Christian-Muslim Violence in Egypt
In upper Egypt, a Muslim young man is dead after clashes between Muslims and Christians in a village in Minya province. There are said to be 20,000 Muslims and 500 Coptic Christians in Dimsha Hashim, and the Christians have to travel a couple of miles to the nearest church. Apparently one of the Copts had a plan to turn a private house into a church, provoking the protest by a gang of young Muslim men.
Egypt still has on its books an Ottoman-era law restricting church building to Christian-majority areas and requiring government permission, and generally Copts face a certain amount of discrimination in Egyptian society, though in general their right to life, property and worship is recognized.
Note that restrictions on the building of religious edifices by minorities are common in Eurasia. Muslims in Greece, e.g., need special permission to build mosques, and the plan to build one in Athens has been controversial. Even in the United States, Muslim communities have often faced difficulties in getting permission to build mosques or cemeteries from local municipal or county authorities.
Although about 6% of Egypt’s 70 million inhabitants are Coptic Christians, they live disproportionately in the south of the country, called Upper Egypt, and in some places in that region they form substantial populations and are economically and politically powerful. Christian-Muslim conflict is common there, and is intertwined with clan feuds.
The combination of Christian-Muslim conflict and a tradition of clan feuding has also contributed to particular success for radical Muslim groups in recruiting students in Upper Egypt to al-Jihad al-Islami, the organization that later joined with Bin Laden to form al-Qaeda. The jihadis have targeted Coptic Christians, but the government has generally intervened against the radical Muslim fundamentalists.
The Coptic Christian church goes back to the early centuries of the Common Era and is often recognized as “indigenous” in Egyptian nationalism, since the Copts are felt to be the descendants of Pharaonic Egyptians who converted to Christianity, and so are contrasted with the “Arabs.” (In reality, of course, all Egyptians are a mixture of Nile Valley, African, Arab and other groups). Copts have a special place in the mythology of Egyptian secular nationalism, therefore. But for Muslim fundamentalists they are problematic and often suspected (wrongly) of being stalking horses for Western imperialism (in fact Copts played a key role in anti-British agitations that led to Egypt’s independence of London in 1922).
Egyptians are considering the possibility of constitutional and political change as the Mubarak era begins to draw to a close. On Thursday the left-leaning Tagammu Party called for an end to the government’s emergency decrees, a sort of martial law that suspended key elements of the Egyptian constitution, on the grounds that they were blocking economic and social development (-ash-Sharq al-Awsat). Among the needed changes, Egypt needs to reform its laws to grant complete freedom of religion and to stop discrimination against minorities.