Egypt’s Copts fearful amid increasing tensions
Father Metyas Mankarios ministers to garbage men and runs a newspaper for Coptic Christians from an office crammed with brittle archives above vegetable sellers and fishmongers barking out prices along the muddy roads of a Cairo neighborhood.
Few have it easy here. From dawn until deep into the night, there is the clatter of making a living, no matter how small. But these days, Mankarios, his face engulfed by a graying beard, worries more about the increasing discrimination and resentment from Muslims who attack monasteries and teach their children that Christians are infidels.
“It’s dangerous today,” he said. “Egypt is going in new directions that are starting to affect the harmony between religions. This attitude is evident not only among ordinary Muslims but among top government and Islamic officials.”
Egypt’s Copts and Muslims have co-existed for centuries, through spasms of bloodshed and recrimination but mostly in relative peace. In recent years, however, tolerance has ebbed and tensions have multiplied in a predominantly Muslim society that has grown more conservative and inclined to drawing religious distinctions in schools, public offices and in mixed neighborhoods.
The atmosphere was further agitated this month after a bishop received death threats and six Christians attending a Coptic Christmas Eve Mass north of Luxor were killed in a drive-by shooting. The Muslim assailants were reportedly seeking revenge for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt.
The killings highlighted years of sectarian unease in the village of Nag Hammadi, where riots erupted immediately and shops and businesses were burned.
A human rights group accused a member of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party of inciting the animosities through his connection to one of the attackers. The group, which filed a lawsuit, alleges that lawmaker Abdel Rahim el Ghoul intervened to have one of the gunmen released from prison days before the shooting. Ghoul has denied wrongdoing, and the prosecutor general’s office announced that there was no larger conspiracy.
“We need a parliamentary investigation to find out who was really behind this massacre,” said Ashraf Radhi, one of a number of Muslim political activists who condemned the deaths. “It is clear to all of us that the three criminals or mercenaries did not act alone. They were backed by someone with authority.”
The shooting roiled deep-seated religious prejudices in a nation where Islamic clerics were outraged by a recent ban on minarets in Switzerland but have been less vigorous in speaking out against abuses or protecting the rights of Copts in their own country.
Nag Hammadi “was not an individual act. It is a political, religious, social and above all a governmental crime,” wrote Mohamed Shabba in the independent Nahdet Masr newspaper.
“It is caused by the backwardness of education that is teeming with racism, extremism and contempt for the other. It is also an economic crime because it took place in Upper Egypt, the area that has suffered from government neglect for years.”
Others cautioned that the incident should not be overblown and that the religious and clan tensions in Nag Hammadi are not representative of the national mood.
Mubarak was quoted in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper as saying, “We are one people. We are not fanatics because we are all children of this land, and there is no difference between Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Copt’s make up about 10% of the nation’s population of 82 million. Founded by St. Mark in the 1st century, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt predates Islam by hundreds of years. But beyond pews and vestibules, the Christian imprint fades: Public schoolchildren of all denominations are taught to recite the Koran as part of Arabic language training, and Egypt’s civil laws are based on Muslim Sharia tenets.
The Egyptian Constitution protects religious freedom, but some churches have been attacked, and others encountered years of land disputes and government scrutiny before they were built.
Courts make it virtually impossible for Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their religious identity on national ID cards. Death threats have forced some converts to go into hiding or leave the country.
Al Azhar University’s Islamic Research Academy, a leading voice on Sunni Muslim thought, recently suspended publication of a book it had commissioned after Copts protested that the work described Christianity as a form of paganism.
Conservative Islam began arriving in Egypt in the 1970s with migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The tenor intensified through the 1990s, and today, even as voices in the media have grown more devout, the Egyptian government works to silence radical Islamic influences but not anger its Muslim population. Copts say this dilemma has left them vulnerable at a time of growing national economic and social pressures. The church leadership prefers diplomacy and has not publicly criticized the Mubarak government.
Awny Mikhail dodged talk of such volatile matters. A Copt, he owns a jewelry store in Cairo, where his customers are as likely to be Muslim women in veils as men with crosses tattooed on their wrists. Boys played marbles in the dirt outside; two police officers sat near another Coptic-owned jewelry shop that was shuttered after a 2008 machine-gun attack that left four Christian workers dead.
“I deal with Muslims every day,” he said, while behind him Coptic Pope Shenouda III, whose seat is in Alexandria, was speaking on TV. “I just left my other shop to pick up something in this one. I have two Muslim customers waiting back there alone. They could steal whatever they liked if they wanted to. You have to have trust in people.”
He leaned over his counter. “I don’t want to see a chain reaction from the Nag Hammadi incident,” he said. “The media will try to turn this into something more. Things aren’t that bad. Muslims have become more conservative, yes, but I support the government in trying to stop Islamic extremism.”
Minutes away, in a neighborhood populated by garbage men, Father Mankarios sat in his office, working on his newspaper, Tibian Battalion, named after a 3rd century band of Coptic soldiers who fought with the Roman army but were later executed for refusing to worship Roman idols. A woman handed him files.
He recalled his boyhood in the 1960s, when, like today, there were symbols of differences between Copts and Muslims: Copts bore the tattooed cross and Muslims a brownish callus on their foreheads, known as the raison, from years of prostrating in prayer. But mostly, he said, the faiths mingled with little anxiety because Copts were less demanding of their rights.
“When I was young, I didn’t see all this tension coming,” he said. “We got along with Muslims just fine. That’s all changed.
“The Egyptian government is not worried about Coptic unrest. We don’t have militias or a political party. Copts are no threat to the government. All we can do is shout.”
Amro Hassan of The Times Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.