Clashes and coalitions: Christians and Muslims in Egypt

On March 11, the one-month
anniversary of former President Mubarak's resignation, thousands of Egyptians
took to the streets of Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria to celebrate national
unity and condemn sectarianism. The march was called by the same youth
coalition that launched the revolution. This time their slogan was "No to
sectarian strife."

Egyptians from all spectrums of
society were waving flags and banners reading "Muslims and Christians are one."
Hundreds of people held up crosses and copies of the Qur'an, chanting
"Christians and Muslims are one hand." Around the country, Muslim imams
addressed religious harmony in their Friday sermons. In Cairo's Tahrir Square, an
army general stood on the makeshift platform and lifted high the cross and the
Qur'an, saying to the massive crowed, "The crescent and the cross are one. We
are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian." In the now world-famous square,
Muslims and Christians prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt.

It was a peaceful and profoundly
heartwarming day. Yet these unity marches came after days of sectarian violence
in Egypt that included the burning of a church south of Cairo and clashes
between hundreds, if not thousands, of young Christians and Muslims. In an
impoverished Cairo suburb, 13 people were killed and more than 140 injured.

What is going on? How could
Egyptian Christians be attacked and a church burnt after Muslims and Christians
stood, fought and died together in Tahrir Square, where images of solidarity
between both faiths stirred the whole world? Just over a month ago, in a sign
of unity, Christians held a mass in Tahrir Square as Muslim protesters formed a
ring around them to protect them during the service. Christians did the same
for Muslims as they prayed.

As is often the case within
outbreaks of religious violence, the immediate reasons are complex and local.
The recent tensions originated in the village of Sol in Etfeeh, 90 kilometers south
of Cairo. A conflict had been brewing for months after it was discovered that a
Christian man had fallen in love with a Muslim woman. To clear the Muslim
family's name, a cousin in the family murdered the Muslim woman's father, which
led to the woman's brother (the son of the murdered father) avenging the death
of his father by killing his cousin. During the emotional funeral, some Muslims
blamed Christians for the murders, and they were incited to attack the nearby
church, known as the "Two Martyr's Church." The church was torched, and some
Christians fled their homes in fear.

On March 7, Coptic Christians
from the Manshiyet Nasr neighborhood of Cairo, a predominately Christian area
that is home to the city's garbage collectors, took to the streets to protest
the burning of the Sol village church. Some one thousand young Copts held a
demonstration to voice their anger, blocking two main roads and bringing
traffic on the east side of Cairo to a halt for two hours. Even though their
priest, knowing the potential for conflict, begged them to stop, the men
continued, burning tires and throwing rocks at passing cars.

Muslims from the adjacent
neighborhood heard that the Copts had already burned down a small mosque and
were coming to burn down the iconic Sayyida Aisha mosque. Violent clashes
erupted. Molotov cocktails and stones were thrown back and forth throughout the
night before the army was able to calm the situation. Seven Christians and five
Muslims where killed, with more than one hundred injured, in clashes that lasted into
the early morning of the following day. Several Coptic homes and businesses in
the area were also torched.

But the priest from the area
where the violence took place told the press that this was not a clash between
Muslims and Christians. "The attack was organized and [involved] guns," he
said. "Muslim residents [here] don't have weapons."

His comments reflect a
widespread view regarding this sectarian strife: that it is being orchestrated
by pro-Mubarak members of the State Security and by members of Mubarak's
National Democratic Party, bent on revenge and counterrevolution.

The former ruling party took advantage of all weaknesses in the
society, seeking to guide people's anger and keep their legitimate frustrations
at bay. Most Egyptians see the recent religious conflicts as a
counterrevolution plan targeting Coptic Christians, as they are the most
vulnerable and hence the easiest to mobilize against. By creating chaos,
instability and confusion, the secret police and the thugs of the former ruling
party aim to make possible the return of the former regime in coming elections.

On the recent "day of national
unity," Sheikh Muzhir Shahin from Omar Makram mosque delivered the sermon in
Tahrir Square. He warned of "hidden hands that are trying to ruin the nation"
by breeding tension between Muslims and Christians in order "to incite
sectarian tensions and waste the gains of the revolution." There is recent
evidence that the state security has infiltrated the Salafist movement (which promotes a
fundamentalist interpretation of Islam) and is using it to try to provoke a
counterrevolution. It was the Salafis who clashed with the Copts last week in

Other religious and political
leaders agree that a state security plot is underway. Bishop Theodyssius of
Giza, where the Great Pyramids are located, said that those who burned the
church in the village of Sol were "thugs and outlaws" attempting to cause
division and subversion. Father Filopateer, also of the Giza diocese, insisted
that the use of the words "sectarian tension" to depict the conflict is
incorrect. He sees the violence as instances of criminal acts, not the result
of religious tensions. The new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, warned this last
week of a counterrevolution threatening the country with sectarian strife
and subverting the nation's progress. 

The Muslim Brotherhood, the
largest opposition group in Egypt, has blamed the remnants of Mubarak's regime
for the recent religious clashes. In a statement, the group said, "These people
are operating under the principle of 'divide to conquer' and have incited a
group of Muslim extremists to bring up other sectarian issues." Even the Islamic
cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, president of the International Union of
Islamic Scholars, publicly condemned the attack on the Coptic church,
describing it as "the work of the devil." Al-Qaradawi asked Egyptians to
support the new government and called on different religious groups to unite in
rebuilding the country.

The outcry against the sectarian
tension—from almost all parties and religious groups in Egypt—has been most
impressive. Many concrete acts of support and solidarity have been shown toward
Coptic Christians as well.

The January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition sent representatives to
visit the village of Sol in Etfeeh, where they met with political and religious figures
in the village to help bring calm to the situation. The coalition has also
rounded up more than a thousand volunteers to assist in the rebuilding of the
church. Many Muslims have also
joined in solidarity with Copts who are protesting through a sit-in in front of
the state television headquarters in Cairo.

Following up on their promise to
rebuild the burned church and bring those behind the attack to justice, the
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces began reconstruction work on March 13. Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam
of Al-Azhar (the intellectual and spiritual heart of Sunni Islam), announced
that he will personally visit the village and promised that Muslims will help
in the reconstruction of the church.

The most prominent visit to Sol was
from a special delegation of key Muslim and Coptic figures, including famous
Salafi Muslim cleric Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, Coptic political activist George
Ishaq and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al-Beltagy. They met the heads of
the Muslim and Christian families and visited Copts' houses. But perhaps most
moving of all was the visit by television lay preachers Amr Khaled, one of the
most popular preachers in the Muslim world (he is often called the "Muslim
Billy Graham"). A week after the church burning, Khaled preached in the main
mosque in Sol, challenging his listeners as follows: "And my message here today
for Mulsims and the Christians is: Let's be one hand. Each one of the people
here in Sol has to do something. First we must each stop this problem in our
own homes." Many villagers responded to Khaled by chanting slogans calling for

The interfaith youth movement
that led the revolution paved the way for the future. While it may be a long
and hard road to a new Egypt, the unity demonstrations were an encouraging
counter to the sectarian violence of last week. The spirit of interfaith
solidarity is still alive. It was notably illustrated at the close of Prime
Minister Sharaf's nationwide television interview. Tearing up, Sharaf mentioned
that he had just received two phone calls, one immediately following the other.
The first was from an Egyptian on the Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj) in Saudi Arabia
who promised to pray for him. The second was from a Christian friend of his
son's who said that he and his fiancée light a candle every day for him in


A shorter version of this article appears in the April 5 print edition.

Paul-Gordon Chandler

Paul-Gordon Chandler was rector at St. John's Church/Maadi in Cairo and is the author of Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths.

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