EGYPT: Religious conflict becomes the revolution’s biggest enemy


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The clashes between thousands of Muslim extremists and Coptic Christians that left 12 people dead, more than 200 injured and a burned church on Sunday rings yet another alarm to the threat Egypt faces over deepening religious animosity.

For decades, recrimination between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, has been taboo, with many Muslims refusing to acknowledge the lack of harmony. But the last few years have marked a notable rise in violence between the two sides, especially in southern Egypt, where large communities of Copts live next door to Muslims.


Former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime relied on dividing Egyptians. Authorities carefully presided over a volatile status quo between Muslims and Copts, all the while pretending religious strife didn’t exist. Tribal settlements to conflicts were preferred and supported by police officials, who often blamed disputes on individual grudges or foreign terrorists. Mubarak skillfully manipulated the threat of outside extremists to convince the West, which long criticized Egypt’s human-rights record, that he was an ally in battling terrorism.

Nonetheless, Copts felt secure under Mubarak, who tightened his grip over Islamists -- the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood as well as the more extreme Salafis and jihadists. Copts worried that the 18-day revolution that overthrew Mubarak in February would unbottle ultraconservative Islamist voices and lead to greater problems. What has been unfolding recently justifies those fears.

In less than two months, two churches were set ablaze and more than 20 were killed in separate clashes between Copts and Muslims. Salafis, who had stayed away from politics and demonstrations during Mubarak’s reign, now protest regularly against what they call “the Christian abduction of three women by the church” after their alleged conversion to Islam, threatening to storm into churches where “those women are being locked up.”

Saturday’s bloodshed in Cairo was ignited after several thousand Muslims, led by Salifis, attempted to break into the Church of St. Mena, looking for a woman who converted to Islam from Christianity last year. With Mubarak’s police state gone, it took hours for security forces to respond. Copts blame the military-led government for ignoring their fears, and many say the revolution to bring democracy and political freedoms to Egypt rings hollow for Christians.

Egypt’ interim government has been preoccupied with economic and political problems, but sectarian tensions could prove the most pressing danger in the post-Mubarak era. Copts are losing faith in the revolution, and continuing religious unrest could have severe effects on the social, financial and political future of the country.


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-- Amro Hassan in Cairo