Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
In this Jan. 8 photo, an Egyptian man passes two destroyed vehicles at hospital a day after clashes between Coptic Christians and Egyptian police in the town of Naga Hamadi, Egypt. As Easter Sunday approaches, many Egyptian Christians believe they are treated as second-class citizens.

In Egypt, Christians celebrate Easter Sunday under shadow of Christmas attacks

Many Christians in Naga Hamadi are approaching Easter Sunday with trepidation just months after a striking episode of sectarian violence took place in their quiet city on the banks of the Nile.

When Kamal Nashed Deryes Ghobrial celebrates Easter Sunday this weekend, it will be under the shadow of one of the most striking episodes of sectarian violence in Egypt in years.

Mr. Ghobrial’s son was one of seven young men, six of them Christian, who were killed after Christmas Eve mass. The shooting was followed by three days of violent clashes and attacks against mostly Christian shops and homes in the small town and nearby villages.

When Ghobrial took his son’s body to church for the funeral the day after the shooting, he says Muslims pelted him with stones. Then he watched from his window as men fought over the loot taken from a Christian neighbor’s destroyed shop.

“I am not afraid, because there is nothing worse that could happen to me. After this event, we are more and more attached to Jesus,” says Mr. Ghobrial, who adds that others lack his resolve. “A lot of people will stay here and not go to church on Easter because they are afraid. We don’t know when this injustice will stop.”

Though the violence of the attack in Naga Hamadi was startling, it was not an anomaly; attacks against Christians have become more frequent throughout Egypt in recent years.

It is driven, most agree, in part by the government’s refusal to acknowledge the problem and its failure to prosecute perpetrators, leading to an environment where such attacks can occur with impunity. Some say it is also a result of the increasing Islamicization of society, with Christians complaining of being treated as interlopers in their own country, instead of citizens.

“Over the past three years we’ve been documenting an expansion in the scope of these violent episodes and an increase in the frequency, as well as the government’s failure to appropriately address the violence with prosecution of the perpetrators and compensation of victims,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Muslims see 'problems'; Christians see discrimination

Many Muslims, and some Christians, in this southern Egyptian city of 50,000 say that people live side by side as brothers and sisters. Even Christians who are outspoken about the discrimination and injustice they say they face are quick to point out that they have Muslim friends, customers, and employees with whom they have good relationships. But when pressed, some admit that there are tensions.

“There are some problems with Christians, we don’t deny it,” says Muslim resident Mustapha Shady, drinking tea on the banks of the Nile here in Naga Hamadi. “I cannot say there is discrimination, but there are some problems,” he says, such as the difficulties Christians face in building new churches. “These problems make the Christians feel that they are discriminated against.”

But Christians – who make up less than 10 percent of Egypt’s nearly 80 million residents – see persistent discrimination and subsequent alienation, stemming from school curriculums they say are anti-Christian and teaching in mosques that describes them as infidels. It is nearly impossible to obtain permission to build new churches, while new mosques can be easily constructed.

Conversions from Islam to Christianity are not officially recognized, though the right is guaranteed in the constitution. And disproportionately few Christians hold positions of power in government. (See related Q&A on the wane of Christian populations in the Middle East today.)

In addition, say Christians – most of whom belong to the Coptic church – authorities fail to investigate or prosecute violence against their communities. Officials dismiss most attacks as individual incidents unrelated to sectarian tensions.

While these problems have existed for years, the Jan. 6 attack in Naga Hamadi jolted some Egyptians into take a stronger stand.

Revo Nazir, who lives in Cairo, says it has prompted increased dialogue about religious tension. That subject was long taboo for her, she says – but no more.

“I think I’ve been afraid for so long,” she says. “But now I’m fed up with it. I hate being treated unfairly.... We need to stand up and say that something is going on.”

Disgruntlement over Egypt's response to Naga Hamadi attack

Three men have been charged with the Jan. 6 shootings; their trial has been postponed until mid-April. An unknown number of people detained in the aftermath of the violence are still being held.

Shortly after the shootings took place on Jan. 6 but before the suspects were apprehended, the Interior Ministry released a statement saying “preliminary evidence” indicated that the violence was retaliation for the alleged rape of a Muslim woman by a Christian man in the nearby town of Farshout in November.

Most Coptic Christians in Naga Hamadi reject the government’s explanation, pointing to the time lapsed between the incidents and the fact that those killed had no relation or connection to the alleged rapist. They suggested that the shooting was connected to the district’s politics.

One of the men charged with the shooting, a convicted criminal, was hired as a hit man by someone more powerful to intimidate Christians, they say.

Many point to Abdul Rahim El Ghoul, a lawmaker from Naga Hamadi who lost his seat in 2000 and reportedly blamed it on Christians, who typically vote for the candidate chosen by their politically active leader, Bishop Kyrolos.Ghoul has denied any ties to the alleged killer.

“Everyone is asking about who was behind these killings. This is a question that only an independent official investigation can answer,” says Baghat, adding his dismay that the government has focused solely on the shootings, and not the subsequent three days of attacks. “It is regrettable that the investigation and the trial seem to be limited to who pulled the trigger on Jan. 6.”

Christian-Muslim divide deepens

Now, as Christians mark Easter Sunday nearly three months after the violence, many in Naga Hamadi say the divide between Christians and Muslims has deepened.
Gameel Fawzy Ghobrial, who owns a supermarket that was severely damaged by a mob, says one Muslim customer wept when she saw what had happened. But now most of his Muslim clients – and he had many – have begun frequenting shops owned by other Muslims.

“I see that discrimination is getting worse and worse,” says Mr. Ghobrial, who is not related to Kamal despite sharing the same last name. “Although we are the ones who are living in this injustice, the discrimination from their side is getting stronger.“

Eman Zakaria, a Christian whose brother was killed in the Jan. 6 shooting, says students at her son’s school taunt Christian children with threats of another attack. And Ahmed Abdel Wahed, a Muslim, says that when his eyes were damaged by tear gas used to break up clashes after the shootings, he was turned away at Christian pharmacies.

Turning point?

Some hope the incident will be a wake-up call and a turning point for the nation. Bahgat says that the event has already caused a subtle shift in the government’s rhetoric about sectarian tension. Shortly after the attack Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave a speech in which, for the first time, he acknowledged a sectarian problem.

“We are actually encouraged by this new discourse by the president about this problem,” says Baghat. “We are calling on the president to turn this into a clear plan on action on eradicating sectarian violence.”

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