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Egyptian riots reveal wide religious divide
Muslims and Christians in Alexandria called for calm after two days of clashes.

By Ursula Lindsey
For the full story, go to The Christian Science Monitor

ALEXANDRIA , EGYPT – While the government and many Egyptians say religious tolerance is the rule, some in the country’s Coptic community view the (recent) attack, and the way the investigation is being handled, as evidence they are increasingly under siege.

“Islamic fundamentalism is spreading,” says Coptic writer and intellectual Milad Hanna. “Therefore many Muslims are not as tolerant as they were. Many Muslims think that Islam should be the only religion in Egypt if possible. This is not said in public, but in private.”

Egyptian authorities say the man who stabbed 17 churchgoers at three churches Friday was mentally ill and worked alone. But some members of the Coptic minority – 5 to 10 percent of the country’s population – are convinced he had accomplices, and think the official investigation is a coverup.

“How could one man go to so many churches at once? How could he do all of this alone? Is he Superman?” asked carpenter Milad Fawzy, a Copt.

For many Alexandrians, more disturbing than the attack (which left one dead and 16 injured) were the following two days, when some Christians and Muslims clashed in the street. A Muslim man was killed and up to a 100 people detained.

The violence began when Copts marched through the area in a funeral procession for the Coptic man killed Friday. The procession carried a cross and Christians chanted, “With our blood, with our soul, we will sacrifice for you, Christ.” Some Muslims were reportedly incensed, and chanted their own religious slogans, such as, “There is no God but God.”

“The reason [for the clashes],” says Mahmoud, a Muslim taxi driver, “was the Christian funeral procession. They insulted Muslims.”

But others say what happened in Alexandria can’t be considered an isolated incident. Corneils Huylsman runs the Center for Arab West Understanding, which follows sectarian disputes.

“It would be an incident if it were the first time in 10 years,” says Mr. Huylsman. “But we are seeing one incident after another. This type of attack creates feelings that are not good and separates the two communities.”

Six months ago Alexandria saw days of sectarian rioting that left 100 wounded and three dead, when Muslim protesters descended into the street over a play performed in a church that they said negatively portrayed Islam. A nun was stabbed on the steps of an Alexandrian church, but survived the attack. In January, a sectarian clash in a village in southern Egypt left 11 wounded.

Copts also complain that they are the victims of daily discrimination. They resent limits on building churches, and point to the fact that very few Copts occupy high positions in the government.

But government officials say Copts have the same rights as other citizens. Most Egyptian Muslims agree.

But Father Talkla, the priest who was officiating mass at the first church attacked, adds that “people in the media are always talking against us [Copts], and mosques in particular say very harsh words against us.”

In fact, says Huylsman, Egyptian society is becoming increasingly religious. While imams may condemn “kafirs” (nonbelievers) in their Friday sermons, Christian satellite channels air shows dedicated to criticizing Islam.

Muslims and Christians “affect one another,” explains Huylsman. “If you are making efforts to strengthen your own identity, then it has consequences for people living among you, who also have to strengthen their identity.”

Demonstrations calling for religious tolerance started taking in several Egyptian cities Tuesday.

But some Copts put little stock in these events. “These demonstrations are fictitious,” says Coptic intellectual Mr. Hanna. “[They’re being held] under the umbrella of the government. They give a message that things are OK. But they are not OK.”
Until authorities address the grievances of Copts and engage in a real dialogue with Egyptians of both denominations, the sectarian problem will remain “recurrent,” he says. “It will happen again in a few months’ time.”