Over the past weekend, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Cairo resulted in 12 people killed, more than 230 wounded and at least 190 detained. The mayhem began Saturday in the form of an unruly mob of 500 ultraconservative Salafi Muslims swarming a Coptic church. The Salafis believed that a Christian woman in a relationship with a Muslim man was being held captive inside the church to prevent her conversion to Islam. This reasonable premise triggered a hail of rocks, firebombs and gunfire—from both sides. At least six of the dead are believed to be Muslim, but two churches were torched, and both are Coptic.
Violence between the two groups appears to have intensified in the vacuum created by the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but the sectarian animosity predates that lunge toward democracy. Back in January, a bomb exploded outside a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 New Year’s celebrants. Christian mobs attacked mosques and police, and sympathetic Muslims gathered to condemn the violence and show solidarity with their neighbors.
A lot has changed in Egypt, and in neighboring vicinities, since the brave demonstrations of solidarity that toppled Mubarak in February. Seeing that fabric of Muslim-Christian unity fraying at the edges, here are five factors to keep in mind.
1) The Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, are descendents of old, old school Christians. They trace their conversion to Saint Mark the Apostle’s evangelical excursion to Alexandria in the first century A.D. By 700 A.D., a Coptic majority populated Egypt. Soon after, Arab Muslims moved in, preaching Islam, and turned that balance upside down.
2) During the protests that overthrew Mubarak, Muslims and Christians stood sentry over one another as they prayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Following the departure of Mubarak’s regime, Egyptian Christians and Muslims assembled together to pray for those who died in the uprising. But these sentiments of unity may have been illusory. Yousef Sidhom, editor of Watani Weekly, Egypt’s largest Coptic newspaper, contends: “Official media like to describe attacks [on Copts] as terrorist crimes that Muslims and Copts have to unite against. The hidden fact is that Copts feel oppressed and neglected for three decades. They suffer discrimination in all aspects of life.”
3) A new generation of Coptic youth feels marginalized and discriminated against, despite being native Egyptians and ethnically indistinguishable from their Muslim countrymen. Coptic dissatisfaction is often expressed as a sense that their religion is under attack. This sentiment has its roots in a revival of Islamist ideologies in Egypt during the 1970s. Copts responded to what they saw as rising Islamic extremism in Egypt by withdrawing into a religiously segregated life. More than in previous generations, young Muslims and Copts have not shared educational, social, sports or entertainment activities.
4) Some Egyptians feel that sectarianism has been imported. Maged Botros, a professor of political science and senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, believes: “The Egyptian society 30 years ago did not know sectarianism. Egyptians who immigrated to the Gulf brought back religious extremism. The state fears that if they fulfill the rights of the Christians … the Muslim majority will revolt or act in violent ways. ”
5) The fights often seem to be about women. Salafists claim that, because the Coptic Church bans divorce, Coptic wives commonly convert to Islam to escape unhappy marriages. The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda cited the alleged abduction of Camilla Shehata—a priest’s wife—by Copts as reason for killing 68 people in a Baghdad church. On Saturday, while the rocks, bullets and firebombs flew in Cairo, Shehata, her husband and her child appeared on a Christian TV station to assert that she was and always had been an unconverted Christian, pleading: "Let the protesters leave the church alone and turn their attention to Egypt's future."