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Inside Egypt’s sectarian violence

ICC Note:

Can Egyptian nationalism triumph over Christian-Muslim tension?

By Baher Ibrahim

11/23/2009 Egypt (BikyaMasr) – In recent weeks, Egypt has witnessed an increase in sectarian violence between Muslims and the Christian minority. As usual, these attacks took place in Upper Egypt. This time, it was reported that a young Christian man allegedly distributed a CD “containing images that distort the reputation of a Muslim girl.” The Christian man’s father was killed in retaliation.

Since Egypt became an Arab and Islamic country in the 7th century, Muslims and Christians have lived alongside each other in peace, except for the occasional sectarian violent outburst. It has never erupted into full blown violence that has been witnessed in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shiites. However, Egypt’s largely peaceful society has not been free from conflict.

The Muharram Bey area is home to several churches. In the week leading up to Easter 2006, a knife wielding Muslim man killed 78-year-old Nushi Girgis in an area church. Then the situation went from bad to worse when Girgis’ funeral procession turned into a demonstration for Coptic unity and prompted angry Muslims to throw rocks at the procession. In the three days of violence, gangs from both sides burnt cars and shops. They fought with Molotov cocktails and rocks, leading the police to fire live rounds in the air and tear gas at the crowds. A Muslim was killed and at least 55 were seriously injured before the fighting calmed down.

One of the friends further elaborates on this point. He points out that “one of the reasons that it has not erupted into outright conflict is that we are outnumbered. There are about 70 million Muslims and only 10 million Christians. If the proportions of Muslims and Christians were like Lebanon, it would definitely get violent.”

When asked if Christians harbor any kind of extremism towards Muslims, he pauses for a while to collect his thoughts and phrase it correctly.

“Now, a degree of extremism and fanaticism has begun to appear on the Christian side as a reaction to discrimination by the Muslims. In the past, if a Christian was killed or beaten, we’d accept it as God’s will and not retaliate. Now, Christians do not stay silent. Extremism is appearing only as a result of improper treatment,” the student believes.

When asked if they would be afraid if the Muslim Brotherhood came into power, the answer is a unanimous “yes.” They say “there will not be any outright persecution or torture, but things will definitely be harder. Right now, it is so difficult to build a church. Imagine how it would be with the Brothers in power?”

They discussed the recent reports of Christian girls in the south being kidnapped and raped by Muslims. He believes “that the reports of kidnapping are true. Once again, it happens in the south because that is where poverty and ignorance predominate. However, I and most Christians believe that no foreign power should intervene. Our problems should be solved by ourselves. That’s my position and the Church’s official position.”

Muslim opinions vary greatly when it comes to Muslim-Christian relations. Some go as far as refusing to deal with Christians except in urgent matters. Others say “Christians have to accept that Egypt is an Islamic country and if they want to practice their religion that’s fine, but they shouldn’t exceed their limits.”

Some Muslims say that “Christians should be forced to pay the jizyah [tax levied on non-Muslims] like they did in the past.”

Others take a more enlightened approach. One Muslim told Bikya Masr that “Egypt is not a Christian or Muslim country. Egypt is Egyptian. Period. Let’s stop looking for religious tensions that divide us and remember that we are Egyptians first and foremost. Everybody should be free to practice their religion as they please, and a person’s religion should not even be taken into consideration.”

All across the country, huge churches and mosques stand within meters from each other. Some say this is an “in your face” gesture by both sides; others confirm it is a symbol of national solidarity rarely seen in other countries. In the end, many believe that Egyptians’ sense of patriotism and nationalism will triumph.

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