Church towers standing in the shadow of mosques symbolise how Christians in the southern town of Nagaa Hamady feel about their relationship with Egypt’s Muslim majority that turned violent this month.
The government said the shooting of six Christians on the eve of Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7 was an isolated case, using its stock phrase for the latest act of sectarian violence.
Such killings are rare, but many Christians who make up some 10% of Egypt’s 78 million people feel they do not get equal treatment and complain the government is not doing more to quash sectarianism for fear of Islamist reprisals.
“The government gives us a hard time letting us build a church, and as soon as it is built, they build a mosque next to it,” said a 40-year-old Coptic owner of a bakery store from the town, still in mourning from a Christmas eve killings.
Like other Copts in Nagaa Hamady, he asked for his name not to be used, wary of publicly discussing the shooting that was blamed on an alleged rape by a Christian man of a Muslim girl.
“This accident is not due to a rape incident or a love affair by the way. This incident was fuelled by hidden feelings of hate from extremist Muslims against Christians whom they view as infidels,” the baker said.
Egypt’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders talk of sectarian harmony, but tensions between the two communities can erupt into criminality and violence, usually sparked by land disputes or inter-faith relationships.
Analysts say such incidents will become more common if the government does not firmly address Christian grievances, like complaints about laws making it easier to build a mosque than a church and about an Islamic-focused school curriculum.
“Around 70 percent of the clashes that happened between Muslims and Christians in Egypt since 1971 resulted from inequality between regulations to build churches and those to build mosques,” human rights activist Hafez Abou Saeda said.
A rise in such violent outbursts has coincided with a surge in Islamist movements since the 1970s, analysts say.
The government quashed an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s and remains wary of any group with Islamist leanings.
“There is a fear of extremist religious currents exploiting and drawing in foreign countries, which is why the government is hesitant to take steps on rules on equality for Muslims and Christians,” Abou Saeda said.
Building a church requires a governor’s permission while the construction of a new mosque needs no such official procedures. Christians also complain about the school system.
Dressed in black
“Education has been Islamised,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. “All school curriculums are given through the logic of Islam.”
Government officials and members of the ruling National Democratic Party dismiss talk of discrimination or bias.
“The Nagaa Hamady incident has no religious base and is a horrible crime conducted by a criminal,” NDP Member of Parliament Mohamed Khalil Kwaitah said, adding all of Egypt’s citizens were equal in the eyes of the law and treated fairly.
Top Coptic clerics defend the state’s even hand, and Muslim government representatives, including President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, regularly attend the Christmas service in Cairo.
But this year’s celebrations were held under a cloud. About a week on from the Nagaa Hamady shooting, Christian shops in the town were shut and Christmas cakes untouched in bakery windows.
Women were dressed in black, matching the uniforms of state security who were out in force in the town, ready to respond to any new protest to follow those sparked by the killings.
The deaths led to protests in the town with Muslims and Christians setting each other’s homes ablaze. Anger spread to Cairo, where some 2000 Copts gathered in a cathedral last week chanting: “Mubarak why are you silent? Are you with them?”
A Muslim taxi driver dismissed talk of tension in Nagaa Hamady, where many wealthier citizens are Christian. “We all know each other by name here,” he said. But he too did not want his own name to be published.
Some in the Coptic Church, which traces its roots to early Christians in Egypt before Islam arrived, are more outspoken.
“There are people in government who are capable of spreading correct cultural concepts and teaching people the principle of accepting the other but the government is not letting them do so,” said Father Anglos from Egypt’s North Coast resort of Marina.
In 2007, hundreds of Copts protested and clashed with police and 11 Copts were detained in Marina when the government wanted to revoke the licence of the resort’s only church. Mubarak resolved the issue by granting the church a licence.
Christians, like Muslims, span the classes in Egypt. Telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, one of Egypt’s richest men, is a Copt, as is the finance minister. At the other end of the spectrum, many of Cairo’s rubbish collectors are Christians.
Pic: Egypt, Alexandra Mosque