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Tensions run high in Egypt after sectarian clashes

Unrest feared to be driving away Coptic Christian population


by Sherif Elhelwa, The Media Line

April 9, 2013 | 11:09 am

St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria

St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria

The strong social fabric that historically bound Egypt's Muslim and Christian communities is being tested by economic, political and religious tensions. Conflict between the two groups has been escalating since the  New Year 2011 bombing of Alexandria's Coptic Church.

The clashes are leading many Copts to leave the country – or at least consider leaving -- amid reports there are tens of thousands seeking greater safety and freedom.

This week, three Christians were killed and at least 86 were wounded in clashes between young Christian and Muslim men in Cairo’s Abassia district in the vicinity of  St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral, the landmark church opened in the 1960s under then-president, the secular Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The incident started with Christians and Muslims exchanging gunfire in suburb of Khusus after a man wearing a mask allegedly drew a swastika on the local mosque. Muslims ran after the man, and shots were fired. According to Egyptian state television, four Christians and one Muslim were killed and eight wounded in the melee.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II called on all Egyptians to “remain calm and rational to maintain peace and national unity.” Angelos, the Pope’s deputy, appeared live on Egyptian Nile TV and exhorted his followers, saying, “These incidents are new to the Egyptian street, and I urge all Christians to remain calm and loving despite what they do to us.”

Muslim Al Azhar Grand Cleric Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb also called for unity and calm, admonishing that Christians and Muslims are all Egyptians, and Christians, too, are protected under Islamic Sharia law.

However, according to a source with close ties to Egyptian military intelligence who asked not to be identified, argued that, “These incidents are intentional provocations. It's mostly a lack of common sense, and not religion-based. The media just like to promote the idea that it's religious based. It's mostly Egyptians fighting Egyptians who happen to be Muslims fighting Christians. Violence based on religion isn't hardwired in Egyptian society. We have Baha'is, Sufis, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists living in Egypt either just for work or permanently. These incidents are definitely something new to the Egyptian community."

Egypt's 1923 constitution, written by consensus of a committee of six Muslims, five Christians, and one Jew, was seen as a sign of tolerance and harmony among Egyptians despite religious differences.

Nevertheless, the Cairo incident was seen by many Egyptian Copts as one more reason to consider leaving the country. Egyptian Television host Amro Adib discussed the massive migration of Copts since the Egyptian revolution began in 2011. “The Coptic Church in Egypt reports that tens of thousands of Copts are leaving the country, emigrating to the United States and other countries, seeking the safety and freedom that they fear is disappearing in their own country,” he said.

Coptic taxi driver Dawood Gergis agreed with Adib's report. “I know that at least 5,000 Copts who don't know how to read, write or speak English, won the lottery for visas to the United States. I don't know how they will survive there. It's strange that they are all from the same village, too," he told The Media Line.

Following the Egyptian revolution, Christians remain uncertain about their future amid growing calls for the implementation of Sharia law by the increasingly powerful Islamist parties. Christians are promised protection under Sharia law as "people of the book,” but it is feared that the rise of radical Islam in Egypt -- specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafist parties -- is threatening the peaceful relations and harmony that existed between Christians and Muslims in the past.

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