Egypt’s Sectarian Strife

Despite joy over the forced departure of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt still has the very real matter of its sectarian troubles to contemplate

Egyptian Copts. Pope Shenouda (center).   (photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
Egyptian Copts. Pope Shenouda (center).
(photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
RECENT CLASHES BETWEEN Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt point to grave concerns far beyond the future political direction of the country and its next choice of leader. Indeed, Egyptians may have collectively celebrated the removal of their octogenarian president in February, but an increase in sectarian violence since Mubarak’s fall from grace has led to suggestions that these deep-seated pressures could yet destabilize an ever-evolving Egypt where Coptic Christians account for about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people.
On May 8, Muslim-Christian sectarian violence intensified when at least a dozen people were killed and some 200 others were wounded in clashes outside a Cairo church, after rumors surfaced that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held at the church against her will. Just two months earlier, violence erupted when Copts gathered to protest the burning of a church in Helwan, to the south of Cairo, resulting in 13 deaths and 140 injuries. Such tensions are something of a step backwards in this revitalized Egyptian nation where, during nearly three weeks of anti-government rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir square, religious figures from both faiths addressed the protesters, and prayers for Muslims and Christians were mutually respected.
“The violence and the attacks on the Copts in Egypt started well before the fall of Mubarak, of course, so it’s not only related to the current changes,” Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa program at London’s Chatham House, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Tensions between Islamic fundamentalism and Christianity in Egypt have happened periodically, but now it’s even more, as groups within Egypt are trying to assert themselves… With the fall of an oppressive regime, they think it gives them license to do what they’ve wanted to do for a long time.
“In Tahrir Square it was a time of unity, which had one target, and that target was getting rid of Mubarak and the old regime,” Mekelberg continues. “But it didn’t solve other frictions within Egyptian society… Unfortunately, this friction between Christians and Muslims remains, and that’s why you need a competent government in order to deal with it.”
The tensions were exacerbated, analysts say, by the decision of the new Egyptian government to end the blacklist of some 3,000 jihadi Muslims who were permitted to return to Egypt from exile, following the attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day. In that attack, aimed at upsetting Muslim-majority Egypt’s fragile balance with its Christian minority, a suicide bomber targeted a crowd of worshipers as they emerged from midnight mass. More than 20 were killed and scores of others were wounded.
“I was quite sure that this attack was part of the larger picture of insurgency that we’re seeing in the Middle East,” Dr. Erica Hunter, a lecturer in the department of the study of religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, tells The Report. “These groups form and deform… they’re very chameleon-like and it didn’t surprise me that there had been this sort of attack.
“Egypt, of course, is not a lawless society as Iraq is for instance, where there is simply no government that is effective, but I think there has been an increase within Egypt of an awareness of their Islamic heritage. That has probably facilitated more fundamentalist attitudes within the population, rather than a flow coming in from without,” she explains.
Not long after the attack, and just before Mubarak was toppled from power, Egyptian authorities claimed that a small Palestinian group linked to al-Qaeda, the Army of Islam, was responsible for the bombing. The claim was made despite reports that the organization, which denies involvement, has never operated outside its base in Gaza.
Recent years have been witness to profound Coptic-Muslim tensions in Egypt.
While the scale of the attack on New Year’s Day may have been unusual for Egypt, the frequency of incidents between Coptic Christians and Muslims illustrates a problem with deeply entrenched roots.
In January 2010, six Copts and one Muslim guard died in a drive-by shooting in Naga Hamady, in Egypt’s south. Two months earlier, some 10 houses were razed to the ground during days of trouble in Farshout, southern Egypt, triggered by the alleged sexual assault of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man.
Over the past decade, there have been numerous outbreaks of deadly violence between the country’s Muslims and Coptic communities.
THE COPTIC CHURCH WAS founded in the 1st century CE by the Apostle Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt. The 5th century saw a split between the Coptic Church and the West following a theological rift, which was, in essence, over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ. The 7th century saw the introduction of the Islamic faith into Egypt, to where, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had fled as a child with his family to escape the murderous King Herod.
Following generations of conversions, the number of practicing Copts declined until they became the minority they are today. In addition, Coptic Church sources estimate that over one million Copts have left Egypt over the past three decades alone.
Relations between Copt and Muslim, described by many observers as relatively amicable in the first half of the 20th century, became palpably strained in the latter half.
“I can’t recall incidents on the scale that we’ve seen today between the Coptic groups and the Muslims, but their relationship has never really been a harmonious one,” says a Lebanese-born surgeon who, now living in the UK, studied medicine at a prominent Cairo university in the 1960s. He speaks with The Report on condition of anonymity. “The awareness of their [the Copts’] rights not being [afforded] has come to prominence in the last fifty years. When I was at university, I do recall that, although as a Muslim, I was friendly with some Copts, they did seem to keep to themselves. I even went out with a Coptic girl, her Coptic friends eyed me with suspicion and she was approached by a member of the church to stop seeing me.”
Hunter asserts that the tension between Copt and Muslim in Egypt is a somewhat recent development. “The Copts predate Islam by a good 600 years and, of course, the relationship has fluctuated. But there has been a recent escalation of difficulties between the Copts and Muslim communities in Egypt in the last five to ten years,” she says.
Hunter attributes this escalation to several developments. “The Copts believe that they are the original inhabitants in Egypt and they do feel marginalized in Egyptian society. But there has been growing resentment within the Muslim communities regarding some of the niche positions that some of the Copts have occupied,” she explains. “They have had a very high middle-class profile, perhaps disproportionate to their numbers – which is not surprising, since this often happens in minority groups.”
To this, she adds “the rather salient fact of the increasing fundamentalism of Islam.”
Indeed, in Egypt, Islam has replaced the country’s other failed ideologies, not least pan-Arabism, which was the cornerstone of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule.
In the face of such religious tensions, the Coptic Church has become more inwardlooking in recent times, many say. This includes church building and providing their own alternative social, sports, and entertainment outlets. This, some argue, has only served to encourage increased segregation between Muslims and Christians.
Alongside Muslim resentment towards their Coptic counterparts, many in the Coptic community have felt an increasing sense of marginalization in Egyptian society.
Religious conversions are one such area of sensitivity. Indeed, the Egyptian government only recognizes conversions when one converts from Christianity to Islam. So, as Egypt enters a new chapter in its rich and colorful history, some in Egypt’s Christian community have been calling for their concerns about discrimination to be properly addressed.
In a country in desperate need of national unity, only time will tell whether such requests will be ultimately acted upon by those with the requisite power to force through the kind of real change so lacking under Mubarak’s regime.
Egypt, like much of the Middle East, was once a mix of different faiths, where Muslim, Christian and Jew lived side by side. But as tensions among the Arab world, Israel and the West escalated after the creation of Israel in 1948, the region’s Jews all but disappeared from the Arabic-speaking map. Today, Christians in the Middle East – some fearful of rising Islamic fundamentalism, others feeling marginalized – are following suit. In Iraq, almost half of the Christian population has fled their war-ravaged nation since the first Gulf War in 1991, and with a population of 550,000, now make up just three percent of the country. In Lebanon, the numbers of Christians, once the majority faith, have declined sharply, with many choosing to live outside their homeland. While they continue to enjoy considerable political power – in Lebanon, the head of state must always be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the parliamentary speaker a Shiite – Christians comprise some 35 percent of this fragile state, which has 18 officially recognized religious groups and a population of just over 4 million. Christian Palestinians have also been fleeing the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
IN THE FACE OF THESE STATISTICS, and speaking some days after the attack on the Coptic Church in Egypt, French president Nicolas Sarkozy warned that Christians in the Middle East were becoming the victims of “religious cleansing.”
“We cannot accept and thereby facilitate what looks more and more like a particularly perverse program of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing,” said the French head of state, delivering his New Year address to religious representatives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, in early January.
Those who perished in Alexandria and in Baghdad last October, when an attack on a church killed 68, were “collectively our martyrs,” said the president of France, where there are an estimated 45,000 Copts. “They are the martyrs of the freedom of conscience.
The rights that are guaranteed in our country to all religions must be reciprocally guaranteed in other countries,” he added.
While Hunter also contends that the bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria is one of many signs that, from some fundamentalist quarters, “there is a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of the Middle East,” Mekelberg equally warns against expecting a quick fix to Egypt’s current sectarian strife.
That strife can be traced to the increased visibility of Salafi groups – puritanical followers of Islam who, since Mubarak’s departure, have become more assertive in the country’s affairs.
“THERE ARE DIFFERING levels to consider when you talk of solving sectarianism,” says Mekelberg. “Firstly, it’s up to the police to ensure that, although these groups don’t like each other, they don’t kill each other. The other thing is, of course, to address the root causes of this trouble. But how do you explain religious sectarianism?... It exists in Egypt, it exists in Scotland between the football supporters, in the US where there is a proliferation of God channels and [is evident in] the recent killing of a policeman in Northern Ireland, which points to the fact that some people will never be happy to see a Catholic policeman. But, it’s worse in places like the Middle East and the developing world – Sudan and Darfur, for instance – and, unfortunately, in Egypt such attacks are likely to continue.”