Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rising Muslim-Christian Strife in Egypt

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.''

Muslims and Copts -- who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 78 million citizens and are the country's most-populous minority -- increasingly identify themselves primarily by religion, Mustafa said.

Copts view with distress a trend toward adoption of Muslim mores exemplified by the growing prevalence of veiled women in the streets; the increasing national clout of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition organization; and the government's recent decision to declare Islamic law as a source of civil legislation, Mustafa said. Muslims complain that Christians are claiming discrimination to win political advantages, she added.

The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in Alexandria during the first century by Mark, one of the apostles of Jesus. After an Arab army conquered Egypt in the seventh century, Islam gradually became the country's dominant religion.

Tensions, reported in the government-controlled and independent press, have been building for several years. In 2004, Christians in Cairo claimed that the wife of a Coptic priest was forced to convert to Islam; after a riot in which 50 people were injured, the government ordered her returned to her Coptic family. In 2005, Muslims in Alexandria demonstrated against a church DVD version of a play in which a Coptic youth converts to Islam and then changes his mind.

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.

Samir Lulu, a Muslim resident from Hur, an adjacent village, said the monks are ``fanatics'' who pressure the government into granting them land denied to villagers. ``They are trying to spread the belief that Egypt is actually a Coptic nation and Muslims just visitors,'' Lulu said.

Ahmed Diaaddin, the governor of Minya province, where Abu Fana is located, declined a request for an interview.

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