Signs of rising sectarian tension

A 6 January drive-by shooting on a Coptic Christian congregation leaving midnight mass on their Christmas Eve in Nagaa Hammadi, southern Egypt, has focused attention on decades-old tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.



Six Copts and a Muslim security guard were killed in the attack which has sent shockwaves through the Coptic community and led to sporadic clashes between Christian protesters and security forces, and between Christians and Muslims.



“Everything in this country is leading up to a situation where non-Muslims are hated, denigrated, and even marginalized,” Youssef Sidhom, editor of Egypt’s Coptic weekly newspaper Watany, told IRIN. “Our education [system] fills the students with nothing but hatred and fear of those who are different.”



Sidhom believes anti-Christian sentiment has been sweeping this populous predominantly Muslim society since the early 1980s, when Islamic extremism began to rise. Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million citizens, he said.



Recent incidents include five days of riots in the village of Farshout, near Nagaa Hammadi, with Christian properties set on fire, after an alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man.



Copts frequently say the authorities will not bring justice to the perpetrators of violence, and will not tackle the root of the sectarian problem.














Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Egypt highlighting the town of Nagaa Hammadi, about 650km south of Cairo and 60km north of Luxor

“After every attack on the Copts, if it brings anybody to account, the government does nothing but arrest a big number of people and then try to reconcile these people without searching for the reasons for this attack,” said Kamal Zakhir, a Christian analyst. “The root causes of the violence aren’t addressed and this encourages me to say that sectarian tensions will continue to be a feature of life in Egypt for ever.”



Alleged injustices



Rights groups have for years sought to address what they say are systematic injustices towards the Christian community.



In 2008, an Amnesty International report said sectarian attacks on Copts had increased in 2008 and that “sporadic clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims left eight people dead.”



In mid-2009, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a local NGO defending the rights of minorities in Egypt, released a report on the plight of Egypt’s Copts. It said Copts suffered persecution, limits on practicing their religion and restrictions on building churches.



Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights has repeatedly called for giving Copts equal rights as far as the construction of prayer houses is concerned. There are only 4,000 churches in Egypt, according to Coptic leaders, while there are about 400,000 mosques.















Photo: US Copts Association
Coptic Christians gather around the coffins of the victims of the 6 January drive-by shooting

Intolerance fuelled by teachers, media




“This intolerance is new to our society,” said Soad Saleh, professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at al-Azhar University. “Many of this country’s schoolteachers and mosque imams fan these sectarian sentiments.”



She said some TV channels were also to blame for increasing tensions between the communities by portraying the adherents of other faiths as evil or bad.



“How long will we continue to bury our heads in the sand?” Coptic newspaper editor Sidhom asked. “Our school curricula must change. These curricula contain materials that demonize non-Muslims and fill the pupils with hatred towards whoever is different.”



Fouad Allam, former chief of the State Security Agency, also blamed sectarian tensions on the education system and “a big number of religious TV channels that spread nothing but hatred”. He criticized the manner in which the government was trying to resolve the matter: Dealing with it only as a security issue was “a gross mistake”.



“The government needs to formulate a comprehensive social, educational and political strategy to put an end to this,” he said.



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