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As Tensions Rise for Egypt ’s Christians, Officials Call Clashes Secular

ICC Note

Egyptian Christians are facing a spike in persecution. This article by The New York Times describes the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt .

By Michael Slackman

08/02/2008 Egypt (The New York Times)-A monastery was ransacked in January. In May, monks there were kidnapped, whipped and beaten and ordered to spit on the cross. Christian-owned jewelry stores were robbed over the summer. The rash of violence was so bad that one prominent Egyptian writer worried it had become “open season” on the nation’s Christians.

Does Egypt face a sectarian problem?

Not according to its security officials, who insist that each dispute represents a “singular incident” tied to something other than faith. In the case of the monastery and the monks, officials said the conflict was essentially a land dispute between the church and local residents.

But the Egyptian security apparatus is increasingly alone in its insistence.

As more and more conflicts pile up and as the tensions of daily life increase, many people in Egypt and around the region said the problem of sectarian clashes had become more urgent. They said that ordinary conflicts had become more bitterly sectarian as religious identity had become more prominent among Muslims and Christians alike.

For most of Egypt ’s Coptics, the major flare-ups — the attack on the Abu Fana Monastery or riots in 2005 in Alexandria — are faraway episodes that serve only to confirm a growing alienation from larger society. For most, the tension is more personal, a fear that a son or daughter will fall in love with a Muslim or of being derided as “coftes,” which means “fifth column.”

Christian Arabs have increasingly complained of being marginalized in the Middle East , with large numbers leaving over the decades. Now it appears that pressure on these communities is spiking, whether in Iraq , Syria , Lebanon , Jordan or the West Bank . In each, Christians speak of specific national behavior that has made them feel less welcome. While governments are generally regarded as more accommodating than they used to be, the overall environment is seen as less hospitable.

“Yes, we are feeling marginalized,” said Dr. Audeh Quawas, a surgeon in Amman , Jordan , who serves on the central committee of the World Council of Churches, a Geneva-based group. He rattled off a list of grievances, from the refusal of the state to acknowledge Easter as a national holiday to the insistence that Christians abide by Islamic law regarding inheritance.

But the violence at the ancient Abu Fana Monastery in May elevated events to a new level. In a follow-up report issued last month, the National Council for Human Rights described the atmosphere in Egypt as an “overcharged sectarian environment” and chided the state, saying it “turns a blind eye to such incidents” and was “only content to send security forces after clashes catch fire.”

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