CAIRO “” A monastery was ransacked in January. In May, monks there were kidnapped, whipped and beaten and ordered to spit on the cross. Christian-owned jewelry stores were robbed over the summer. The rash of violence was so bad that one prominent Egyptian writer worried it had become “open season” on the nation’s Christians.
Does Egypt face a sectarian problem?
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.
Who could dare suggest such a thing?!
“An incident is an incident, and a crime is a crime,” he said.
But the Egyptian security apparatus is increasingly alone in its insistence.
Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with about 80 million people. About 10 percent are Coptic Christian.
For most of Egypt’s Coptics, the major flare-ups “” the attack on the Abu Fana Monastery or riots in 2005 in Alexandria “” are faraway episodes that serve only to confirm a growing alienation from larger society. For most, the tension is more personal, a fear that a son or daughter will fall in love with a Muslim or of being derided as “coftes,” which means “fifth column.”
This is an absurd statement. Copts don’t worry about anyone “falling in love” when it comes to Muslims. They do worry about their daughters being kidnapped, raped, and forced to convert to Islam.
“We keep to ourselves,” said Kamel Nadi, 24, a Coptic who runs a small shop in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo. “Muslims can’t say it, but it’s clear they don’t accept us. Here no one can speak the truth on this issue, so everybody”s feelings are kept inside.”
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.
Guess what the religious identity of the “village informant” is?
“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 Cairo. “We have liberty of speech, and religion, but it’s as if somebody was telling us at the same time, “˜Don’t speak and don’t practice your religion.” ”
The underlying tension in Egypt flares periodically around the country. There were riots when word spread of a Coptic play supposedly denigrating the Prophet Muhammad and again over plans to expand a church. The state treated each case as a security problem.
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 Egypt as an “overcharged sectarian environment” and chided the state, saying it “turns a blind eye to such incidents” and was “only content to send security forces after clashes catch fire.”