Inside Egypt’s sectarian violence

Inside Egypt’s sectarian violence

ALEXANDRIA: In recent weeks, Egypt has witnessed an increase in sectarian violence between Muslims and the Christian minority. As usual, these attacks took place in Upper Egypt. This time, it was reported that a young Christian man allegedly distributed a CD “containing images that distort the reputation of a Muslim girl.” The Christian man’s father was killed in retaliation.

Since Egypt became an Arab and Islamic country in the 7th century, Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other in peace, except for the occasional sectarian violent outburst. It has never erupted into full blown violence that has been witnessed in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shiites. However, Egypt’s largely peaceful society has not been free from conflict.

The coastal city of Alexandria is associated in everyone’s minds with the Mediterranean, crowded beaches and rainy winters. It was inconceivable that Alexandria could witness any of the violence of the kind that occurs in Upper Egypt and this is exactly what happened three years ago.

The Muharram Bey area is home to several churches. In the week leading up to Easter 2006, a knife wielding Muslim man killed 78-year-old Nushi Girgis in an area church. Then the situation went from bad to worse when Girgis’ funeral procession turned into a demonstration for Coptic unity and prompted angry Muslims to throw rocks at the procession. In the three days of violence, gangs from both sides burnt cars and shops. They fought with Molotov cocktails and rocks, leading the police to fire live rounds in the air and tear gas at the crowds. A Muslim was killed and at least 55 were seriously injured before the fighting calmed down.

For a time after the attacks, security was very tight. One resident remembers “a police truck parked in front of every mosque during the Friday prayers.” Fortunately, such violence has not been repeated since and the city has resumed its peaceful demeanor.

Three Christian students living in Alexandria spoke about their ideas on the tensions between both sides and the future for Egypt’s minority. They asked for their names to be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic. One student said that “it depends on where in Egypt we are talking about. The tension is most manifested in the south. Whereas here in Alexandria, it is not felt so much.”

He does not attribute this to geographical location but to “the prevalence of ignorance, poverty and illiteracy in southern Egypt. When a Muslim is uneducated, it is very easy for someone to get him angry and incite him to commit violence against a Christian. At the same time, when a Christian cannot even read and write and has not read the Bible, he doesn’t know the basic teachings of Christianity. So he can also be encouraged to retaliate with violence against a Muslim. Ignorance and poverty are the enemies of progress.”

His colleague concurs, though he believes “that extremism is also present in the higher classes and educated elite, but they try not to show it because they feel is it beneath them or socially inappropriate. However, it still exists and is also manifested sometimes but not in the same violent forms of the poor.”

The students argue that “currently the tensions are not exacerbated to the extent of full blown conflict because the security forces always step in promptly to stem the violence. If the security forces sat back and did not intervene, it would get uglier.”

One of the friends further elaborates on this point. He points out that “one of the reasons that it has not erupted into outright conflict is that we are outnumbered. There are about 70 million Muslims and only 10 million Christians. If the proportions of Muslims and Christians were like Lebanon, it would definitely get violent.”

When asked if Christians harbor any kind of extremism towards Muslims, he pauses for a while to collect his thoughts and phrase it correctly.

“Now, a degree of extremism and fanaticism has begun to appear on the Christian side as a reaction to discrimination by the Muslims. In the past, if a Christian was killed or beaten, we’d accept it as God’s will and not retaliate. Now, Christians do not stay silent. Extremism is appearing only as a result of improper treatment,” the student believes.

It is common for Christians to allege that they have been discriminated against and for Muslims to deny this. This is Egypt. These young men say that “for us, it is not so evident because we’re boys and are not wearing anything to identify us as Christians. But for girls, it’s more obvious because they don’t cover their hair and may be wearing gold necklaces with crosses. Teachers or professors can pick on them sometimes.”

When asked if they would be afraid if the Muslim Brotherhood came into power, the answer is a unanimous “yes.” They say “there will not be any outright persecution or torture, but things will definitely be harder. Right now, it is so difficult to build a church. Imagine how it would be with the Brothers in power?”

Walking with one of the students as he spoke about the older generation of Christians in the country.

“There are absolutely no tensions among the elderly. My grandmother has Muslim friends that she has known since childhood. She is a prize customer of many Muslim merchants at the marketplace and they deliver goods straight to her home. There are no hard feelings of any kind. These tensions are more manifest in the young,” the student relates.

They discussed the recent reports of Christian girls in the south being kidnapped and raped by Muslims. He believes “that the reports of kidnapping are true. Once again, it happens in the south because that is where poverty and ignorance predominate. However, I and most Christians believe that no foreign power should intervene. Our problems should be solved by ourselves. That’s my position and the Church’s official position.”

Others do not believe the reports. A Muslim retired government employee says “these reports are lies. Why would the Muslims kidnap and rape those girls? They are making it up.”

Muslim opinions vary greatly when it comes to Muslim-Christian relations. Some go as far as refusing to deal with Christians except in urgent matters. Others say “Christians have to accept that Egypt is an Islamic country and if they want to practice their religion that’s fine, but they shouldn’t exceed their limits.”

Some Muslims say that “Christians should be forced to pay the jizyah [tax levied on non-Muslims] like they did in the past.”

Others take a more enlightened approach. One Muslim told Bikya Masr that “Egypt is not a Christian or Muslim country. Egypt is Egyptian. Period. Let’s stop looking for religious tensions that divide us and remember that we are Egyptians first and foremost. Everybody should be free to practice their religion as they please, and a person’s religion should not even be taken into consideration.”

All across the country, huge churches and mosques stand within meters from each other. Some say this is an “in your face” gesture by both sides; others confirm it is a symbol of national solidarity rarely seen in other countries. In the end, many believe that Egyptians’ sense of patriotism and nationalism will triumph.

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