Egypt: Why Christian, Muslim clashes are different this time

The attack that killed six Christians as they left a Jan. 7 Christmas mass, and the ensuing clashes between Christian protesters and Egypt's mainly Muslim security forces, may signal a turn for the worse.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
An Egyptian man walks past two destroyed vehicles at hospital Friday, a day after clashes between Coptic Christians and Egyptian police in the town of Naga Hamadi.

An unprecedented attack on Coptic Christians leaving a church service earlier this week has prompted concerns that simmering sectarian tensions have turned a dark corner.

“For the first time, this kind of incident [against Christians] happened ... on a random basis,” says Samir Morcos, director of el-Masry Foundation for Citizenship and Dialogue, an Egyptian nongovernmental organization. “I hope that what happened becomes just an exception, not to be repeated and to become a phenomenon for the next month or years.”

Egyptian police have reportedly arrested three suspects in the drive-by shooting that killed six Christians and a Muslim security guard in Naj Hammadi, a town in southern Egypt, when gunmen opened fire on worshipers leaving midnight Christmas mass on Wednesday. The following day, Jan. 7, thousands of Christians clashed with Egyptian security forces at a funeral for one of those killed, while rioters hurled stones at police and smashed everything from ambulances to shop windows. The shooting is thought to be revenge for a Christian man’s alleged rape of a Muslim girl in November.

Copts: systemic government discrimination

In Egypt, where Christians – predominately of the Coptic sect – make up around 10 percent of the population, clashes between the two groups are not uncommon. But whereas clashes have generally been tied to land disputes or social incidents that trigger targeted acts of violence, this attack was unusually severe and indiscriminate.

That, say some analysts, may prompt Copts to respond more forcefully than in the past.

“Always Copts in Egypt don’t respond, but I think after what happened yesterday ... they will start to ask for the rights to stop this kind of violence and perhaps they [will] react,” says Emad Gad, political analyst at the Al Ahram Center, a think tank funded by Egypt’s secular government. “The Christians will start to demonstrate and they’ll start to refuse, and perhaps we can see clashes after that.”

Copts often complain of systemic government discrimination. Last May, the regime culled 300,000 pigs in what it defended as a precaution against the swine flu epidemic.

In addition, a battle over alleged religious discrimination on state-issued identity cards is being waged in courts. Christian children whose fathers converted to Islam are labeled by the state as Muslim, despite cases in which their mothers raised them practicing Christianity – a measure seen as overt discrimination.

Escalation in sectarian violence

The start of clashes between the two groups can be traced back three decades to an increase of Islamic rhetoric by then-president Anwar Sadat, who began to refer to himself as a "Muslim president for an Islamic country," fomenting religious sectarianism.

Clashes, stabbings, and the deadly shooting indicate an escalation in sectarian violence that Mr. Gad attributes to the rise in fundamentalist Islam in Egypt.

“We are living in a very fanatic society ... if you see the Egyptian educational system, the textbooks, the speeches of the sheiks in mosques, all of these methods are used against non-Muslims – against Christians, against Jews – so it’s normal to see attacks,” he says.

The Egyptian government has not released information about the suspects, but Mr. Morcos says that ultimately it’s the nature of the violence, more than the personalities involved, that is the issue.

“The problem here is not the affiliation of these people, but the problem here is attacking people on the street ... this is a new phenomenon,” says Morcos.

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