Sectarian Violence in Egypt Diverting Attention from Political Opposition

By Mayton, Joseph | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview

Sectarian Violence in Egypt Diverting Attention from Political Opposition


Mayton, Joseph, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


RELIGIOUS TENSIONS are not new to the Middle East, but in Egypt, where the government has long boasted of calm and tolerance between the country's Muslim majority and Christian minority, worries of sectarianism are growing. The Arab world's largest nation has been plagued by a frustrating spiral of claims blaming the other religous group for the alleged upsurge in religious violence.

The question that has been emerging among intellectuals, activists and rights workers is how to determine whether an incident is sectarian in nature or simply a social clash that happens to be between a Christian and a Muslim.

Diana is a young Christian college student who was returning to her home in Haram-a suburb aptly named for its proximity to the Giza Pyramids-when she was harassed and thrown to the curb by men in a car. She said she had seen her attackers before in the area, and that they knew who she was.

"I was terrified and scared that I could have died," she said. Asked if she felt the attack was religious in nature, she denied any connection, adding that the young men "were just looking to attack a woman and I was there."

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the country's leading authority on religious violence and rights, agrees with the young Coptic student. According to Bahgat, there is a litmus test that can be used to determine whether an incident is sectarian or not. This requires that an observer put the aggressors in context.

"You have to ask, for example, if the attackers are Muslim, would they force other Muslims to do the same thing," he explains. "For example, there were reports that Bedouins in Upper Egypt forced Coptic priests to denounce their religion and say the shehada [the statement to become a Muslim]. If you can say they would have done the same actions against fellow Muslims, then it is not sectarian."

Two similar incidents highlight Bahgat's assertions of sectarianism in Egypt. On Nov. 23, at least eight people were arrested in Cairo's Ain Shams neighborhood after clashes between Christians and Muslims erupted over a makeshift Christian prayer hall established directly across the street from a mosque. The building in question was an abandoned factory which the church had bought to serve as a prayer hall.

A group of Muslim demonstrators took to the street in front of the converted prayer hall and, according to reports, Christians and the Muslim protesters began to fight, throwing rocks and burning two cars.

Many Muslims argue that it is not the idea of having Christian places of worship that bothers them, but the manner and place where they are established. Mona, a 62-year-old mother, asked why a church was being built directly in front of a mosque.

"What is the point of that? They [Christians] know that it will create tensions among the population," she said. "This sort of in-your-face religion needs to end."

A more violent altercation in Bamha, a village some 15 miles south of Cairo, reveals how frustrations can boil over into all-out sectarian violence. When Copts planned to enlarge a village church in May 2007, Muslim demonstrators took to the streets in protest.

According to reports from the area, Muslims and Christians threw firebombs and bricks at each other, injuring a dozen or more people. At least 10 homes and businesses were set on fire before police arrived to bring order to the embattled town, arresting 17 people from both faiths.

The EIPR, which followed the violence and the aftermath, reports that, a year and a half later, no one has been prosecuted in connection with the violence.

In both incidents, the issue of churches was central. Under Egyptian law, a new religious building can be built only after receiving a presidential decree. Christians argue that because President Hosni Mubarak defers these decisions to his governors, add-ons and new construction is nearly impossible. …

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