Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas yesterday in Egypt. Today they bury six of their faithful felled by bullets on their way to Midnight Mass. According to press reports, the killing is due to a local feud gone horribly wrong. A Christian man is accused of raping a young Muslim girl, a horrendous crime that should be punished in court. But extremists with no proven ties to the victim have decided to exact vengeance against innocent bystanders. This senseless act has not just broken families apart but has also inflamed tensions between Egypt's large Muslim community and its sizeable Christian minority.
In recent years, inter-religious tensions have been aggravated in Egypt, a nation that has always brandished its ethnic and religious diversity with pride. In the 1990s, at the height of the Islamist terrorist campaign against the Egyptian state and tourism industry, the Christian minority was relatively sheltered from acts of violence. But communal relations have taken a turn for the worse lately, with both sides resorting to violence to settle disputes over land and local issues. Appeals for members of the same faith to respond in solidarity to these feuds has led to corrosive sectarian animosities. In 2006, fighting erupted around a church in Alexandria after unfounded rumours circulated that it was hosting a play defaming Islam, leaving several dead. Some Coptic websites inflamed the tensions, portraying the violence in uniquely religious terms.
But local disputes must not degenerate into sectarian violence. Egypt, after all, is a nation for all its people, regardless of their religious belonging. The success and integration of the Copts, many of whom have made it to the top of the country's political, economic and cultural elite, has everything to do with the sense that Egyptian identity is all encompassing. Attacks such as yesterday's are often blamed on disturbed men suffering psychological problems, but the wider context that facilitates such turbulence cannot be ignored. Egypt is still, in large part, a place of tolerance. It must ensure that its own citizens work to keep this alive.