EGYPT: Christian-Muslim Tensions Rise

  • by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani (cairo)
  • Thursday, July 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

'As long as Egypt's Christian community suffers from official bias by the state, inter-communal tensions will persist,' Naguib Gabriel, lawyer for Egypt's Coptic Church and head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights told IPS.

Interfaith relations have traditionally been peaceful in this country of 82 million, of which Christians are estimated to represent between six and 12 percent, although precise figures are difficult to ascertain. Most Christians belong to the Egyptian Orthodox, or Coptic, Church, while the rest of the national population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim.

Sectarian fighting is not, however, unheard of. In the first week of July, several unrelated altercations between members of the two communities were reported in different areas of the country.

In the Nile Delta province of Daqliya, an argument between a group of Christians and a Muslim man resulted in the death of the latter. The incident led to limited clashes between Christian and Muslim families in the area, which remains under tight government security.

In the nearby province Gharbia, several people were injured in a separate bout of inter-communal fighting after rumours circulated of a relationship between a local Christian woman and a Muslim man.

A few days later, six were injured in yet another case of sectarian unrest in the Middle Egyptian city Beni Sueif, which led to the arrest of 15 people from both sides. Clashes reportedly broke out after Muslims in the area objected to attempts by local Christians to establish a church without a licence.

'Recent violence confirms the continued existence of inter-confessional friction,' Nabil Abdel-Fattah, assistant head of the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS. 'It's reached the point that a trivial quarrel could potentially escalate into full-blown sectarian conflict.'

Most recently, on Jul. 24, four people were injured - including two policemen - after fights broke out between Christians and Muslims in the Upper Egyptian city Minya. In this case, too, disturbances ensued after a local Christian attempted to convert his home into a makeshift church without official permission.

According to Egyptian law, the construction of churches - unlike mosques - requires formal government approval. Many Copts complain that Christian communities face undue bureaucratic obstacles when trying to build or renovate their places of worship, while efforts to build mosques face little if any official obstruction.

'It's absurd that anyone would have to obtain a licence in order to simply practise their faith,' said Gabriel. 'Some 90 percent of the problems between Christians and Muslims can be attributed to the church-building issue.'

He went on to urge the government to pass legislation laying down comparable conditions for the building of mosques and churches.

Since its inception a few years ago, the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), too, has called for a single law governing the construction of all religious buildings in Egypt. 'But the NCHR's recommendation has yet to be implemented,' said Abdel-Fattah.

The issue has led to fatal consequences several times.

In early 2006, one person was killed and 14 injured - including several policemen - during sectarian violence in the village Udaysat, some 500 kilometres south of Cairo. In this case, too, hostilities flared after Coptic Christians tried building a church without a permit.

Again in the summer of 2007, 10 people were injured and dozens of Christian-owned homes and shops destroyed in the village Bemha, 70 kilometres south of Cairo, after Muslim residents tried to stop local Christians from building an unlicensed church.

In an effort to mollify Christian sentiment, a 2005 presidential decree gave provincial governors authority to grant permission for renovating or enlarging churches. Previously, permission had to be obtained directly from the President.

Critics, however, say the order has had little effect. 'The decree made no difference,' said Gabriel. 'Now, instead of the decision being held up by the President's office, it's held up by the local governor.'

Like many Coptic activists, Gabriel complains of an 'official bias' against Christians, pointing in particular to the under-representation of Christians in leading government and academic positions.

'The absence of Christian appointments to high positions within the state is well known,' he said. 'Yet last month, a parliamentary quota for female MPs was established by law, while the right of Copts to proportionate representation in the assembly continues to be ignored.

'This kind of marginalisation has only served to enflame sectarian resentments,' Gabriel added. 'The recent clashes are a reflection of this bias and persecution.'

According to Abdel-Fattah, claims of official bias or persecution - in the strict sense of the word - are unfounded. 'However, Egypt has seen some five decades of religious tension as a result of the government's flawed means of dealing with the issue.'

Abdel-Fattah went on, however, to concede the existence of several sectarian-related 'problems'. Along with the well-known difficulties associated with church building, these include the absence of Christian appointments to certain high state positions; declining Christian representation in parliament; and a degree of anti-Christian bias among low- level government employees.

'Yet all these problems are easily resolved, and experts - both governmental and non-governmental - have made numerous positive recommendations to this end,' said Abdel-Fattah. 'But state institutions appear to lack the political will or imagination to resolve them.

'So if widespread sectarian discord does ever break out in Egypt,' he added, 'it will be the fault of the state and the overall lack of intelligent lawmaking.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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