Egypt's Coptic Church Protests Discrimination
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Iraq isn't the only place in the region dealing with sectarian tension. In Egypt, the divide between Muslims and Christians took a violent turn over the weekend with a deadly bombing of a Coptic Christian Church in the coastal city of Alexandria. At least 21 people were killed and scores injured in the attack, which led to two nights of protest that have turned violent.
Egyptian police initially blamed the attack on foreigners, but now say it was likely the work of homegrown Muslim extremists, perhaps inspired by al-Qaida.
NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo and joined us to talk about this.
And Soraya, help us understand how this is all unfolding.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, as you mentioned there are protests that have turned violent that are continuing. The Coptic Christians say they will no longer tolerate things or incidents like this being swept under the rug. They want a stronger response from the government. They're lashing out at Muslims -at fellow Egyptians who are Muslims - who they feel are not welcoming of them or enveloping them, even though there are Muslims who are in solidarity with them, doing the protests and saying that they will in fact go and worship with them on January 7, which is the Coptic Christmas.
And so the tensions are rising, even though the incident is now a few days ago.
MONTAGNE: Give us a little background here. Christians in Egypt - it's an old community. Who are they exactly and where are they concentrated?
SARHADDI NELSON: Well, Egypt was actually Christian before it was Muslim, and these Christians come from a very old rite. It's known as the Coptic Church, it's an orthodox rite, started about the 1st century, and at the moment about one in 10 Egyptians is a Christian. They're concentrated basically along the Nile. In Cairo, in Alexandra, you find a lot of them.
And so they really are merged with the Muslims. They don't live separately. They're not a different ethnicity. They're just Egyptian Christians who never converted when Islam came to Egypt.
MONTAGNE: And Soraya, haven't Egyptian Christians long complained of discrimination?
SARHADDI NELSON: Absolutely. They in fact are discriminated against when it comes to jobs, when it comes to representation in government. You can convert to Islam but you can't convert to Christianity in this country. I mean, there definitely somewhat a built-in bias in the state, if you will.
And there have been assaults on Christian livelihoods, even, you know, the ones they do have. I mean, they are sort of relegated to the lower rungs of society in many cases.
And for example, in Cairo the garbage collecting community here is largely a Christian one. And during the swine flu epidemic, the government came in and killed all the swine, saying that this was a health threat. And the Christians felt that the health concern was sort of a flimsy excuse and this attacked their livelihood.
But it's important to note that many Muslims here actually do feel solidarity and feel protective of the Christians. I mean, they do feel that they're all sort of one. This attack has rallied people together. But it's important to also note that there is a lot of radicalism here as well and a lot of false rumors spread about Christians.
For example, that Christians are converting Muslims secretly and doing all sorts of things that sort of raise the ire or sensitivities on the Muslim sides, and the government doesn't seem to do anything to stop that.
MONTAGNE: And how is the government responding to this? I know Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, came out rather quickly with a statement about this.
SARHADDI NELSON: Yes. He got on television right away and said this is not an attack just on Christians, this is an attack - or on Copts, I should say - but this is an attack on all Egypt and we will get to the bottom to this. And he immediately pointed the finger - he described it(ph), a foreign finger as being involved.
Of course, now the security officials are looking at this being carried out by a local bomber or bombers. In fact, they're looking at some of the remains right now. And they say that these are potentially home-grown extremists. And again, they are investigating that angle at the moment.
But what's also happened is that the government has sort of reverted to its old tactics of suppressing anger or suppressing protests if you will, without really seeking justice. And so there's been quite a bit of violence, both by the people who are protesting throwing rocks and bottles, but also by the police, who are using batons and other methods and arrests to sort of squash this. They want this to sort of go away.
And this time, the Christians say, they won't put up with it.
MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.
SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Cairo.
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