Normally harmonious relations between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Coptic Christian minority may be upset by an upsurge of violent Islamic extremism here.
Muslim extremists have made the Copts targets in their efforts to build a new Islamic society. (Over 90 percent of Egypt's estimated 40 million people are Sunni Muslims.)
Acts of violence directed against the Copts have been increasing recently. On Jan. 6, the Coptic Christmas Eve, two bombs went off in Alexandria, Egypt, killing one person and injuring several others. At Minia in upper Egypt, police had To intervene the same evening to allow christians to hold a worship service that Muslim militants wanted to prevent.
In Assuit, a caroler was stabbed that night. Then on Jan. 31, a movie theater showing a film on Christ Jesus was burned down. Muslim militants have been blamed.
These violent episodes do not worry the Coptic church as much as inflammatory literature that has appeared in the Azhar area of old Cairo in the past month.
A Tract supposedly written by a Christian says that "we [Christians] do not accept Islam as a religion." It goes on to describe Islam as "the cause of the backwardness and misfortunes of east and arab countries."
Another document, entitled "Islam the lie of lies," purports to be the work of the Coptic Patriarch. Yet another appears to be an attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.
According to Bishop Samuel of the Coptic church, "This inflammatory literature is more dangerous than the bombs." He notes that distribution is well organized in the Azhar area of old Cairo. The tracts are found throughout the area in buses and shops, and have already led to a number of angry meetings by Muslims there.
The danger is that the tracts will heat emotions and cause more incidents. A similar outbreak of sectarian violence in 1972 was preceded by the circulation of a fake document, supposedly a sermon by the Coptic Patriarch, that called for the "return to power of the Copts of Egypt who have been bereft."
Fundamentalist Muslims have also been upset by Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. A leading publication of the Islamic fundamentlists, Al Dawaa, openly attacked camp David and the peace treaty, making it clear that "one must never recognize the conquest of Muslim lands. . . ."
The Muslim fundamentalists see their fears justified by tracts allegedly circulated by the Copts. One such says: "The countdown for the collapse of this religion [Islam] has begun following the signing of the Camp David agreement. It is the same countdown that announces the return and rise of Christian Egypt."
Fundamentalist Muslim groups are concerned by the growing alliance between Egypt and the United States. They feel that the United States wants to destroy them for the sake of the Christians in the country.
In January of last year, Al Itessam, the other major voice of Egyptian Islamic fundamentalism, claimed that american aid to Egypt was conditional on Egypt adopting a birth- control program for Muslims only. Several months after that, Al Dawaa printed a letter claiming that the CIA was conspiring to destroy Islamic groups in the country.
The Egyptian government has reacted firmly to attempts to stir up trouble. After the Christmas Eve bombings 70 members of a secret organization called Jihad (holy war) were arrested. One hundred members of the sect had already been arrested in October.
Government views the clandestine organization with extreme concern. In the 1977 a similar upsurge of violent extremism led to the kidnapping and execution of Sheikh Muhammad al Dahabi, a former minister of Waaf and Azhar affairs. That was blamed on another group, TakfirWal Hijra (Repentance and Flight from Sin). In the roundup that followed, 620 members of Takfir Wal Hijra were arrested.
Two other clandestine groups were discovered at that time -- the Soldiers of God and Jihad. It now appears that Jihad continues to exist and has caches of arms within Egypt.
Travelers recently returning from Kuwait report that both Jihad and Takfir Wal Hijra are popular organizations among Egyptian expatriates there.
While these groups may not be dangerous in themselves for more than isolated acts of violence, the government has recognized that the antagonism they could create between Copts and Muslims would be a serious threat to social peace.