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In Egypt, Christian-Muslim Tension Is On The Rise

A Coptic Christian man holds a cross made of flowers during a clash between Christians and Muslims in Cairo in November. Relations are becoming more strained between the two communities, and there has been periodic violence.
Khalil Hamra
A Coptic Christian man holds a cross made of flowers during a clash between Christians and Muslims in Cairo in November. Relations are becoming more strained between the two communities, and there has been periodic violence.

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.

They threw rocks through the windows and set our building on fire. I was sure we were going to die.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.