Kidnapped monks released after southern Egypt clashes

Incident comes against backdrop of attacks aimed at Coptic Christians, including the killing of a shopkeeper last Wednesday.

copts church egypt (photo credit: Courtesy)
copts church egypt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Three monks abducted after bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians were set free Sunday as calm returned to the southern Egyptian village, said a security official. The battle erupted Saturday when local Muslims claimed the expansion of a monastery was being carried out illegally on state property in the village of Deir Abu Fana, near the city of Minya, 210 kilometers south of the capital. "The situation is under control and the village is now calm," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. A Muslim was killed in the gunbattle and three Christians were injured, prompting authorities to call for reinforcements to contain the situation. The southern Egyptian province of Minya has a high proportion of Christians and contains several monasteries particularly sacred to the community. Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt's 76.5 million people, generally live in peace with the predominant Muslim population, but tensions flare periodically often over expansions or maintenance work done to monasteries and churches. A similar incident took place in Minya in October, resulting in 20 people injured. "I wouldn't set a solid rule to apply in each case," said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of the Coptic Watani newspaper. "In some cases it is a matter of fanaticism from Muslim neighbors, but in other cases it is over an attempt to build or maintain a structure without a building permit." The latest clashes, however, come against a disturbing backdrop of attacks against Christian jewelers over the past week that prompted one Coptic member of parliament to claim Thursday that police were not adequately protecting the community. On Wednesday, gunmen stormed a jewelry shop in Cairo and killed the Coptic owner and three of his assistants, but did not steal anything. Two days later, another Coptic jewelry store was hit, this time in the port city of Alexandria. No one was killed, but about US $28,000 worth of merchandise was stolen. While police maintain the incidents were entirely criminal in nature and not sectarian, they do have uncomfortable echoes of the 1990s when Islamic extremists funded their campaign against the government by robbing Christian jewelry stores. Sidhom declined to describe the recent incidents as part of any kind of pattern of attacks but he did note that every few months there's a new flare up of sectarian tension in the country. "These things keep happening because we live in a sort of sick environment concerning citizens' rights and there are many areas of inequality ... that every now and again breed these sorts of violent acts and explosions," he said.