This week, Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church and arguably the closest person Christianity has to a head of state, called on the governments of Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria to do more to protect religious minorities. Christians in each of these countries have been killed by the dozen in the past few months.
The day after Benedict spoke, a Copt in southern Egypt was killed and his wife wounded by an off-duty policeman aboard a train. That attack, on Tuesday, came less than two weeks after 21 Christians were killed in a suicide bombing in a church. There is some question as to whether the shooter knew the targets were Christian, but since Christian women in Egypt don't wear a headscarf, it's possible he did.
The pope's comments drew the usual criticism. A foreign ministry spokesman described Benedict's remarks as "unacceptable". "Egypt will not allow non-Egyptians to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext," he said.
He is right to say so, but not for the obvious reasons.
Labelling any conflict as religious is problematic. Labels in general are problematic.
Fighting can appear to be religious; it can appear to be ideological, ethnic, historical, political, a holdover of the Cold War, a struggle for independence. It can appear to be a clash of civilisations, between East and West. It can even appear to be a "war on terror". Ernie Regehr, whom I interviewed 10 years ago for a story on armed conflict in the 20th century, told me then that for war to happen, two groups, be they political states or groups of people, must have mutually exclusive interests. What it all boils down to is power, who's in and who's not; who's disenfranchised and who's abusing the franchise and its incumbent responsibilities.
At the time, Regehr was director of Project Ploughshares, which is devoted to the causes and resolution of conflict. He was clear about the causes of war: ethnic (or religious) conflict is a product and not a cause of war. A people - abused, violated and degraded, politically, economically and personally - will strengthen its community, often armed, when it loses confidence in the political system that is charged with protecting it. In other words, an abused, violated or degraded people will cling to the community - its tribe, or clan, or religious confrères - to protect itself.
This does not mean the degradation or abuse will end. Misery loves company is all. But we see how labels come into being and how easy it is to confuse a conflict over power and disenfranchisement with a religious or ethnic war.
We see this most clearly in the Palestinian territories. The conflict is often characterised in Jewish-Muslim terms, but because a sizable portion of the encroached-upon population is Christian, the interminable fight should not be described as religious at all. People made powerless in a catastrophe 62 years ago struggle still for political justice and economic equality. Nor is the conflict we find in some other areas necessarily sectarian. Again, it would be wise to look not at how a particular group practises its faith, but where members stand in the strata of society: who holds power, who is withholding power, who wants power?
After the New Year's Eve suicide attack in Alexandria, the Christian community in Egypt said widespread discrimination had made its members second-class citizens in their own country. This is a group whose majority position in the country has shrunk steadily - they now number about 10 per cent - since foreign invasion 1,400 years ago. The disempowered often have long memories.