Attack on Egypt's Christians Further Strains Muslim-Copt Ties

A recent attack on a Coptic funeral in Egypt by unknown assailants has further strained the already fragile relationship between Egypt’s Coptic minority and its Muslim majority, writes Ahmad Mustafa.

al-monitor Coptic Christians run from tear gas fired by police into the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral during clashes with Muslims standing outside the cathedral in Cairo, April 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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sectarianism, persecution, muslim, human rights, egyptian politics, egyptian opposition, egypt, christians

Apr 10, 2013

Cautious calm has prevailed in the vicinity of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, broken by few limited and sporadic renewed skirmishes between Copts and unknown individuals at dawn. The night before was extremely bloody, causing two deaths and injuring 89, according to a Ministry of Health media release. In addition, sectarian violence in the city of al-Khusus in the Qalyubia province, north of Cairo, broke out again [April 7], resulting in one death, adding to the five casualties from Saturday [April 6].

The vestiges of violent clashes are still quite visible from outside the tight security cordon around the cathedral. Rocks are everywhere on the streets; the traces of fire are obvious on the walls and trees of the cathedral. Adjacent buildings have had their share of damage as well, and surrounding cars are burned or smashed. All this time, the Copts have remained gathered inside and outside the cathedral compound.

As the stories about the flare-ups differed, the regime and the opposition exchanged accusations. What is certain, however, is that the clashes augur impending sectarian violence, especially since the police are unable to control the situation. In fact, police are accused of “sponsoring the clashes” after they failed to ensure security during the funeral service of four Christians killed in the clashes [April 7]. When security forces tried to interfere, the people became infuriated and showered the cathedral with gasoline bombs. A group of youths were reportedly seen hurling rocks at the Copts, who reciprocated, while the security forces stood by watching, without attempting to stop or disperse them.

The police, nevertheless, insist on holding the Copts responsible for the eruption of violence. Islamic parties supported the views of the police and disseminated video footage of Copts allegedly smashing cars and shop windows prior to the clashes.

Two days ago [April 7], Minister of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim, who arrived at the scene of the clashes, could not enter the cathedral after Copts poured out in rage, making Ibrahim leave.

Yesterday [April 8], President Mohammed Morsi telephoned Coptic Pope Towadros II to denounce the acts of violence, saying, “I consider any attack on the cathedral an attack against myself.” Morsi ordered an investigation into the clashes and said that results would be announced to the public.

While the clashes once again brought to light the demands to oust the government, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil stressed the importance of the “unity of the two fabrics of the nation — Copts and Muslims — within their homeland.” He said that the “presence of Muslims to comfort their Christian brothers over the cathedral misfortune was the truest sign of coexistence and solidarity that Egypt is well-known for.”

Qandil defended the security agencies, affirming that the police are “decisively dealing with these violations and enforcing the law on whoever tries to destabilize the country and incite division.” He offered his condolences to the families of the victims, vowing to “track down the perpetrators and instigators by means of an immediate investigation and bring them swiftly to justice.”

Official Islamic media outlets rushed to contain the repercussions. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque, sent his consultant to the cathedral to offer his condolences. In a statement, Tayeb urged Muslims and Christians to maintain “self-restraint and follow the voice of reason,” calling on both parties to “adhere to unity.” Mufti Shawki Alam called on the “rational and loyal citizens of Egypt to immediately interfere to mitigate sedition, to take all possible measures to distance the country from threats of tension and to preserve the national fabric at this delicate stage in the course of this beloved country.”

Alam offered his condolences to the families of al-Khusus and the cathedral victims, and called on Egyptians to “prioritize the country’s interests through solidarity, unity and harmony, in order to fend off sedition and confront those who pose threats to Egypt’s security and stability.” Alam said that “the acts of violence and the fomenting of crises between both communities of Egypt — Muslims and Christians — which are used to plunge the country into crisis, must be prevented with all our efforts and capacities.”

Spokesman of the Egyptian Catholic Church Father Rafic Greiche described the incidents as “unfortunate,” holding security agencies and officials responsible. Greiche noted that the “cathedral is a Christian icon in Egypt and is not a small chapel to be showered with tear gas like that. Security agencies should have foreseen the clashes and reinforced their personnel prior to the funeral service. What happened was a security failure.”

The United Council for Egyptian Churches (UNEC) condemned the attacks on St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral and announced in a brief statement that the council “vehemently denounces the attack on the cathedral, reiterates that houses of worship are a red line not to be crossed and demands that the security agencies immediately intervene.”

The opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) condemned the clashes and held the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi and the Ministry of Interior accountable for the violence. The NSF affirmed that eyewitnesses described the incidents as “premeditated and aimed at sparking sectarian strife in the country.” The NSF demanded an “independent, transparent investigation to convict the real instigators and perpetrators, as many citizens noted that individuals in different regions of Cairo are attempting to fuel sectarian strife.”

“The clashes that followed the al-Khusus incidents — in tandem with the public wrath against Muslim Brotherhood rule, their economic and social policies that are rendering Egyptians even poorer and their attempts to take over the state and its institutions to establish a party more dangerous than the dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) — serve as a distraction from the real enemy that is driving Egypt and its citizens into the abyss,” the statement added.

The NSF called on “Egyptians — including Muslims  and Christians — to open their eyes to the obvious conspiracies that are pushing Egyptians into internal conflicts and tearing the country apart.”

Moreover, the NSF asked the citizens to “stand shoulder to shoulder to thwart this condemned project and to build the Egypt they dreamt about during the Jan. 25 revolution. Such an Egypt is a state for all its citizens whose sole motto is: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

The Islamic Strong Egypt Party, led by Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, demanded the ousting of Qandil’s government, describing it as “a failure, an incompetent government.” Abul-Fotouh added, “If it remains in power, it will expose Egypt to further chaos and economic deterioration.”

“Clashes between Muslims and Christians in al-Khusus and in Abassiya are seen as a deliberate, permissive security failure that requires the immediate discharge of the minister of interior. The latter can no longer be trusted with the lives and security of Egyptians, especially given the attacks against the protesters,” said Abul-Fotouh in a statement.

He added that “a repetition of the sectarian events and the subsequent security vacuum pose a lot of questions.”

“Didn’t the Ministry of Interior already know the path of the funeral service of the victims of the al-Khusus incidents? Shouldn’t such sectarian incidents warrant strict security measures during the funeral to avoid sparking strife once again?” he wondered.

On the other hand, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed B adie said, “The attempts to spark sectarian crises in the country and to drag the Egyptian people to strife are desperate ones.”

He called on the security bodies to “tighten their grip on the situation and provide security for houses of worship and public and private facilities,” stressing that “all devotees must strongly deter strife.”

He added that “attacks targeting the security and stability of Egypt will fail. People, who know what their religion is really about — be they Muslims or Christians — would not commit such acts. Moreover, national Egyptian unity will not be broken, no matter how hard desperate insurgents try. Our national unity transcends all conspiracies.”

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the events that they said “developed in a suspicious fashion.”

In a stat ement, the FJP said that what is happening “confirms what we have often said, that there are dubious parties determined to cause discord and contention among citizens by fabricating confrontations to provoke religious sentiments, leading to widespread sectarian strife designed to drag the country into chaos that would benefit the enemies of Egypt and their associates, the corrupt criminals.”

The FJP also called on “the venerable Azhar institution and the Coptic church — as well as national and patriotic parties, movements and stakeholders — to take the lead, calm citizens and make them aware of the seriousness of being misled by attempts at provocation and subversion.” The party also called on “all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts to resist these systematic provocations, and resort only to the legal process to secure their rights and hold perpetrators accountable, whatever their religion, whatever their affiliations.”

The party also reiterated its “strong rejection and condemnation of any use of violence by any party,” demanding the security services to “quickly investigate and uncover the circumstances of the incidents and the scheme aimed at inciting sectarian strife.”

Coptic MPs in the Shura Council, which has temporary legislative authority, along with other opposition MPs, announced the start of an open-ended sit-in in parliament to protest against the violent incidents. The MPs on strike held a press conference in which they denounced the incidents. They also emphasized that “this is the first time in the history of Egypt that a cathedral has faced such violence.” They demanded the dismissal of the minister of interior and blamed the president for the numerous crises.

The semi-official National Council for Human Rights condemned the events in al-Khusus and the subsequent escalation of violence in front of the cathedral. The mostly Islamic council considered the incidents to be “unjustified,” noting, “There is no reason for the situation to blow up in this shameful way, unless there are deceitful hands meddling with the scene and trying to provoke strife and cause tension in the intimate relations among the citizens of the Egyptian nation.”

The US Embassy in Cairo condemned the violence, but praised in a statement Morsi’s promise to conduct a fair and transparent investigation into the incidents. The embassy also expressed its condolences to the families of the victims and stressed that “the role of the state is to protect all citizens, whatever their sects.”

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton indicated that she has followed, with great concern, the clashes between Muslims and Christians. She emphasized the importance of the intervention of the security forces to control the situation and restore calm and order in the country.

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