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Sectarian fears mount in post-Mubarak Egypt

Egypt's military rulers are keen to send a message to the country's estimated 10 million mostly Coptic Christians that violence in the name of religion will not be tolerated.

An Islamic Salafist cleric addresses protesters gathered in front of the Qina province headquarters in southern Egypt to protest against the appointment of a new Coptic Christian governor in Qina. EPA
An Islamic Salafist cleric addresses protesters gathered in front of the Qina province headquarters in southern Egypt to protest against the appointment of a new Coptic Christian governor in Qina. EPA

SOL, EGYPT // Under the gaze of a freshly painted mural of Mary, revered by Christians as the mother of Jesus, young girls with headbands fashioned from palm fronds rush up and down the newly laid marble steps of the Two Martyrs Church.

Yet in the gaiety of the celebrations marking the Christian festival of Palm Sunday, there is an edge of tension in this village on the banks of the Nile, about 80 kilometres south of Cairo.

The army tanks and soldiers in the street outside the church remind churchgoers of what happened here just over a month ago, when Muslims angered by an affair between a Muslim and a Christian set the church alight.

Young army officers have spent the last few weeks rushing to rebuild the church in time for celebrations this Sunday marking Easter, the high point of the Christian calendar.

With sectarian tensions running high, Egypt's military rulers are keen to send a message to the country's estimated 10 million mostly Coptic Christians that violence in the name of religion will not be tolerated.

"We've been working 24 hours a day to prepare the church in time," said Captain Mustafa Nasr, commander of the army unit guarding Two Martyrs. "People must know that if you want a church removed and you try and destroy it, it will only be rebuilt."

Many of Egypt's Copts remain unconvinced, still apprehensive over who will fill the country's political void after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak from office.

During his three decades as Egypt's leader, Mr Mubarak championed himself as a defender of an Egypt open to both Muslims and Christians alike - even as he played one group off another and pandered to fears of Islamist influence in order to justify curbs on civil rights and political freedoms.

Since he was forced from power in February, flashes of violence have raised fears that the lid on long-simmering sectarian tensions could soon come off.

In the northern Egypt city of Qena, protests have raged since last Friday as demonstrators rally against the city's newly appointed Christian governor, Emad Shehata Michael. The protesters have blocked roads and railway lines, bringing Qena to a standstill.

They say Mr Michael, a former police officer, is unfit to serve as governor and accuse his predecessor, also a Christian, of doing little to address unemployment, poverty or religious division in the area.

Mansour el Eissawy, the minister of interior, visited the city on Wednesday in an attempt to quell violence, but the clashes have continued to escalate.

The unrest follows an incident in Qena last month when a Christian had his ear cut off as punishment for allegedly renting an apartment to two Muslim women who were purportedly prostitutes.

"The most important thing for Christians in Egypt now is stability," said Father Balamoun Ywakeem, the priest at Two Martyrs.

"During the revolution Christians and Muslims came together. We were all in opposition to Mubarak's political system. But since he's gone, there have been some problems. There's less security. The police aren't working as they were in the past."

Even before the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when Christian crosses were raised above the crowd next to Islamic crescents, Mr Mubarak's image as a guardian of the Copts had eroded.

The bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year's Day that killed 26 people left the Coptic community, Egypt's largest minority, badly shaken.

Thus, when anti-government protests swelled, Copts defied the call from their leader, Pope Shanouda III, to stay at home and joined in. Their dissatisfaction with the regime overcame long-standing fears of the potential for an Islamist government to emerge in a post-Mubarak era.

The fear of what would happen to Copts in a country led by the Muslim Brotherhood endures and has even been compounded by the emergence of Salafist elements who have until now rejected the democratic process as un-Islamic. There have been press reports of Christian liquor stores being closed and Christian-targeted kidnappings in the Minya province.

"Since the revolution, there have been attacks on churches. The Salafis are becoming more powerful. We need a government to protect us," said Wael, a Coptic hotel worker from Cairo. "Two days ago my friend's son was handed a piece of paper by a Salafi which called on Egyptians to drive out Christians and destroy churches. He was reported and arrested, but this is happening all over Egypt. There's not enough being done about it."

The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood remains unclear. It campaigned vigorously for the recent referendum on constitutional reform, claiming the 77 per cent "yes" vote as a victory for Islam.

As with most political questions in the post-Mubarak era, the scope of the Brotherhood's real popularity will not be clear until elections set for September. Meanwhile, many Egyptians hope for the best.

"During the protests there was an effort to show Christian and Muslims united and say that we are all brothers," said Ayoub Mikhael, a Christian taxi driver. "Will that continue? Who knows."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae