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Al-Ahram Weekly – Last week’s sectarian tension in Alexandria began in much the same way previous Muslim-Christian disputes had: with the publication of a tabloid story. This time, the newspaper in question — Al-Midan — published an article about a church play that defamed Islam. The play — which begins with a poor Christian university student converting to Islam after a group of Muslim men offer him money to do so — was called I was blind but now I can see. The twist in the plot comes when the convert later decides to return to Christianity. The same Muslims then threaten him with violence.

The day after the article — which included extracts from the play — appeared, a group of people entered a mosque next door to the church in question, and showed worshippers a copy of the paper. An angry crowd of about 100 people promptly marched towards the neighbouring church. As word spread around, the crowd got bigger, with some 3,000 people eventually taking part. Some were there to support the demonstrators’ demands, while others were just curious about the goings on. Local police were quickly deployed in the hundreds; and by three in the morning, had dispersed the angry demonstrators.

But while the demonstration may have ended peacefully after the police intervened, the tension in the Muharram Bek neighbourhood is far from defused. Its most visible sign are the dozens of armoured vehicles surrounding the Saint George Church. Local Muslims are insisting that the church, as well as Coptic leaders in the Mediterranean coastal city, should apologise for the performance. “Pope Shenouda [the head of Egypt ‘s Coptic Church] must offer an apology,” said Ahmed El-Guindi, whose house is next door to the church, “and those directly involved in insulting Islam on stage inside the church have to be put on trial.”

One resident said the demonstrators had agreed to leave on condition that the police would be given “a week to obtain an explanation about what happened, and for the church to apologize”. Nearly a week later, the two demands have not been met, fueling fears that more protests could take place.

Al-Majlis Al-Milli, a council that officially represents the Coptic community and is chaired by Pope Shenouda, acknowledged that the play was performed in the church — two years ago. Dismissing claims that the play was meant to insult Islam, the council said — in a statement sent to Al-Ahram Weekly — that “it was performed for one day within the context of combating terrorism.”

According to a close aide of Pope Shenouda, “the demonstrators took to the streets without verifying whether the press reports about the play were right or wrong.” The top church official, Archbishop Armia, said, “Christians have no grudges against Islam.”

Despite these reassurances, the incident was a vivid reminder of how fragile relations between Muslims and Christians have become. Also last week, some 500 people demonstrated in front of a Christian woman’s house in Ain Shams, an eastern suburb of Cairo , after a “rumour” spread that she had kidnapped a girl and forced her to embrace Christianity. The police arrested the woman and searched her house. She was later released after the girl was found to have lost consciousness following a car accident, and was being cared for by a stranger.

Sameh Fawzi, the editor of Watani (My Nation), a prominent Coptic newspaper, says that “reading a number of tabloid newspapers will clearly reveal how a sensitive topic like religion is often manipulated to pit Muslims and Christians against each other.” Several newspapers, for instance, have recently been running stories claiming that churches are doing intensive missionary work among university students across the country.

Other analysts go further, saying the government, on the one hand, and Christian leaders, on the other, are using the press for explicit political ends. “With more external support from the US ,” said Coptic thinker Gamal Asaad, “church leaders are trying to put more pressure on the government.”

In fact, a US-government sponsored conference on Coptic grievances in Egypt is scheduled for 16 November in Washington . Participants will reportedly press for the Egyptian government to provide more freedoms for Copts. They will also demand the amendment of a constitutional article that considers Islam ” Egypt ‘s official religion and main source of legislation”. The meeting is seen as a means for Washington to exercise more pressure on the Egyptian government, and for Copts to extract more concessions at home…[Go To Full Story]