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5:11 am
Sat February 25, 2012

In Egypt, Christian-Muslim Tension Is On The Rise

Originally published on Thu March 29, 2012 4:18 pm

Blackened rubble is all that is left of Abskharon Suleiman's appliance store in the northern Egyptian village of Sharbat.

Suleiman is a Coptic Christian, and his upstairs apartment, as well as his children's homes and shops, were gutted and looted in an attack last month by young Muslim men.

In Egypt, growing tensions between Muslims and Christians have led to sporadic violence. Many Egyptians blame the interreligious strife on hooligans taking advantage of absent or weak security forces. Others believe it's because of a deep-seated mistrust between Muslims and the minority Christian community.

The incident in the rural community of Sharbat started as most interreligious clashes in Egypt do — with a rumor of an illicit liaison between members of different religious sects.

In this case, it was about a Coptic Christian man and Muslim woman, each of them married to someone else, explains Muslim merchant Magdy Abu Sheashaa.

He claims the man had suggestive photos of the woman on his phone, though neither he nor anyone else interviewed actually saw the pictures.

The rumor was enough to send a frenzied mob to the alleged offender's house on Jan. 27. That building was near Suleiman's property.

Abu Sheashaa says Suleiman's grown sons fired handguns into the air to try to disperse the crowd. The mob then shouted insults at the Coptic family and demanded they leave the village where they had lived for two decades.

"They threw rocks through the windows and set our building on fire. I was sure we were going to die," says Um Suleiman, the elderly wife of the merchant.

Police Didn't Act

Witnesses say police officers who came did nothing. Instead, Muslim neighbors and friends of Suleiman intervened. They formed a protective cordon around the Christians and brought them to Magdy Abu Sheashaa's home.

Abu Sheashaa says a group of Muslim elders later came to express their sympathy to his Coptic friend. But they also urged him to move out like the mob was demanding.

The elders said they felt it was no longer safe for Suleiman and his family to stay in Sharbat.

They stayed with Muslim friends for a while, then moved into a cramped apartment an hour's drive away.

Suleiman's eldest son says they want to go back home.

But they are afraid of being attacked again, he says, even though a committee sent by the Egyptian parliament decreed last week that the family has the right to live in Sharbat.

Ihab Ramzy, a Coptic Christian lawmaker who was a member of the committee, says he understands the family's fears.

Islamists Will Hold Power

Islamists won Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, and this has created a feeling of helplessness in the Coptic Christian community.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the strongest Islamist faction, has vowed to protect Christians and other minorities. And Egyptian experts and human rights activists say there is no evidence of any official or organized effort to terrorize Christians.

"Is there an extremist wave that is identifying Christians and trying to drive them out of Egypt? Personally, I doubt it, but you know, maybe I'm naive," says Mahmoud Sabit, an Egyptian historian who lives in Cairo.

Sabit says Copts get nervous when Islamist candidates talk about incorporating more Islamic law, or Shariah, into Egyptian society.

"So this I think is one of their great fears, is a reversal and suddenly finding themselves ... as second-class citizens," he says.

Most Copts, like the Suleiman family, refuse to discuss those fears publicly.

But last December on a talk show on Egyptian TV, a Christian caller who gave her name as Mervat accused the guest — an ultra-conservative Salafist — of trying to drive Christians out of Egypt.

The Coptic Christian caller accuses Hazem Salah Abu Ismail — who is a presidential candidate — of inciting hatred and violence by demanding women wear veils and Egyptians not drink alcohol. She argues that if Christians don't comply, they will be attacked.

Friction In Southern Egypt

Alfy Adly, a Coptic who is an obstetrician, says such attacks are already happening in his hometown of Qena in the south.

He recounts how a Salafist mob cut off the ear of a Coptic landlord and drove out the Coptic governor last year.

He adds that one extremist in his neighborhood has been stalking his family and has threatened to kill his daughter. Adly videotaped some of this on his cellphone:

In the tape, the man screams: "I will kill her under the stairs here, I will show you. I swear to my mother I will kill you, you are dirt."

The man then breaks the door to Adly's house.

Adly says he's gone to the police in Qena numerous times with such evidence, but nothing has been done.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an activist group, has been tracking attacks on minorities, including Christians.

Its director, Hossam Bahgat, says he understands their frustration over the lack of justice. He says it's also troubling that some Christians are resorting to violence to fight back.

But he adds that the revolution last year that ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak has made Egyptians much more aware of interreligious strife, and willing to help those being attacked.

"The positive sign, of course, is that there is an ever-growing movement of primarily young people who are willing now to defend these values against any attack or push-back," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And there are growing tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt that have led to sporadic violence there. The attacks are part of a larger crime wave sweeping the country. Many Egyptians blame the interreligious strife on hooligans taking advantage of absent or weak security forces. Others believe it's because of a deep-seated mistrust between Muslims and the minority Christian community. The lack of trust seems to be growing as Islamists emerge as the country's main political force, and Christians in some communities are being driven from their homes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson visited one of these villages and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Blackened rubble is all that is left of Abskharon Suleiman's appliance store in the northern village of Sharbat. The Christian merchant's upstairs apartment, as well as his children's homes and shops, were also gutted and looted in the attack last month by young Muslim men.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

NELSON: The incident in this tight-knit rural community started as most interreligious clashes in Egypt do - with a rumor of an illicit liaison between members of different religious sects. In this case, it was about a Coptic Christian man and Muslim woman, each of them married to someone else, explains Muslim merchant Magdy Abu Sheashaa.

MAGDY ABU SHEASHAA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He claims the man had suggestive photos of the woman on his phone that neither he nor anyone else interviewed actually saw. But the rumor was enough to send a frenzied mob to the alleged offender's house on January 27th. That building was near the Coptic merchant's property.

SHEASHAA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Abu Sheashaa says Suleiman's grown sons fired handguns into the air to try and disperse the crowd but the mob turned on them. They shouted insults at the Coptic family and demanded they leave the village they had lived in for two decades. The merchant's elderly wife, Um Suleiman, tears up as she recalls what happened next.

UM SULEIMAN: (Through Translator) They threw rocks through the windows and set our building on fire. I was sure we were going to die.

NELSON: Witnesses say police officers who came did nothing and watched from a distance. Instead, it was the Coptic merchant's Muslim neighbors and friends who intervened. They formed a protective cordon around the Christians and brought them to Magdy Abu Sheashaa's home.

SHEASHAA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Abu Sheashaa says a group of Muslim elders later came to express their sympathy to his Coptic friend. But they also urged him to move out like the mob was demanding. The elders said they felt it was no longer safe for Suleiman and his family to stay in Sharbat. So, the Coptic merchant and more than a dozen of his relatives left. They stayed with Muslim friends for a while then moved into a cramped apartment an hour's drive away. Suleiman's eldest son says they want to go back home.

SON OF UM SULEIMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But he adds they are afraid of being attacked again, even though a fact-finding committee sent by the Egyptian parliament to investigate decreed last week that the family has the right to live in Sharbat. Ihab Ramzy is a Coptic lawmaker who was a member of the fact-finding committee.

IHAB RAMZY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says he understands the family's fears. Ramzy adds that with Islamists coming to power here, there is a tremendous feeling of helplessness in the Coptic Christian community. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the strongest Islamist faction, has vowed to protect Christians and other minorities. And Egyptian experts and human rights activists say there is no evidence of any official or organized effort to terrorize Christians. Mahmoud Sabit is an Egyptian historian who lives in Cairo:

MAHMOUD SABIT: Is there an extremist wave that is identifying Christians and trying to drive them out of Egypt? Personally, I doubt it, but, you know, maybe I'm naive.

NELSON: Sabit says Copts get nervous when Islamist candidates talk about incorporating more Islamic law known as Sharia into Egyptian society.

SABIT: So this, I think, is one of their great fears, is a reversal and suddenly finding themselves as a, shall we say, a protected class within an emergent Islamist sort of style judiciary, possibly incorporating a lot more of the Sharia than has hereto been the case and finding themselves as second-class citizens.

NELSON: Most Copts, like the Suleiman family, refuse to discuss those fears publicly. But last December on a talk show on Egyptian TV, a Christian caller who gave her name as Mervat accused the guest, an ultra-conservative Salafist, of trying to drive Christians out of Egypt.

MERVAT: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The Coptic caller asks: What about our situation? She accuses Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who is a presidential candidate, of inciting hatred and violence by demanding women wear veils and Egyptians not drink alcohol. She argues if Christians don't comply, they'll be attacked. Coptic obstetrician Alfy Adly says such attacks are already happening in his hometown of Qena in the south.

ALFY ADLY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He recounts how a Salafist mob cut off the ear of a Coptic landlord and drove out the Coptic governor last year. He adds one extremist in his neighborhood has been stalking his family and has threatened to kill his daughter. Adly videotaped some of this on his cell phone:

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken)

NELSON: In the tape, the guy screams: I will kill her under the stairs here, I will show you. I swear to my mother I will kill you, you are dirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken)

NELSON: The man then breaks the door to Adly's house. Adly says he's gone to the police in Qena numerous times with such evidence, but nothing has been done. Nor has anyone been arrested for destroying the Suleiman family property up north in Sharbat. But the two sons of the Christian merchant were charged with firing their weapons in the air to try and disperse the mob. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an activist group, has been tracking attacks on minorities, including Christians. Its director, Hossam Bahgat, says he understands their frustration over the lack of justice. He says it's also troubling that some Christians are resorting to violence to fight back. But he adds the revolution has made Egyptians much more aware of interreligious strife and willing to help anyone being attacked.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: The positive sign, of course, is that there is an ever growing movement of primarily young people who are willing now to defend these values against any attack or pushback or move backwards.

NELSON: Bahgat says it's that kind of public pressure that prompted parliament to send a fact-finding committee to the northern village of Sharbat. He adds that would have never happened before last year's revolution. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.