Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Attacks Raise Fear of Religious Discord

Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Apr 24 2006 (IPS) - Seemingly random attacks on Coptic churches in the port city of Alexandria last week followed by violent clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims have again raised the spectre of sectarian conflict.

“We’re living in a critical period now in terms of Muslim-Christian relations,” Emad Gad, analyst at the state-run al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “Each side is prepared for clashes.”

Trouble began Apr. 13 when a number of Coptic Christians preparing for Easter celebrations were attacked in three different churches in Alexandria, some 225 km north of Cairo. They were attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, according to accounts in the state media. Coptic Christianity is an indigenous form of the religion in Egypt.

According to these press accounts, one churchgoer was fatally stabbed, and five others were injured before the attacker was caught trying to enter a fourth church building.

The story was quickly put out that the culprit was a lone, mentally disturbed man. “The accused, Mahmoud Salah al-Din Hussein, confessed to committing the crime by himself,” the Apr. 17 edition of the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm reported. Hussein was reported to have been taken to a mental hospital for examination after being charged with murder and carrying weapons.

Officials, fearing a flare-up of sectarian tension, were quick to denounce the crime and call for national unity. “The Copts aren’t a minority and they aren’t a different class – they’re part of Egypt’s national fabric,” said parliament speaker Fathi Sorour. “We’ll never accept any threats against them or anyone trying to create differences between Muslims and Copts.”

But despite official reassurances the situation deteriorated Apr. 15. Violence broke out at the funeral of the man who had died of stab wounds. The next three days saw clashes between scores of Christians and Muslims, mostly in the Montazza district of Alexandria. One Muslim activist died in the clashes, and many were injured on both sides.

While the violence has since subsided amid stepped-up security, many observers have come to question the official story regarding the church attacks, with some witnesses reportedly saying that the culprit was neither alone nor mentally imbalanced.

“It remains to be proven that (the crimes) were committed by one man and that he was insane,” Youssef Sidhoum, editor-in-chief of Coptic weekly al-Watani, told IPS. “Some witnesses said (the perpetrator) broke into one of the churches along with several followers.”

Sidhoum said the official ‘lone attacker’ story was an unlikely one. “The amounts of time between the attacks at the churches – between 45 minutes and an hour in some cases – make the official line hard to believe,” Sidhoum said. “And we were amazed how quickly the official story was released right after the arrest.”

Gad said that “they’ve been trying to sell the ‘one attacker’ story, but no one’s buying it. Eyewitnesses say they saw multiple attackers.”

Interfaith relations have traditionally been peaceful in this majority-Muslim country in which Christians are an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population. But there have been periodic outbreaks of violence, especially in Upper Egypt.

Sectarian hostility erupted most dramatically in 2000 in al-Kusheh village in the south, when 20 people were killed in armed clashes between Muslims and Christians. In an indication of the sensitivity of the incident, the site of the confrontation was renamed Dar al-Salaam, or ‘City of Peace’.

Sporadic religious clashes have broken out since then. Last October thousands of Muslims protested outside a church building in Alexandria after reports in the local press that a play offensive to Islam had been enacted there two years earlier. The demonstrations left three dead and scores injured.

Sectarian friction surfaced again in January this year in the Upper Egyptian village of Udaysat, some 500 km south of Cairo, when Muslims and Christians clashed over the historically divisive issue of church buildings. By the time security forces broke up the melee, a Christian resident died from wounds sustained in the confrontation. Fourteen people, including four policemen, were injured.

Egypt’s Copts have long complained of discrimination, pointing to the under-representation of Christians in the government, army and police. “Copts have suffered from many things, including government policy on church building, attacks on Christianity in the state media, and educational curricula that pushes religious (Muslim) content,” said Gad. “And certain government institutions are closed to Copts, such as the state security apparatus, military intelligence and the Presidential Guard.”

In an effort to dispel perceptions of institutional prejudice, the government nominated five Copts among the ten executive appointments to the People’s Assembly after last year’s parliamentary elections. A presidential decree was issued last December giving local governors the authority to grant permission for church building.. Previously, Christian communities seeking to build new churches had to obtain permission directly from the President.

Gad said the attacks, whatever their origin, represent a disturbing trend. “What happened in Alexandria is just one example, and it can be expected to happen more in the future,” he said. “After the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001, along with the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, the situation has become critical.”

Officials from the interior ministry, which is responsible for maintaining domestic security, were not available for comment.

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