IT was during Lent last month that the monks of the Burnt Monastery came face-to-face with the increasing violence outside the walls of their 4th century refuge, deep in the heart of rural Egypt.
Two monks standing outside were gunned down as a car drove up to the outer walls of the monastery. Just who killed them is a matter of speculation. What nobody in officialdom will publicly accept is that it was almost certainly a sectarian killing, which follows many incidents in Upper Egypt over the last three decades.
Times change for Christians
Some 25 percent of the population of Upper Egypt is estimated to be Christian, compared with an estimated 10 percent Christian population nationwide. Known as Copts, they are the descendants of some of the first people to accept Christianity. Racially and culturally, Egyptian Copts and Muslims are the same people, and they cooperated to oust the British in the anti-colonial struggle.
But times have changed. The dominant popular movement in Egypt is that of political Islam. In its rigidity, it lacks traditional Islam's acceptance of a diversity of beliefs within Islam.
While the government of Egypt does not actively encourage persecution of Christians, any move to limit discrimination is stifled by the taboos surrounding discussion of the issue.
But according to the governor of Assiut, Gen. Samih al-Said, there is no evidence that the gunmen were Islamic extremists: ``There are rumors that maybe some Christians did it,'' he said in a recent interview with the Monitor, indicating that it may have been done as part of a blood feud - endemic in Upper Egypt for generations.
It is very difficult to find many Copts in positions of authority, even in Cairo where they form a significant percentage of the professional classes, who will openly criticize government policy. There are only five Coptic members of parliament - just over 1 percent of the total. They are all appointees of President Hosni Mubarak, and rarely mention sectarianism publicly.
There is a widespread perception among Christians that while the government is not evenhanded between the two communities, any attack on government policy could evoke a backlash or even renew Islamist criticism that the government is pro-Christian because of pressure from the West.
Antoine Sidhom, the elderly owner of the Christian weekly, Watani (the Nation), was provoked by the tragedy at the Burnt Monastery, to lambaste the lack of protection for Egyptian Christians.
``We had believed that since the diversification of terrorism into attacks on tourists and the police, and the realization that the state itself was the target of these attacks, the security forces had returned to their senses and finally grasped that the issue was not sporadic attacks on Copts, but rather the destruction of the nation's fabric ... but still their bias continues,'' Mr. Sidhom wrote in his weekly last month.
Sidhom is not being merely emotional. One of the grimmer chapters in the history of Egypt's Christians took place about two years ago in the tiny hamlet of Manshiet Nasser - just half an hour from the Burnt Monastery. Despite several urgent warnings from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights to the Ministry of Interior that local Christians had been threatened by extremists, several groups of Gamaa penetrated the unprotected village. Eleven Christian farmers were killed in their fields, along with a Muslim landowner who tried to protect them. At the same time, a Christian teacher was shot in front of his students and a Christian pharmacist outside his house.
Investigations by the EOHR concluded that ``the organization called Gamaa ... has for a number of years, been practicing systematic sectarian violence within clear sight of the local authorities. It has done this through various forms of economic and social discrimination and through inflicting physical and psychological harm, the victims having included a number of Muslims who did not support the Gamaa.''
These conclusions were denied by the Egyptian Interior Minister, who insisted that it was merely a feud between two families over land - despite the fact that members of several families died.
EOHR points finger at government
The EOHR points the finger at a broader problem in a society where the security services are not accountable to any local democratically elected authority. It argues that the Egyptian state: ``only moves to confront what it considers to be a threat to it as a ruling power ... but stands aside as a mere onlooker when violence and coercion are used to enforce the special [Islamist] belief systems on the social life of Egyptians.
Conditions have greatly improved in Manshiet Nasser in the past 18 months. The crackdown against Islamist extremism has helped relieve the pressure on the village.
But Christians from other areas of southern Egypt are complaining that the militants have shifted their attention to their areas, making their lives a misery.
``We see so much of this now, the Christians from small villages go to Cairo, they are so afraid of extortion by the Gamaa - they leave their land,'' explains a Christian businessman, too frightened to be named. ``Also the businessmen, so many pharmacists and jewelers have been shot dead in robberies by the Gamaa. If they can, they emigrate,'' he adds. The phenomena of a disproportionate number of Upper Egyptian Christians applying to emigrate has been confirmed by Western embassies in Cairo.