Wednesday, March 09, 2011


"CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's military rulers urged national unity and warned of the dangers of anarchy Wednesday after 13 people were killed in the worst Christian-Muslim violence since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power. A new cabinet met for the first time and decided it would on Thursday redeploy the police force which largely disintegrated in the first days of the uprising that swept Mubarak from the presidency and left the military in control.

The Health Ministry said 13 people were killed and 140 wounded in sectarian violence Tuesday ignited by tensions that have built up since an arson attack on a church south of Cairo Saturday. The strife poses another challenge to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which has been governing with a depleted police force and wants to hold elections within six months so it can relinquish power.

In a meeting with members of the cabinet, the military council urged citizens to unite and warned against chaos "which threatens national security, especially with the existence of foreign forces targeting the country's stability and security."

The state news agency did not elaborate on the council's reference to foreign threats, but said the meeting had addressed "sectarian strife" and its impact on the nation and economy. Egyptians took pride in the Christian-Muslim solidarity displayed during the revolution that toppled Mubarak on February 11 and hoped the uprising had buried tensions that have flared up with increasing regularity in recent years. It was not clear how many of the dead from Tuesday's violence were Christian or Muslim. The trouble had started on a Cairo highway where Christians had been protesting over the arson attack on the church south of the capital....

Hundreds of people faced off in the violence, hurling petrol bombs and rocks, witnesses said. Injuries included head wounds, bullet wounds and broken limbs, the state news agency quoted a senior Health Ministry official as saying. At least one of the dead, an 18-year-old Christian, had been shot in the back.

It was not clear who had opened fire. The military, trying to restore order, had opened fire in the air at one point. "The supreme military council, the government and civil society must react because we do not want this to escalate and I fear we may return to the dark tunnel of sectarian tension," said Amr Hamzawy, an analyst and part of the reform movement. The attack on the church was triggered by a family dispute over a romance between a Muslim woman and a Christian man. Similar stories have triggered strife in the past".

Dina Zayed & Yasmine Saleh, "Egypt Sectarian strife kills 13, army sees threat," Reuters. 9 March 2011, in

"'The Copts are the origin of this country…we treat the guests who came and lived here nicely…but we are ready to die as martyrs if anyone touches our Christian message.”
“The Coptic Church is not [merely] a parallel republic in Egypt…it is an empire.”

These two statements do not come from Jihadist or radical Coptic websites. Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Bishoy, the Secretary of the Church Council and a possible successor to Pope Shenouda, made the first on September 15, 2010. The second is a response from Dr. Muhammad Selim al-Awa, a moderate Islamist intellectual and lawyer, speaking on al-Jazeera later the same day. The exchange shows the level of socio-religious polarization that plagued Egypt months before the January 1 bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria (killing 23 and injuring dozens) and the January 11 shooting (killing one and injuring 5) aboard a train in Upper Egypt.

The sad story of unraveling social cohesion in Egypt goes back decades. Despite official lip service to “national unity,” rulers of Egypt since 1952 have had an uneasy relationship with religious minorities. The Arab-Israeli conflict had disastrous repercussions for the Egyptian Jewish community: an indiscriminate crackdown by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime following the 1954 Lavon Affair (a covert Israeli operation involving Egyptian Jews) and the 1956 Suez Crisis, leading ultimately to the migration of nearly all Jews from Egypt. Then came the issue of the Baha’is, a tiny minority that was recognized as a distinct religion in 1924 during Egypt’s liberal era, before Nasser’s regime rescinded their legality in 1960. Baha’is have been struggling for legal acceptance ever since. And let us not forget the Shi’a, termed the “agents of Iran” in an infamous 2006 statement by President Mubarak.

The Coptic Orthodox Christians are by far the largest religious minority, and their relations with post-1952 Egyptian regimes have waxed and waned. Less explored but also relevant and complex is their relation with Egypt’s strongest opposition, the various currents of the Islamist trend....

Egypt’s sectarian crisis is rooted in the absence of four factors: equal citizenship rights (regardless of religion); a constitutional right to freedom of belief and worship; a transparent, accountable government; and a comprehensive, transparent strategy for promoting social cohesion. Such a strategy should avoid reliance on intervention by security forces, forced disappearances, torture, and other repressive methods, which seem to be the pillars of the current socio-religious “cohesion” strategy. Copts and other Egyptians directed their post-attack anger against the regime for reasons far beyond the fact that there were weak security arrangements around the Two Saints Church at a time of high tensions. Rather it was the unwillingness of the regime to uphold any of the aforementioned rights, even if such measures were rationalized as necessary to preempt terrorism. The unresolved crisis of Egypt remains one of democracy rather than of religion".

Omar Ashour, "Copts, Brothers, Salafis, and Autocrats: the Alexandria bombing and Egypt's unresolved crisis," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," 12 January 2011, in

On this Ash Wednesday the only thing that one can say about the news out of Egypt is that if Muslim extremists, and their supporters in or out of government will have their way, there will be as many Christians in Egypt, as there currently are Jews. Id est none. Given the fact that the Christian population of Egypt pre-dates the Muslim one by about half a millennium, it would be a horrible crime and injustice if this is allowed to happen. Indeed, the recent events in Egypt are not without parallel in the rest of the Near and Middle East 1. The most horrible example being of course in 'liberated' Iraq, where most of the Christian population has been expelled and or driven out of the country by violence 2. And unlike Ashour, I am for one quite skeptical that the now 'free' Egypt, will not indeed see an increase, as we have already just seen, in anti-Christian violence. Blaming outgoing, admittedly authoritarian regimes for sectarianism is of a piece with the prior, Arab Nationalist ideological rhetoric that was prevalent in the 1950's and 1960's. Followed by (in the case of Algeria) by the wholesale expulsion of the entire European communities in say Algeria. As well as the already mentioned expulsions of the Jewish populations from almost every Arab country in the entire region. One may only hope that the Western, Christian powers will in conjunction with the Holy See exercise sufficient diplomatic influence on the governments in the region. Before matters take an extreme course.

1. On this see: Justus Reid Weiner, "Palestinian crimes against Christian Arabs," June / July 2010, in Christian Order, pp. 15-28.

2. On this see, Joshua Landis' own comments, in: "Why Tunisia is unlikely in Syria," Syria Comment. 15 January 2011, in


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