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EGYPT : Sectarian tensions felt in the south

24 Jan 2006

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CAIRO , 24 January (IRIN) – Religious intolerance may be on the rise, say human rights analysts, in the wake of violent clashes in a southern village between Coptic Christians and Muslim villagers.

On 19 January, local Muslim youths in the village of Udayssat, some 500 km south of Cairo, reportedly set fire to trees and building materials to prevent Christians from converting a local house into a church.

By the time security forces separated the two sides, fourteen people, including four policemen, had been injured. One Christian resident died two days later after suffering a blow to the head, while another remains in intensive care.

According to one official at the interior ministry, thirty people, both Muslim and Christian, have since been arrested. He added that investigations were ongoing.

The church-building issue is one that has enflamed the passions of both communities in the past.

“This incident is by no means the first of its kind,” said Samir Morcos, director of the Coptic Centre for Social Studies in Cairo . “The exact details vary, but the core of the problem does not.”

In January of last year, clashes also broke out in the southern province of Minya , 250 km south of the capital, when villagers tried to build a church without official permission. In the disturbances that followed, eighty people were injured and one killed.

Traditionally, Christian communities seeking to build new churches in Egypt, where between 80 and 90 percent of the population is Muslim, had to obtain official permission from the president of the republic.

Following a presidential decree in December, however, authorization for church building can now be granted by local governors.

The Christians who tried to open the church in Udayssat last week had reportedly requested permission from the governor, but had yet to receive it.

Occasional riots

Religious tensions among Egypt ‘s 80-million strong population, remain the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, riots erupted outside a major church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria as recently as October 2005, leaving three dead and scores injured.

According to official accounts, five thousand Muslims had staged a protest after reading reports in the local press about a play – which had supposedly been enacted in the church two years earlier – that was considered offensive to Islam.

The demonstration turned violent when protestors began throwing stones at the church and at nearby storefronts. Security forces intervened, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.

In December 2004 reports that the wife of a Coptic priest had been forced to convert to Islam also sparked angry Christian protests in Cairo and other Nile delta towns. It later emerged that the woman in question had converted voluntarily.

By far the biggest incident of sectarian friction in recent history, however, was in the village of El-Kusheh , south of Cairo , in 2000.

After twenty people were killed in armed clashes between Christian and Muslim residents, the government renamed the village Dar El-Salaam, or “Haven of Peace,” hoping to stamp out all traces of animosity.

Rising intolerance

In the wake of the latest incident in Udayssat, activists, intellectuals and religious authorities have expressed anxiety.

“There is a growing tendency towards religious intolerance in Egypt ,” said Hafez Abu Saeda, director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

Activists further complain that there are no laws guaranteeing religious rights to all citizens on an equal basis.

The problem is that there is no specific law governing religious freedom,” said Morcos. “We’ve functioned according to presidential decrees for decades – they’re not enough.”

He added: “We need a law that protects the interests of both Muslims and Christians, and that guarantees equal freedom of worship.”

Secular activists, meanwhile, blame the government for failing to create a clear and egalitarian policy for fear of alienating influential religious groups.

The government has denied the charges. A source in the Interior Ministry, who requested anonymity, said: “In Egypt , the rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims are protected equally by the constitution. Who said Egypt is a purely Muslim state? In reality, Christians are very integrated, and you will find Christian-Muslim interaction is very positive.”

“Those who feel otherwise obviously have been misinformed, or are seeking to create problems where they don’t exist,” he added.

Fear of conflict

Some observers say the government’s fear of all-out sectarian conflict, or “fitna” in Arabic, has led it to overreact in many cases.

One young Cairo resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, related the story of a male Muslim neighbour who was detained when a police officer discovered he had befriended a Christian girl.

“He was kept in prison for days,” the source said. “And when he was set free, he was warned never to approach the Christian girl again.”

But according to Eid, the government response to sectarian feuds can generally be described as “passive”.

“No doubt, intolerant elements exist in Egypt , particularly in the rural areas,” he said. “But the fact that the government and the police close their eyes to it only adds fuel to the fire.”