Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

EGYPT: Church Bombing Fuels Sectarian Rift

Analysis by Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jan 2 2011 (IPS) - It was a tragic year for Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community that began with a drive-by shooting at a church in southern Egypt, and ended in deadly clashes near Cairo after authorities halted construction of a church. As 2010 came to a close, Copts ushering in the New Year with a midnight mass in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria wondered if 2011 would be any better.

It took less than 20 minutes to get an answer.

As worshippers emerged from The Saints Church in Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr district shortly after midnight, a bomb detonated in front of the church entrance. At least 21 people were killed and nearly 100 injured in the explosion, which mangled cars and scattered body parts.

Security officials initially suspected a car bomb had caused the blast. Later they said it appeared to have come from a suicide bomber, adding that the explosive device was filled with metal bearings intended to maximise human casualties.

Egyptian authorities were swift to accuse “foreign elements” of attempting to strike at Egypt’s national unity and destabilise the country by sowing sectarian strife. They dismissed local involvement, pointing to recent threats by an Iraqi Al-Qaeda-linked group to attack Copts.

The same group claimed responsibility for the Oct. 31 attack on a Christian church in Baghdad that left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security officers dead.

“Al-Qaeda threatened to attack churches inside Egypt,” Alexandria governor Adel Labib told state television. “This (bombing) has nothing to do with sectarianism.”

But few Copts are buying it. Most believe the government is painting the church bombing as a foreign plot to hide its own failure in preventing homegrown attacks on Christians.

“Even if Al-Qaeda was involved, the attack could not have succeeded without local help and negligence by security forces,” charges Amgad Boutros, a Cairo pharmacist. “If threats were made against the church, why were cars allowed to park in front of it during the service?”

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population, have complained of deteriorating relations with the country’s Muslim majority. Their leaders have called for concerted efforts to redress the growing intolerance they say has fanned a recent surge in sectarian violence.

“This attack constitutes a serious escalation of sectarian violence against Copts,” the Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement. “The incident came as a result of the continuous sectarian tension that has been smouldering in recent months.”

In Jan. 2010, six Christians and a Muslim security guard were killed when Muslim gunmen opened fire on worshippers outside a church in southern Egypt following Orthodox Christmas celebrations. The ‘Nag Hammadi massacre’ was the bloodiest incident since 21 Copts and a Muslim were killed during sectarian riots in the southern town of El-Kosheh ten years earlier.

More recently, four Copts were killed and 120 wounded last November when security forces allegedly used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse Christians protesting a municipal decision to halt construction of a new church on the outskirts of Cairo. It was one of dozens of sectarian- motivated incidents last year that received scant press coverage, say rights activists.

“It wasn’t always like this,” recalls Boutros. “When I was growing up, Muslims and Christians would go out together and attend each others’ festivities. But now everyone stays with their own kind, and religious symbols and slogans – which were not that important to us before – are seen everywhere.”

Analysts say changes began in the early 1970s after then president Anwar Sadat amended Egypt’s secular constitution to make Sharia (Islamic law) the principal source of legislation. The move coincided with the rise of political Islam and a growing religious consciousness that polarised society along sectarian lines.

One major flashpoint is an antiquated law restricting the construction of churches. While Muslims need only a municipal permit to build a mosque, Christians require security clearance and presidential approval to construct or renovate churches – a bureaucratic process that can take up to 30 years. As a result, the country’s 2,000 churches stand alongside nearly 100,000 mosques.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of Al-Watani Coptic weekly newspaper, says the discriminatory treatment is one of the main sources of friction between Christians and Muslims.

“The absence of a unified law (for church and mosque construction) represents the major detonator of the sectarian violence that has been steadily escalating and that reached an unprecedented level of bloodshed in 2010,” he wrote in an editorial published last week.

Equally contentious is the topic of conversion, with both sides accusing the other of kidnappings and forced conversions. The most recent case involves the wives of two Coptic priests rumoured to have converted to Islam in order to obtain divorces, which are barred by the church.

Muslims have accused Coptic clerics of imprisoning the two women in monasteries and pressuring them to publicly renounce their conversion. Church officials deny that the women converted or are being held against their will.

Saturday’s church bombing has enflamed sectarian tensions across Egypt. Shortly after the explosion, enraged Christians clashed with police and ransacked a nearby mosque, prompting fights with Muslims. Clashes with security forces erupted throughout the day as Coptic protestors blamed the government for not doing enough to protect them.

An ominous gloom has settled over Egypt’s Coptic community as families prepare to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. Islamist groups have threatened to bomb churches on the holiday, which also marks the one-year anniversary of the Nag Hammadi massacre. Church leaders have decided to call off all public celebrations.

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