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Egypt Faces Rising Risk of Lebanon-Like Muslim-Christian Strife

ICC Note

The spike in attacks against Egypt ’s Coptic Christians is driving the country into deeper division. It is high time for the Egyptian government to promote tolerance towards Christians and protect them from attacks by Muslim fanatics.

By Daniel Williams

07/16/2008 Egypt (Bloomberg) — Increasing violence between Egypt ‘s Muslims and Coptic Christians is raising alarms that the sectarian hostility besetting Lebanon and Iraq may take root in the Middle East ‘s most populous country.

Egypt ‘s reputation for a live-and-let-live ethos is under assault following recent murders of Copts in Cairo , street fighting in cities including Alexandria and a pitched battle between Muslims and Coptic monks at an ancient desert monastery.

“The divisions are deepening,” Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Democracy Review, said in a telephone interview. “There’s a growing Islamization of Egypt, and the Copts respond by turning inward in a defensive stance.”

`Hassan and Morkos’

Suspected Extremists

In 2006, a Muslim man stabbed Coptic worshippers in two Alexandria churches, killing one person and injuring five. Some attacks appear specifically aimed to terrorize: Targets of April 2006 bombings by suspected Islamic extremists in the Red Sea resort of Dahab included a pair of shops owned by Copts.

Muslims have tried to stop Copts from building or expanding churches in several towns, including Behma, 40 miles south of Cairo , where Muslim mobs set fire to Christian homes and shops last year.

On May 28 of this year, gunmen fired machine guns at a Coptic-owned jewelry store in Cairo , killing four Christians. The assailants haven’t been captured. Three days later, dozens of Muslims attacked the 1,700-year-old Abu Fana monastery 300 miles south of Cairo .

A serene outpost of the Coptic Church, the monastery’s domed chapels, guest rooms and ancient ruins sit on a sandy rise above the Nile River valley in south central Egypt , 200 yards from a village of peanut and vegetable farms. Muslim neighbors, claiming that the monks were stealing land, tore down new walls meant to keep the desert at bay and tried to destroy olive and lemon trees.

Riot Squad

While one Muslim attacker died by bullet, there is a dispute over who fired at whom and who killed him. Fourteen Muslims remain jailed because of the incident, and police have posted a riot squad in nearby villages.

“This happened because we are Christian,” said Father Antonius, 35, one of 18 monks who reside at the complex. “The Muslims want this monastery erased from the earth.” Three monks were held captive and forced to pledge allegiance to Islam before being released, he said.

Street Brawl

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