Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2011
Issue No. 1047
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sectarianism rears its ugly face

Anger and anxiety have spread across the country following fierce sectarian clashes in Imbaba that claimed 15 lives, Amira Howeidy reports

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A Coptic Christian inspects a mosaic inside Mar Mina church which was set on fire during clashes in the Imbaba neighbourhood on Saturday

Restoration of the Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba, the lower class district north of Cairo, which was looted and burnt in the late hours of Saturday 7 May by a mob of angry Muslims, is expected to begin soon, according to officials. The strong smell of charred wood that originally covered the walls, ceiling and floor of the church before they were set ablaze will continue to fill the church until it is replaced, the church freshly painted and floored. Renovation is expected to take several weeks or more. But nobody can predict the amount of time it will take for the emotional, political and sectarian damage done by the church attack to heal.

Fifteen people were killed and approximately 240 injured in sectarian clashes that erupted on Saturday afternoon after a group of Muslims attempted to enter Mar Mina Church in Imbaba's Luxor Street in search of a Christian woman who converted to Islam and was believed to be held captive there. The church rejected the accusation, but the woman's alleged Muslim husband insisted. The situation escalated quickly and a violent skirmish followed when some Copts started shooting at the crowd, which retaliated. Six Muslims and six Copts were killed right there as an exchange of fire, Molotov cocktails and rocks terrorised the area in scenes that resembled a civil war. Another three died in hospital. It's unclear why, after it was almost over, a group of Muslims then decided to march to another church -- the Virgin Mary -- that is a few kilometres away to burn.

Muslim and Coptic eyewitnesses in Imbaba who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said the police and army were notified of the clashes as they were breaking out, but the police only showed up after the first church was attacked. They insisted that the two kilometre march from Mar Mina to the Virgin Mary, where a crowd of angry Muslims, some bearded, some dubbed "Salafi", and "many thugs" carrying knives, guns and Molotov cocktails, passed uninterrupted by the military police.

Details of the investigations that emerged through the week pointed an accusatory finger at "remnants" of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) for provoking the violence. The Interior Ministry said it arrested the "mastermind" behind the violence, without naming him. Prosecutors said that the man who alleged to be the convert's husband was arrested together with a Coptic businessman, a member of the NDP with a "record" in inciting sectarianism, and who started the shooting.

Some 190 people were arrested Saturday evening, according to a statement issued by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces in the early hours of Sunday. The statement said all 190 would be referred to military courts. But on Monday, a government spokesman said only 26 would be tried before a state security (civilian) court. On Tuesday, prosecutors said that 23 more were arrested in connection with the clashes. In the same vein, the Interior Ministry said it arrested 10 "Salafis" for uploading video clips online that incited attacks on churches. Salafist groups embrace a literal understanding of Islam.

The attacks triggered shockwaves across the nation, as the spectre of wider sectarian escalation loomed large. A group of 15 human rights groups went as far as suggesting that Egypt could be at the brink of "civil war" in a statement issued Monday.

In Imbaba -- one of the most densely populated areas in Egypt with a history of sectarian conflict -- anti-Muslim sentiments ran high. "Did we ever attack a mosque?" screamed a young man who was standing in a crowd of angry Copts in front of the Virgin Mary Church on Sunday morning. "We don't resort to violence, because it's against our religion," he added.

Inside the Virgin Mary Church, a late morning service in the third floor was proceeding in silence, interrupted only by occasional sobbing. A pool of water from the previous night's attempts to extinguish the fire covered the entire ground floor, which was completely torched. It was there that the body of the church's guard, Salah, 38, who was reportedly shot in the shoulder, was found. "It was scorched," the church's priest, Metias Elias, told the Weekly.

The dual attacks of Saturday are set against a backdrop of recent sectarian violence in the country. In March, a church in the village of Sol in south Cairo was completely destroyed following a dispute between a Coptic and Muslim family because of a romantic affair between a man and a woman from the two sides. It was followed by angry rioting in east Cairo that left 13 Copts and Muslims dead and 140 injured. Although the two incidents had no connection to them, the events fed growing fears of the rise of Salafi groups who were persecuted under Mubarak's regime and now -- in post-revolution Egypt -- enjoy unprecedented freedoms.

These fears were exacerbated after Salafis held a large demonstration two weeks ago in front of the Coptic Cathedral to demand that the release of a Christian woman -- Camilia Shehata -- they believe converted to Islam but was held captive by the church against her will.

Ironically, when Camilia finally decided to make her first TV appearance, she did so Saturday on a Christian channel, denying that she converted to Islam. A few hours later, the violence in Imbaba ensued in search for Abeer, another convert "sister". The crowd that gathered in front of the Virgin Mary Church after the attacks was deeply sceptical, dismissing her existence as "a myth" and excuse to attack Copts. They were equally suspicious of the ruling military council's "intentions".

"They never brought the culprits of the March attacks on Copts to justice," Said Abdu El-Adawi, a carpet shopkeeper, told the Weekly. "How can we trust them?"

His sentiments seem to reflect the general mood within the Coptic community and also a growing fear among Muslims as well. The statement issued by 15 rights groups on Monday accused the authorities of laxity and blamed the security apparatus's indifference for the violence. Several op-eds took it further, calling on the army to impose martial law, refer civilians to military trials, and extend an "iron fist". The sentiment has been promoted by the volatile security situation since the revolution: thug attacks on hospitals were reported in April in addition to recurring attacks on police stations to free convicts.

But it turns out Abeer Talaat exists. The 25- year-old woman from Upper Egypt was interviewed by Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya website Monday. She was quoted as saying that she was indeed held captive in Mar Mina Church after she converted to Islam last year to escape her husband's abuses. In this interview, and in a series of phone interviews with evening talk shows on Monday and Tuesday, Abeer said her family handed her over to the church in early March to persuade her to return to Christianity. She handed herself over to the military on Tuesday evening. Despite the revelations that came with Abeer's interviews, which implicate the church, her story now appears irrelevant.

"It doesn't justify the attack on the churches, nor the loss of life," Nasser Amin, a member of a fact-finding mission for Imbaba formed by the National Council for Human Rights, told the Weekly. "What happened on Saturday is tantamount to a war crime," he added.

Diaa Rashwan, a prominent researcher on Islamic movements and another member of the fact-finding committee, said Egypt's economy is reeling from the overall state of lawlessness. "Egypt lost $7 billion Bahrain was going to give us when Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelled a scheduled visit earlier this week to attend to the sectarian violence," said Rashwan.

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