Churchgoers targeted after Coptic Christmas Eve mass in apparent payback for alleged rape of Muslim girl by Christian
-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - January 2010
Clashes between thousands of protesters and riot police shook Egypt yesterday after six Coptic Christians were murdered, prompting some of the worst sectarian violence the country has seen.
The victims were gunned down in a drive-by shooting as they emerged from church in the early hours of the morning following a Coptic Christmas Eve mass. Egypt's interior ministry said it believed the attack, in the southern town of Naga Hammadi, 40 miles north of Luxor, was in revenge for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man last year. A Muslim security guard was also killed.
"It is all religious now," said the church's Bishop Kirollos. "This is a religious war, about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt."
By daybreak hundreds of Christians had gathered at the morgue where the bodies of the dead were being held, chanting anti-government slogans and facing down security forces who fired tear gas and bullets in an effort to disperse the crowd. Stones were thrown at police and a number of ambulances were destroyed by protesters. By lunchtime the number of demonstrators had swelled as locals flocked to attend the funeral of the dead, held in the same church where they were shot the night before, and sporadic rioting broke out across the area.
Pakinam Amer, a journalist for the al-Masry al-Yom website who was at the funeral, said the scene outside the church resembled a war zone. "There were tanks parked on the street and huge lines of riot police on either side, some with machine guns," she said. "All around lampposts were snapped, cars were destroyed and shop-fronts smashed in."
Egypt's Coptic population, which celebrates Christmas on 7 January, is the largest Christian community in the Middle East and is thought to number almost 10 million. Copts have often complained of discrimination against them from Egypt's Muslim majority, particularly over acquiring permits for the construction or maintenance of churches. Although several Christians have attained prominent positions in Egypt's political and business elites, violence between Muslim and Christian communities has repeatedly broken out in poor and rural areas, often triggered by land disputes, and only this week a new committee was formed to highlight the government's "neglect" of Coptic rights.
"Egypt has recently witnessed an unprecedented escalation of sectarian violence against peaceful citizens based on their Christian identity," the National Committee for Combating Sectarian Violence said in a statement, less than 48 hours before the shooting. "Neither President Hosni Mubarak, nor prime minister Ahmed Nazif have ever addressed the concerns of Christians regarding the repeated assaults on them."
Some political analysts believe the growth in sectarian tensions has been fuelled by the political failings of the ruling regime, which has faced increased domestic dissent in recent years. "This was not an isolated incident," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, director of history and social studies at Cairo's al-Ahram Centre. "It has emerged out of the decay of national unity in Egypt, which in turn has arisen through the extensive exploitation of religion by politicians. There has been an attempt by the government and the bureaucratic apparatus to encourage Islamisation in an effort to hide their own lack of legitimacy."