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ICC NOTE: The mounting pressure against Coptic Christians in Egypt and in the region of MENA

Extremist landscape in Egypt is where violence takes hold

Houston Chronicle

December 26 2006

ALEXANDRIA , Egypt — The old man was already bleeding to death on the pavement outside the Church of the Saints when the attacker with the two daggers turned on Michael Adib and started to slash.

“When he came to kill me, he said: ‘Accept the Prophet Muhammad,” said Adib, a Coptic Christian who had just walked out of the church after a Friday Mass. “I was trying to see how to save my life and defend the others. It was an organized plan to kill all of us in the church.”

The 22-year-old reacted fast, parrying the dagger thrusts with his rucksack. He managed to deflect the two blades aimed at his heart into the fleshy parts of his left arm, where they severed muscles and left two gaping wounds.

Then the attacker, a Muslim, knifed a third victim, who also survived, before going to another Coptic Orthodox church to use his knives on other worshippers.

The blood-soaked panorama outside the church in this aged port city in April resembled a gory scene from a medieval religious war. The Alexandria clashes followed even more severe Muslim-Christian riots last year and a series of attacks on Coptic churches in rural parts of Upper Egypt .

Egypt ‘s social fabric seems to be unraveling. The mounting sectarian tensions of the last decade are a vital factor in causing the emigration of Egypt ‘s Coptic community, by far the largest group of Christians in the Middle East .

The exodus of the Copts is mirrored throughout the region. As in other countries, the problems facing Egypt ‘s Christians are partly economic and partly political.

John Watson, a priest and professor who wrote “Among the Copts” and “Listening to Islam,” said that radical Wahhabi Islam is elbowing out more tolerant forms of the religion throughout Egypt and the rest of the Middle East , pressuring Christians and other minorities.

“Copts are leaving en masse,” he said. “It’s part of an alarming departure throughout the Middle East . I see the attacks on the Copts as part of an extremist element in Islam. There is a powerful fundamentalist element that is small but quite militant. I regard them as a minority, but they are making life unpleasant for the Copts.”

Some Copts depart because they no longer feel welcome in Egypt , even though their ancestors were present long before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. They are going to Australia , Canada , Europe and various cities in the United States , including Houston , where three Coptic churches flourish.

Accurate figures are hard to obtain because the numbers are so controversial. The Egyptian government does not keep a census that lists religious affiliation, and estimates of the size of the Christian community range from about 5 million to 11 million out of a total population of about 74 million.

No one questions that a change is under way. The graceful minarets of Muslim mosques are crowding out the crosses atop the aging Christian churches in the skylines of Egypt ‘s jumbled cities.

It is a confusing time for many Copts. Most grew up seeing few distinctions between themselves and Muslims, who often attended the same schools and worked at the same jobs, but now they feel threatened.

“I forgive him,” Adib said of the man who tried to stab him to death on that grim Friday afternoon outside the Church of the Saints. “We are taught to forgive. But I want to know why he hates us.”

Lost control

The violence in Alexandria , where the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in 61 A.D., did not end with the stabbings.

Street fighting broke out in the Mediterranean city of about 4 million at the funeral of the elderly Christian man who had been stabbed to death by the Muslim. For three days , rival Christian and Muslim youth gangs attacked each other’s homes and businesses. A Muslim man was killed under contested circumstances.

Reasonable people on both sides looked to their religious leaders to calm the storm. They could not.

“A dangerous thing has happened,” said Kameel Saddiq, secretary general of the Church of St. Mark , a Coptic landmark in Alexandria named for the disciple of Jesus Christ who brought Christianity to Egypt . “We lost control over the Christian youth in church. They went into the streets, and we couldn’t stop it.”

After church leaders proved powerless, riot police moved in and fired repeated volleys of tear gas to clear the streets.

The sectarian clashes in Egypt ‘s most liberal city finally subsided, but more than just storefront windows had been shattered. Gone was Egypt ‘s image as a place where a moderate form of Islam allowed for peaceful coexistence with Christians.

The fever of confrontation spreading throughout the Middle East had come to Egypt , too. Now it is not only East versus West and Arab versus Jew , but also, on a smaller scale, Muslim versus Christian.

Christians and Muslims in Egypt have generally had peaceful relations for centuries, despite occasional flare-ups. But that détente has been fraying. More and more Muslims, particularly those who worked in the Persian Gulf , have embraced militant forms of Islam that regard Christianity with contempt.

An emerging U.S. lobby

Coptic Christians, for their part, have become more assertive about improving their second-class status in the country. They are backed by an emerging Coptic lobby in the United States that is aggressively using the Internet to accuse Egypt ‘s leaders of persecuting the Copts.

Their grievances are many.

They complain that Muslims control all the levers of power: the presidency, the parliament, the media, the security forces and the influential religious academy that interprets Islamic law for the rest of society.

The Copts say they are treated with suspicion and excluded from consideration for top jobs. Under Egyptian law, they cannot build or restore churches without obtaining special permits and security clearance, a process that can take decades. They point out a mosque can be put up with no red tape.

One change sums up the new separatist attitude. The Copts say that medical authorities are no longer willing to license Christians as gynecologists because they feel it is improper for a Christian man to examine a Muslim woman. As a result , no Christians cancannot enter the field; the only Christian gynecologists are those who have been practicing for decades.

The aftermath of the Alexandria stabbings showed how the two communities are drifting apart. The government seemed to fuel the tensions by claiming that the man who attacked the Church of the Saints with two daggers was deranged.

Incredulous Christians demanded to know how someone who was mentally ill was able to differentiate between the faiths and attack only Christians, and how he managed to stab worshippers at three different churches before he was stopped.

Muslim activists, however, seized on the report that the killer was insane as proof that the attack was the work of a sole madman, not a general reflection of Muslim hostility toward Christians.

Ali Abdel-Fatah, general director of the doctors’ union in Alexandria and a leader of the influential Muslim Brotherhood in the city, said medical reports indicate the man suffered from hallucinations and was hearing voices telling him what to do.

“This is not the first time he attacked people,” Abdel-Fatah said. “He tried to attack a church last year but was stopped. He thinks he’s a prophet and that his mission is to cleanse the world of evil.”

In the killer’s mind, apparently, the urge to fight evil meant attacking Christians. This was not lost on the Copts.

Abdel-Fatah said Muslims were angry about the Christian response, which began with sloganeering and bottle-throwing during the funeral and ended after one Muslim was killed.

“The Copts handled it badly,” he said. “Following all the chaos, priests told their congregations that they were even now because a Muslim had been killed.

“During the protest,” he said, “the Christians held up the cross in a provocative way and Muslims raised their KoransQurans, and all this deepened the anger. Muslims are less sympathetic now. What the Christians did was very dangerous, especially for a minority.”

Losing heritage?

Abdul Ahmad Hassan, a young Muslim who is a medical student in Alexandria , said both sides now live in fear. The open confrontation follows years of keeping the hostility concealed, he said.

“It’s a big problem, but no one talks about it,” he said. “We keep the tension inside, and when attacks happen, a lot of things come out.”

The growing animosity between the two groups, coupled with Egypt ‘s chronic shortage of jobs, is driving Copts out of Egypt .

“There have been church burnings, attacks on Christian stores, cars, everything,. sSo people are leaving, and for this I am very sad,” said Morcos Aziz Khalil, the priest at The Hanging Church, a Coptic landmark in Cairo that dates back at least to the 9th Century, A.DNinth century.

“When Copts come to me and say they want to go to America , I try to convince them to stay,” he said, “because Egypt is our country. Copts are the descendants of the Pharaohs, and if we all leave Egypt , then it’s over. We will lose our heritage.”

He said many emigrate because they are tired of not getting fair consideration for jobs.

“What is the meaning of a student getting high grades if he cannot get a good job because he’s Christian?” Khalil Morcossaid. “A Muslim always gets preference. They act as if Copts are traitors.”

Rise of Wahhabi Islam

Young Christians looking for work say most workplace doors are slammed shut. Serah Zakher Moussa, a 25-year-old with a chemistry degree, just gotrecently was turned down for a job as a medical representative even though she had excellent credentials.

“The owner said he couldn’t take any more Christians,” she said. “They already had two Christians in their 100 workers. I have been looking for a job for 18 months — nothing. The whole country is suffering from unemployment. So of course I would leave for a Western country if I could.”

Many moderate Muslims blame the rising sectarian divide on the growing popularity of Wahhabi Islam, which was imported to Egypt from Saudi Arabia , where it has in the last 30 years become the dominant branch of Islam.

Some Muslims are deeply upset by the new separatist attitude advocated by Wahhabi’s followers, said Alaa el Aswany, a best-selling novelist and political columnist. He said millions of Egyptians had spent years working in Saudi Arabia and returned to their home country devoted to the Saudi-style ideology.

“I grew up in a very tolerant Muslim home where we accepted everybody,” he said. “After the revolution of 1919, the Egyptian interpretation of Islam was that all Egyptians are Egyptian citizens no matter if they are Copts or Jews or Muslims. But that has changed. The Wahhabis only see you as Muslim or non-Muslim. They feel closer to a Muslim living abroad than to an Egyptian Christian.”

He said the Muslim neighborhood in Alexandria where the church attacks were launchedtook place has long been a hotbed of Saudi-style Islam. The residents’ allegiance is to Islam, not to Egypt , Aswany said, and they do not respect the citizenship rights of Egyptian Christians or other minorities.

“This is very dangerous,” he said. “This Saudi interpretation is influencing the whole region.”

The result has been a subtle change in attitudes. There is no overt attempt to drive Christians out of Egypt . But people on both sides of the religious divide say they are more aware of who is Muslim and who is Christian than they used to be. They don’t mingle as much, and each wonders what the other is saying behind their back.

Long-held friendships have crumbled.

Adelle Abadir, a Christian who lives on the outskirts of Cairo , finds she is much more guarded around Muslims than she used to be. Her family once lived in an upscale apartment building where they were the only non-Muslims. She became close to many families, and their children played together at school and a local sports club.

She felt accepted,– rarely gave it a second thought — until one day when the children were performing a play at the club and a young boy stumbled over the script, which called for him to say, “God is Great,” a traditional Muslim exhortation.

Without thinking, Abadir said the well-known phrase out loud in Arabic to prompt the child, who took her cue and continued. But one of her best friends in the audience turned on her, pointed a figurefinger, and said sharply, “You shouldn’t say God’s name. Don’t use the name of Allah.”

That was a turning point in her social life. Abadir kept her composure, but she was shocked by the censure.

“That is when the joking stopped,” Abadir said, recalling the anger in her friend’s voice. “I went home and never went to the club again.”

After that she noticed other divisions. A Christian friend was barred from attending a Muslim’s funeral because the body had already been cleansed — a decision she felt implied that Christians were dirty.

“I have found in various ways that I am pushed aside and told, ‘You are different, stay out of our business,'” she said.

Her resentment caused some splits within her family. Her husband thought she over-reacted when she stopped going to the sports club. He refused to reject his Muslim friends.

Her daughter, Sera, does not like to talk about politics or religion because she thinks it leads to trouble. But she did send a text message to a close friend who is Muslim after the Alexandria attacks.

“Our friendship is forever, right?” she wrote, seeking digital reassurance that she quickly received. But an unwelcome element of doubt had been introduced.

Many Muslims feel the same new, disorienting sense of separation from Christians. Some say it seems to have developed almost overnight, out of nowhere.

Norhan Ezzat, an 18-year-old university student who wears the traditional Muslim veil, said society is much more polarized than it used to be. She said tensions are being fueled by Muslim clerics whose sermons encourage divisions between Christianity and Islam.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “I was taught to treat Christians well. People say Christians don’t believe in the Muslim religion, but I think they should have that right. We have to learn what they are and they have to learn what we are, but I have no clue how to do it.”

In the neighborhood of the Church of the Saints in Alexandria , a veneer of normalcy has returned in the months since the stabbings.

Shopkeepers up and down Khalil Hammada Street say there have been no problems of late. Christians coming into the church to worship once again exchange easy smiles with Muslims entering the Sharq Al-Madina mosque across the street.