By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: August 2, 2008
Not according to its security officials, who insist that each dispute represents a “singular incident” tied to something other than faith. In the case of the monastery and the monks, officials said the conflict was essentially a land dispute between the church and local residents.
“Every incident has to be seen within its proper framework; you study an incident as an incident,” said an Interior Ministry spokesman who grew furious at the suggestion that Egyptians were in conflict because of their differing faiths. It is customary for security officials not to have their names revealed publicly.
“An incident is an incident, and a crime is a crime,” he said.
But the Egyptian security apparatus is increasingly alone in its insistence.
As more and more conflicts pile up and as the tensions of daily life increase, many people in
“It is as if there is a struggle — each against the other — and it creates a sectarian atmosphere,” said Gamal Assaad, a former member of Parliament who is a Coptic intellectual and a writer. “This tense atmosphere makes people ready to explode at any point if they are subjected to any amount of instigation or incitement.”
For most of
“We keep to ourselves,” said Kamel Nadi, 24, a Coptic who runs a small shop in the Shubra neighborhood of
Christian Arabs have increasingly complained of being marginalized in the
“Yes, we are feeling marginalized,” said Dr. Audeh Quawas, a surgeon in
Many Egyptians around
“When something happens, it always comes back to Muslim and Christian,” said Tharwat Taki Faris, 45, a subsistence farmer in Mansafees, a village of about 33,000 people five hours south of
The village is poor, its unpaved and uneven roads filled with barefoot children in tattered clothing. There are two churches, each guarded by men with shotguns. There are also two mosques, where security men are posted outside on Fridays, just in case the faithful become overwrought during prayer, people here said.
It was midday, and villagers back from working their small plots of land began to gather to discuss relations with their Muslim neighbors. Any conflict between Muslim and Christian is a “singular incident,” they all said, using the same phrase. Villagers said that the government was adamant about keeping things “singular,” so whenever a Muslim and a Christian had a problem, they knew to go to the police before the matter escalated.
“If someone can’t resolve it, they go to the police station,” said John Riyad, 23. “Trust me, the police will make him resolve it.”
The crowd quickly swelled as men and women and children joined the conversation, which almost imperceptibly began to shift toward grievances: There are no Christian officers in the police force. The villagers cannot get permission to build another church. There are no high-ranking Christian officials in their governate. And of course, if their daughters married Muslims, they would kill them.
Then, just as suddenly, the crowd thinned. The reason: state security was on the way. A village informant had already reported the conversation.
“The police know you are here now,” said Mr. Taki Faris, before he, too, made himself scarce. “They are very anxious these days.”
“We feel pressure, maybe not all the time, but we do,” said Ashraf Halim, 45, a grocery store owner in the Shubra neighborhood in
Mr. Halim’s grocery is next to a hair salon with the word “Allah” atop the storefront in large Arabic letters. He responds in his own small way, with a picture of St. George on his dairy cooler.
“Me, I try to keep a certain distance from Muslims,” said Mr. Halim. “We have simple relations: I give you this, you give me this. That’s it. They don’t want more than that, either.”
The underlying tension in
But the violence at the ancient Abu Fana Monastery in May elevated events to a new level. In a follow-up report issued last month, the National Council for Human Rights described the atmosphere in
Frustrated by the official posture of denial, a small group of Egyptian bloggers decided in January 2007 to try to bring Muslims and Christians together to talk. The group, which calls itself Together Before God, began with about 20 members of both faiths.
They posted an Internet survey to gauge Muslims’ and Christians’ ideas about each other and received about 5,000 responses. Two-thirds were from Muslims, the rest from Christians.
The survey showed profound misunderstanding on both sides, said Sherif Abdel Aziz, 36, a co-founder of the group. Some Muslims declared that Coptic priests wore black to mourn the Arab invasion of
Did the group discover a sectarian problem? Absolutely, and it was compounded by the lack of frank public discussion, Mr. Abdel Aziz said.
“The religious discourse has to change from both sides because it incites hatred, even if it does so indirectly, increasing fanaticism from both sides,” Mr. Abdel Aziz said.
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from