Stabbings Underline Growing Sectarian Tensions in
By Daniel Williams
ALEXANDRIA , Egypt — Ask anyone idling on the waterfront drive what Alexandria is like, and the answer will be that everyone gets along here.
But last month, a 2,300-year-old reputation was undermined, perhaps fatally, by a dagger stroke. On April 14, a man with a knife drove to three Coptic Christian churches here and stabbed several worshipers, killing an elderly man, Nushi Atta Girgis, on the steps of Saints Church.
“There has been an acceleration of conflict, and that is worrisome,” said Sameh Naguib, a democracy activist and expert in economic development. “There is a kind of national agitation going on, and the unpredictability of it all is cause for concern. It’s especially unfortunate that it should happen in Alexandria . It shatters an ideal that is particularly needed in Egypt : the ideal that we all can live together in peace.”
The mix of Muslims and Christians was Alexandria ‘s last live exhibit of true urban variety. Now, sectarian hostility is palpably on the rise. It is rare for a foreigner to run into a Copt and not hear expressions of deep-seated fear of and complaints about Muslims, or to converse with a Muslim and not hear that Copts are privileged.
Maher Atta, son of the man who was fatally stabbed in April, recalls a time when Muslim and Christian families would visit during each other’s festivals, celebrate each other’s weddings and attend the same entertainments. That is all coming to an end, he said.
“People see on TV preachers saying bad things about each other’s religions,” Atta said. “They see people burning churches in Pakistan or blowing up mosques in Iraq , and they feel hostility.” he said. On the wall of his apartment hung icons of the Virgin Mary and pictures of Coptic holy men, fixtures in Coptic homes throughout Egypt . Across the hall, a Muslim family’s living room was adorned with Koranic verses, just as commonplace in Islamic households.
Atta noted that until a few years ago, religion classes in schools were taught in the context that everyone was Egyptian. Now, separate religion classes are held for Muslims and Christians. “The teachers can call the others infidel, and no one is around to challenge it,” he said.
His father was attending a service at Saints Church when he left to go to a restroom outside. A car with three men arrived, and one got out and began to stab worshipers entering and exiting the church. During Atta’s funeral the next day, Copts and Muslims fought each other with sticks and swords. Christian jewelry shops were looted as police stood idly by.
The alleged killer was captured and identified as Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Rizziq. Police said he was deranged. Maqqar Ibrahim, a priest at Saints Church, protested: “If this person is mentally ill, why is it his illness only appears when he enters a church?” The accomplices escaped.
Fakiha Zakhary, the victim’s widow, concluded: “It’s easy to say the killer was crazy, but it is Alexandria that is getting sick. My husband had no enemies. The enemy was hate.”