Accessibility links

Egyptians Worried About Sectarian Violence


Almost two weeks after a deadly outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt's northern city of Alexandria, the anti-Christian riots are still a matter of great concern for Egyptians. Many people, Muslim and Christian alike, suspect there was a political motive behind the clashes, with parliamentary elections approaching. A growing number of members of both faiths are worried about a growing rift, and are calling for unity.

One evening earlier this week, several hundred people, both Muslims and Christians, stood on a street corner in downtown Cairo, holding lighted candles to symbolize peace and unity in the face of recent religious violence. Some stood quietly out of respect for the dead, but others sang nationalist songs and chanted slogans calling on Egyptians to unite across religious lines.

This group chants about other Arab countries torn apart by sectarian violence, like Lebanon and Iraq. We do not want this, they say, we want a secular state.

Demonstrations organized by the anti-government group known as Kifaya are usually surrounded by hundreds of intimidating riot police, but not this one. The police presence is light and limited mostly to white-uniformed officers, who keep their distance. It indicates the government's approval of the rally's stated goal - to promote the national unity for Egyptians of all faiths in the aftermath of sectarian riots in Alexandria.

Two weeks ago, violence flared in the ancient northern city when rumors spread that a Coptic Christian church was distributing DVDs of a two-year-old theater performance that allegedly insulted Islam. Roughly 5000 angry Muslims protested outside the church, and the scene deteriorated into a rock-throwing melee. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Three people were killed and scores injured.

The city of Alexandria has returned to an uneasy calm, but the clash has shaken many Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian. Pointing to history, retired social worker Layla Dous says religious intolerance is un-Egyptian.

"Well I'm old, 90 years old, and I've seen all the politics of Egypt. So I am very sad of what's happening, very, very sad," she said. "Really, it's not in the nature of Egypt. This is just something which has been done just to make us not think of the government situation. It is not right. And this is going to break Egypt."

Roughly 10 percent of Egyptians are Christian, mainly members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose ancestors were living here long before the arrival of Islam. The two faiths have lived together in relative peace for centuries. But the Alexandria riot exposed modern tensions between Muslims and Christians that few Egyptians have wanted to acknowledge.

"It cannot go on like this," said Nagwa Farang, 56, a consultant. "There is some kind of acceleration in tensions and conflicts between denominations. And it's important also being a Christian myself, and come and express myself and take part in what's taking place in my country."

She believes that fanaticism has developed among members of both faiths. Among Christians, she believes, growing extremism is a response to marginalization.

"No, I see that there is extremism in both sides," said Ms. Farang. "Plus, there is a gradual exclusion. You know, you exclude Christians from political life. They are a minority, you tell them you don't have rights, so the only place they go to is the church. They stay in the church. The church is not just becoming a place for worship, it becomes a place for social life. Even lately, the pope makes political statements, telling the Christians to vote here or to vote that [way]. I mean, he's a religious leader, my personal view is he should not get involved in that."

An influential Muslim member of parliament from the ruling National Democratic Party acknowledges that Christians are underrepresented in parliament. But the reformist lawmaker, Hossam Badrawi, says the problem is wider than that.

"I think many Egyptians are marginalized, Muslims and Copts. Seven million are voting, out of 72 million Egyptians? Many people are marginalized," he noted. "You can get out of the marginalized people the women, and say the women are marginalized. Or you can get the young people and say young people are marginalized. Or you can get the Christians and say Christians are marginalized. But I don't think we should measure it that way. What happened in Alexandria is scary. But it should be exposed and handled with transparency and democracy."

Hossam Badrawi and leaders of the opposition agree that the key is reforming Egypt's political system to be more inclusive.

Political concerns also have many Egyptians asking why the violence broke out now, two years after the performance of the controversial play. Parliamentary elections start next week, and few people think the timing of the unrest is a coincidence. Some residents of Cairo say they have been getting inflammatory anti-Muslim letters and e-mails, which they see as part of an organized campaign to inflame sectarian tensions.

But the big mystery is who might benefit from driving a wedge between Muslims and Christians. Some theories point to Islamic extremists, others to foreign involvement of some kind, and still others to Egypt's own government and its controversial state of emergency.

Whoever is responsible, the people at the candlelight vigil are hoping that their voices will make it clear that they do not intend to let their country be divided along religious lines. That is the hope of a tall, thin 27-year-old accountant named Mohammed, who held a banner calling for unity.

He says, "We are here for the sake of Egypt. Egypt has always been one home for everybody. We have Muslims, we have Christians, we have had Jews. They have always been living together as one country. I am coming here for the sake of the country. If my name was not Mohammed, if my name was Maurice or Michael, it would not make a difference. Egypt is for everybody."

XS
SM
MD
LG