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Egypt fears rise in sectarian violence after church killings

Drive-by shooting at Coptic Christmas Eve mass leaves seven dead in apparent revenge attack for assault on Muslim girl.

CAIRO // A drive-by shooting left six Christians and a Muslim security guard dead early yesterday morning as worshippers left a Christmas Eve mass at a Coptic church in the Upper Egyptian town of Nagaa Hamady. Enraged Coptic Christian protesters clashed with police at the town morgue several hours after the shooting, which security officials said was in retaliation for the sexual assault of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in November.

An estimated 5,000 Copts attended the funeral in Nagaa Hammadi, 65km from the popular tourist city of Luxor. Police said Copts stoned the hospital where the bodies of the six dead were kept and police cars before the service. Police responded with tear gas. Protesters shouted: "No to repression" and" "O blessed Cross we will defend you with our soul and our blood," witnesses said. The clashes had subsided by midday, and no violence was reported at the funeral.

Yesterday morning's attack ranks among some of bloodiest examples of sectarian violence in recent memory. While government officials blamed the attack on Upper Egypt's rough-and-tumble culture of vendettas and family feuds, Christian leaders and political analysts said it marks the latest incident in escalating violence against Christians. The attacks threaten to disrupt what has long been a harmonious relationship between Egypt's Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority, which comprises 10 to 12 per cent of Egypt's estimated 82 million people.

Mounir Megahed, the director of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, a non-governmental organisation that agitates on behalf of religious minorities, said: "I think the sectarian violence, or rather the violent attacks against non-Muslims in Egypt, has been escalating in the past year. Nearly every week you can find something like that in the news. The state is soft in tackling the issue. They do not put people who commit these crimes to trials."

The past two years have seen a noticeable increase in hate crimes against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. While the vast majority of such incidents end only in injuries and destroyed property, their increasing frequency reveals a degree of complacency among law enforcement officers when it comes to protecting religious minorities, Mr Mounir said. "I think that Egyptian society in general, and particularly in these places in Upper Egypt, is becoming more intolerant," said Mr Mounir, whose organisation is planning to send a petition to the prosecutor general's office in Cairo tomorrow to urge state security officials to take a harder line against religious hate crimes. "The state is soft in tackling the issue. They do not put people who commit these crimes to trial."

The most prominent example of such negligence was the massacre of 21 Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of El Kosheh in 2000, he said. Of the more than 90 villagers accused of having participated in the rampage, not one was convicted, said Mr Mounir. Some of the perpetrators have evaded justice in part because Egyptian law enforcement officials are afraid or reluctant to prosecute them, he said. One common method of dealing with community conflicts in Upper Egypt is to convene a traditional majlis, or council, to reconcile the two sides. The results, Mr Mounir said, are rarely satisfying for the victims.

"Usually when they have something like this, they arrest a random number of Muslims and Christians and they start pressuring the Coptic community to accept reconciliation, or these [innocent] Coptic arrestees will go to court or they will go to prison. It's a sort of blackmailing to get people to accept a humiliating settlement." Mr Mounir and Emad Gad, a Christian and a political analyst at the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, blamed Egypt's educational system for inculcating young people with Islamic chauvinism while extremist clerics are allowed to speak with impunity about the superiority of Islam, Mr Gad said. "The educational system is full of religious articles speaking about non-Muslims as non-believers, speaking about Islam as the only right religion," Mr Gad said. "They are dealing with Christians as infidels and non-believers."

But as Coptic Christians blamed the state, Muslim religious authorities described the incident as nothing more than a personal vendetta - a common crime in Upper Egyptian villages and one that goes unreported when the violence affects only co-religionists. Salem Abdel Gelil, deputy minister for preaching at Egypt's ministry of awqaf, or religious endowments, said: "It's something that happens between people, especially in communities with a low standard of culture or education like Upper Egypt. "Aside from the religious affiliation of the people involved in these incidents, such incidents happen in Upper Egypt among members of the same family, Muslims against Muslims and Christians against Christians."

When violent acts do cross confessional lines, the media has a tendency to exaggerate the motives, casting feuding families as crusading religious zealots, said Mr Gelil and Fawzi Zifzaf, the former head of the committee on religious dialogue at Al Azhar University. "Any clashes between Muslims and Christians is not a general clash at a high level. They are individual incidents," Mr Zifzaf said. "Revenge in Upper Egypt is a tradition. It's a bad tradition, but it's there."

While such violent mores may be a reality of Upper Egyptian life, they should not be used as a fig leaf to cover a growing rupture in Egyptian society, Mr Gad said. In its effort to mollify conservative Muslims, the Egyptian government is turning its back on the increasingly victimised Christian minority. "If this is concerning the Upper Egyptian mentality, why didn't we see any crime like that in front of a mosque?" he said. "I think these crimes will continue unless the security forces stop repeating this same talk of traditional people in Upper Egypt. They must stop speaking like that. They should speak about Egyptians as Egyptians, not divided along religious lines."

mbradley@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse