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Egypt sees tension rise between Muslims and Copts

The story of the runaway wife of a Coptic priest has sparked demonstrations and polemics as the two sides in the country's religious divide crank up mutual hostility.

Coptics, led by Pope Schnouda III, centre, make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's population.
Coptics, led by Pope Schnouda III, centre, make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's population.

CAIRO // Caustic statements from prominent Christian and Muslim clerics, combined with a series of weekly street protests, are contributing to a divisive sectarianism in Egypt.

Although violent confrontations between members of different faiths are not common in Egypt, they remain frequent enough that many Egyptians are concerned that clashes will occur.

"The number of sectarian violent incidents over the past few months has not been very high," said Hossam Bahgat, the founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a Cairo-based advocacy organisation.

"But strangely, with this relative decrease in violent incidents there has been this rise in societal tensions and sectarian polemics."

The spark that ignited this latest feud came from the curious story of Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest in Upper Egypt. Mrs Shehata, 25, ran away from home in late July, it was reported, because of a dispute with her husband.

Police found her in Cairo and returned her to her family. But the rumour mill was already in motion: Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's population of about 80 million, began to demonstrate. They accused Muslims of having kidnapped her and forcibly converting her, an accusation that Egyptian Christians have levelled against Muslims in the past, often after Christian women convert to Islam to marry Muslim men.

But when Ms Shehata hid herself from the media, conservative Muslim activists altered the Christians' narrative. Every Friday for the past several weeks, outraged Muslims have taken to the streets to demand that the Coptic Church "release" Ms Shehata, whom they believe had embraced Islam, prompting the Church to hide her from public view.

Either because of or in spite of the mutual hostility, Bishop Bishoy, the secretary of the Coptic Church's Holy Synod and a well-known voice of conservatism among Copts, made provocative statements last month that led even more Muslims to take to the streets.

As the controversy around Ms Shehatta reached its nadir in late September, Bishop Bishoy commented that, among other things, Muslims are "guests" of Egyptian Christians, whose presence in Egypt predates that of Islam.

As placards denouncing Bishop Bishoy appeared among the protesters, Pope Schnouda, the church's leader, apologised for the bishop's remarks.

Bishop Bishoy himself clarified his remarks, insisting that they were not aimed at inciting anger or insulting Islam.

The Pope was reported to have appealed to the ministry of awqaf, or religious endowments, to halt the weekly protests outside Coptic churches.

Salim Abdel Gelil, a deputy minister of awqaf, said the ministry has made efforts to mollify both sides, but added that the government's hands are tied: all the ministry can do is reason with an increasingly incensed public.

"As a ministry, we confront this thought by another type of thought because we believe that thought cannot be confronted except with other thoughts. We delivered this message through mosque podiums and through the media. It's a message of tolerance and acceptance of others," Sheikh Salim said. He was to have appeared on a Christian satellite channel last Friday to discuss the dispute.

But many Christians are wondering why the government has not done more to stop the protests. Egypt's security forces are notorious for using heavy-handed tactics to subdue political protesters, but security has been relatively light during the weekly demonstrations against Christians. 

Emad Gad, a Christian and a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said: "I think the minister of awqaf, Hamdy Zaqzouq, is a very positive and objective man. But the main problem is the body of al awqaf, the theocratic machine of al awqaf. At the end of the day, they don't play an objective role."

Mr Gad blamed the dispute on the government's education system, which he said propagates chauvinism in its classrooms and textbooks. He also pointed to the rise of Salafism, whose ultra-conservative notion of Islam is beamed into homes across the Middle East through religious satellite channels.

Rights groups such as Mr Bahgat's EIPR have joined in, appealing for calm. Members of the Coptic clergy and imams from Egypt's Salafi movement, which has led the anti-church protests, declined to comment for this article because they do not want to deepen the antipathy.

But much of the damage, it seems, has already been done. After all, the memory of a shooting in January that killed six Copts and a Muslim security guard outside a church in the town of Naga Hammadi is still fresh in Egyptians' minds.

Mr Bahgat said: "We won't be surprised if a violent attack takes place in the next period. Normally people do [these protests] in the wake of violence.

"It's positive that this time, people are sensing the danger without people dying or houses burning yet."

mbradley@thenational.ae