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‘I Cannot Say Where This Hatred Comes’

NY Sun
April 18, 2006

ALEXANDRIA , Egypt – In temporary offices near the Virgin Mary Church in the Asafra neighborhood here, Father Bejimey Shawky catalogs the damage the Muslim rioters wrought.

First they smashed his church’s windows.Then they unhinged the rear door.

The pious Muslim looters broke the electrical switch for the air-conditioner. They burned the anteroom near the main hall reserved for baptism; they burned the father’s offices, and they burned the cupboards and shelves that contained the church’s library.

“I cannot say where this hatred comes from,” Father Bejimey said, his voice low and weary. “We have coexisted for generations.”

The church, which smelled faintly of smoke, was barely fit for worship. But Father Bejimey’s flock turned out every night for the evening service between the Coptic Palm and Easter Sundays to recite lines from the Gospel and remember Christ’s last week before the crucifixion. A few members of the congregation had bandages on their arms and legs from the clashes two days before.

This was the aftermath of some of the worst ethnic clashes Egypt has seen in a decade. On Monday, Asfara’s main boulevard – named for Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president assassinated in 1981 by Muslim terrorists – was under siege. Seaweed green military paddy wagons were parked near the sidewalk, guarded by riot police in Kevlar vests gripping black rifles. Many of the shops on the main road had broken windows, the result of a weekend of lawless carnage.

During what was to be the somber public funeral of 78-year-old Nushi Atta Girgis on Saturday, rival crowds of devout Muslims began throwing stones and rubbish at the mourners. Christian youths retaliated in kind until riot police stepped in to control the situation. But by then the angry crowds had dispersed into the surrounding streets and had found new targets – Muslim and Christian – to desecrate in riots that lasted into Sunday.

Mr. Girgis was murdered by Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq, a man the authorities said acted alone in a stabbing spree through three churches on the Friday before Palm Sunday.

This story was challenged by almost every Coptic layman and church leader yesterday, who doubted such a campaign was possible without coordination from some of the more violent Muslim extremists who have recently flocked into their cosmopolitan Mediterranean city.

A visit to the small, one-room Duyuf al-Rahman mosque during evening prayers does not turn up immediate clues to explain the violent radicalism. The mosque is around the corner from the Church of St. Maximus and St. Domadius, the two-story marble church that was at the center of Saturday’s clashes. With security forces stationed only 50 yards away, the imam, Mohammed Suleiman said, “All Muslims feel the same way. Everyone should be living in harmony.”

One of the elders at the church yesterday said the funeral procession turned into anarchy the moment the mourners bared the cross. “When the Muslim youths saw the cross in the sky, and the people saw our soul, the animosity in their hearts became evident,” Talat Megala said.

Four other Christian eyewitnesses confirmed this account. A Muslim eyewitness, however, did not recall the moment the rival demonstrations turned violent.

But Mr. Megala’s account is significant. In Cairo and Alexandria one can hear the echo of the cities’ mosques calling the faithful to prayer before dawn. The symbols of Islam are everywhere, from the constitution, which stipulates that Egypt is a Muslim country, to the popular graffiti inside trains and on walls proclaiming, “It is our mosque, not their temple,” a reference to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem .

Mr. Megala complains that nothing about his country’s fellow 6 million Coptic Christians is taught in public schools. “We are blamed by the Muslims for everything. We are blamed for the Danish cartoons.We are blamed for America ‘s support for Israel .”

Mr. Megala’s friend and fellow church elder, Lutfi Ibrahim, blames the regime more than the Muslim Brothers, some of whom showed up on Saturday to show solidarity with their funeral.

“There was a huge showing of solidarity with the brotherhood. We had 50 veiled women at the funeral,” he said.

Mr. Megala interrupted him and said, “The police came very late. They left everything until the flames went up. We blame the state. If the state can control anything, why do they not control this from the beginning?”

Father Benoit Ghali, who holds court on the second floor of the Church of St. Maximus and St. Domadius, is hesitant to criticize the government directly. “I cannot say that the police were slow in coming to the church,” he said. “But, when the riots spread, they were slow to stop them in the neighboring blocks.”

Father Benoit, who wears a cassock and a silver chain bearing the cross, seemed as tired as Father Bejimey. He said he has been invited to participate in numerous interfaith dialogues in recent years, but said he is now skeptical that they mean much.

“We’ve been talking and talking,” he said with a sigh. “But nothing is implemented. The fire remains under the ashes.”