Christian-Muslim tensions

An interesting news item that most probably won't make the Egyptian press: Al Jazeera reported yesterday [arabic] that there had been a demonstration inside Cairo's Abbassiya cathedral, a key church in the capital. According to their report, the demonstration took place during the funeral of Said Sonbol, an important columnist, which many prominent personalities attended. The demonstrators, who were Christians, were protesting the conversion of a Christian woman (and possibly a priest's wife) in the province of Beheira in the Delta. They said that she had been kidnapped and forcibly converted and that the local police had ignored their pleas for help. One of the dignitaries who was there, presidential advisor Osama Al Baz, reportedly pacified the crowd by telling them that the authorities would look into it.

At the same time, they were Muslim-Christian riots in a village in the Minya region in Middle Egypt after a Christian community center was built, which Muslims in the village feared would become a mosque. These tensions can be explosive in the south of Egypt, where there are many mixed communities and the politics of church and mosque construction are very delicate.

Egyptian state media doesn't like to report these things because of the importance it puts in maintaining the image of good sectarian relations. And while these tensions are not nearly as bad as some Coptic activists (notably the rather loony Copts.com), who see every zoning regulation as a conspiracy against church-building, but there is no denying that at a local level there can be discrimination. The Egyptian authorities tend to complicate matters by taking a rather heavy-handed approach to sectarian tensions, cracking down with paramilitary troops and closing off entire villages.

I just noticed that Copts.com has a story on this, including an appear by its president, the neo-con Michael Meunier: “Only President Bush’s personal intervention can help prevent the escalation of these hate crimes into full-fledged cultural genocide.” Talk about hyperbole.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.