News / Middle East

Clashes in Cairo Spark Fears of Sectarian Violence

A Muslim woman holds a Quran during a show of solidarity with protesting Coptic Christians, Cairo, Egypt. October 10, 2011.
A Muslim woman holds a Quran during a show of solidarity with protesting Coptic Christians, Cairo, Egypt. October 10, 2011.


Noel King

Egypt's ruling military council on Monday ordered the government to investigate the killings of at least 25 people in Sunday's street battles between Coptic Christians and Egyptian security forces.

The order came after crisis talks on the country's worst violence since a February uprising that swept then-President Hosni Mubarak from office.

The clashes began when Coptic Christians marched in downtown Cairo to protest the burning last week of a church in southern Egypt.

Coptic protesters said they expected a peaceful march. They say they were attacked by the Egyptian army. Tensions heightened further when thousands more protesters - some of them Muslims who supported the Copts, and some of them supporters of the military - took to the streets.

Coptic marcher Emad Hatef had an Egyptian flag tied around his neck. Like many of the marchers, he blamed the violence on Egyptian Islamists.

"I am here just to say 'no' to all Islamists. I hope to tell you something. There is a difference between Muslims and Islamists," said Hatef. "There is a very big difference. Muslims here in Egypt is our brothers. We are live for 14 centuries. But about Islamists take money for Saudi Arabia."

Hatef said the Egyptian military, though, also shouldered some of the blame.

Coffins of Coptic Christian victims from Sunday's violence are readied for funeral procession, Cairo, Egypt, October 10, 2011.
Coffins of Coptic Christian victims from Sunday's violence are readied for funeral procession, Cairo, Egypt, October 10, 2011.

"We saw a lot of bodies under the military cars. They have videotapes and everything. You can't imagine what happened to Christians today. The military in any place in all the world must to save his country, but here in Egypt, just to kill Christians," said Hatef.

Egypt's military-appointed Cabinet held an emergency meeting Monday. In a nationally televised address late Sunday, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said Sunday's violence had taken the country backward. He blamed the fighting on what he called the "hidden hands" of foreign and domestic conspirators.

The violence has the potential to destabilize relations between Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians, though some analysts say they believe moderate views - and cooler tempers - will prevail.

Youssef Sidhom is chief editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani. He said he believes that Egyptian Christians and Muslims are natural allies.

"I don't think that it is wise to call for any civil war between a 90 percent majority Muslim and a 10 percent Christian minority. I do not believe this is a wise choice because Copts are not standing alone against militant Islam or violent fundamentalist Muslims," said Sidhom. "Most of the moderate Muslims are sympathizing with the Copts and crying out for extreme equality."

What Sidhom fears is what he calls the rise of militant Islam in Egypt.

"It is not a direct fight or a civil war between Christians and Muslims. It is a direct fight - but not a civil war - between kindhearted moderate Egyptians, whether Muslims or Copts on one side, and militant Islam which is growing more and more," he said.

After the Egyptian uprising, Islamist groups that were banned during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak began to organize politically - causing anxiety among Coptic Christians and more liberal Muslims. Most groups organized under Islamist principles say they want an Egypt governed by Islamic law, but have no desire to oppress Egypt's Christian minority.

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