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ICC NOTE: A follow up article on the stabbing of Christian in Egypt. The government immediately release a story saying it was a lone attacker who was mentally ill, but other accounts say he was not alone in the attack.

Lone attacker report doubted in stabbings of Christians

By Adam Morrow

Frost Illustrated CAIRO (IPS/GIN)-Seemingly random attacks on Coptic churches in the port city of Alexandria recently, followed by violent clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims have again raised the specter of sectarian conflict.

“”We’re living in a critical period now in terms of Muslim-Christian relations,” Emad Gad, analyst at the state-run al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS. “Each side is prepared for clashes.”

Trouble began April 13 when a number of Coptic Christians preparing for Easter celebrations were attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in three different churches in Alexandria , some 225 kilometers north of Cairo . According to state media accounts, one churchgoer was fatally stabbed, and five others were injured before the attacker was caught trying to enter a fourth church building.

Coptic Christianity is an indigenous form of the religion in Egypt .

The story was quickly put out that the culprit was a lone, mentally disturbed man.

“The accused, Mahmoud Salah al-Din Hussein, confessed to committing the crime by himself,” the April 17 edition of the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm reported. Hussein was reported to have been taken to a mental hospital for examination after being charged with murder and carrying weapons. Egypt ‘s Copts have long complained of discrimination, pointing to the under-representation of Christians in the government, army and police.

“Copts have suffered from many things, including government policy on church building, attacks on Christianity in the state media, and educational curricula that pushes religious (Muslim) content,” said Gad. “And certain government institutions are closed to Copts, such as the state security apparatus, military intelligence and the Presidential Guard.”

Gad said the attacks, whatever their origin, represent a disturbing trend.

“What happened in Alexandria is just one example, and it can be expected to happen more in the future,” he said. “After the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001, along with the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, the situation has become critical.”

Officials, fearing a flare-up of sectarian tension, were quick to denounce the crime and call for national unity.

“The Copts aren’t a minority and they aren’t a different class- they’re part of Egypt ‘s national fabric,” said parliament speaker Fathi Sorour. “We’ll never accept any threats against them or anyone trying to create differences between Muslims and Copts.”

But despite official reassurances, the situation deteriorated April 15. Violence broke out at the funeral of the man who had died of stab wounds. The next three days saw clashes between scores of Christians and Muslims, mostly in the Montazza district of Alexandria. One Muslim activist died in the clashes, and many were injured on both sides.

While the violence has since subsided amid stepped-up security, observers have come to question the official story regarding the church attacks, with some witnesses reportedly saying that the culprit was neither alone nor mentally imbalanced.

“It remains to be proven that (the crimes) were committed by one man and that he was insane,” Youssef Sidhoum, editor-in-chief of Coptic weekly al-Watani, told IPS. “Some witnesses said (the perpetrator) broke into one of the churches along with several followers.”

Sidhoum said the official “lone attacker” story was unlikely.

“The amounts of time between the attacks at the churches- between 45 minutes and an hour in some cases-make the official line hard to believe,” Sidhoum said. “And, we were amazed how quickly the official story was released right after the arrest.”

According to some eyewitnesses there were “multiple attackers.”

Interfaith relations have traditionally been peaceful in this majority-Muslim country in which Christians are an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. But, there have been periodic outbreaks of violence, especially in Upper Egypt . For the full story…