were holding her inside St. Mina church. Christians said the rumor was false, and there was no such woman. Alleged female conversions and abductions have been a flashpoint for sectarian tensions for years.

Last year Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, allegedly disappeared for days. Muslims claimed the church had abducted her when she tried to convert to Islam. Salafis have continued to hold protests demanding her “release.”

That storyline spawned violence in Iraq, where a group associated with Al Qaeda attacked a church, killing dozens, and called for attacks on churches in Egypt. One did come, on a church in Alexandria on Jan. 1. An apparent suicide bomber killed more than 20 Christians, though no group ever claimed responsibility for the bombing and it was unclear if it was related to the issue of Camillia Shehata.

Christians have faced discrimination, particularly in the application of justice when they face sectarian attacks. Mubarak’s regime refused to acknowledge a sectarian dimension to such attacks. And sometimes authorities imposed forced reconciliation instead of bringing Muslim attackers to justice.