MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
We are keeping a close watch on developments in Egypt in the aftermath of the revolution there in February. Many who took part in the uprising there hoped it would lead to improved relations between the country's Muslim majority and the Christian minority, but religious tensions have gotten even worse in some cities.
One hotspot is the southern city of Qena. There have been several attacks on Christians by Islamist extremists. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Qena recently and brings us this story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Qena is a rural governorate renowned for its sugar cane fields. But its capital by the same name has a surprisingly cosmopolitan feel.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)
SARHADDI NELSON: Veiled Muslim girls in loose-fitting clothes chat with unveiled Christian friends wearing short sleeves as they amble past fancy shops.
MUSTAFA HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Resident Mustafa Hussein, a liberal activist and a Muslim, says tribal ties are what count here. But he and Coptic friend Hala Helmy Botros, also an activist, worry this city could be torn apart by growing religious strife. They blame that on hardline Islamists who call themselves Salafis.
HALA HELMY BOTROS: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Botros says since the revolution, extremist Salafi gangs have been trying to impose their brand of Islamic law. She claims the Egyptian police do nothing to stop them, even though the gangs are linked to the deaths of two Copts here and the maiming of a third. Botros says the extremists post decrees warning they will chop off the hair of any girl who walks around unveiled.
GIHAN SAAD: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Fellow Copt Gihan Saad says people quickly tear down such posters. But she still is uneasy. The 32-year-old nurse says she used to feel safe living in their all-Muslim neighborhood. Now she is afraid to let her fifth-grade daughter go outdoors.
Christian landlord Ayman Dmitry is another one who refuses to go out since a dozen men with long beards attacked him inside an apartment.
AYMAN DMITRY: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Dmitry says they hit him with their fists and sticks. He says they tried spitting on the tiny cross tattooed on his right wrist, but that he pulled away. That earned him a deep knife cut on his arm.
Dmitry says his attackers told him they were punishing him for renting the apartment to two Muslim sisters. They claimed the girls were prostitutes, a charge he denies. They accused him of improper relations with a third sister, whom Dmitry says he met only once. He says his attackers told him they would let him go if he converted to Islam. When he refused, they held him down and cut off his right ear.
DMITRY: (Through translator) It's unspeakable, this injustice. It's bearable only because I managed to defy them and stand up for Christ. But I'm deformed now, so I don't go out.
SARHADDI NELSON: No one has been charged in the attack. Everyone interviewed for this story claims the police in Qena either fear the gangs or are in cahoots with them.
MOUSSA BORIS GIBRIL: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Dmitry's priest, Father Moussa Boris Gibril, says the authorities and local Muslim leaders pressured their Coptic counterparts and relatives of the victim to form a reconciliation commission.
The priest says five days later the matter was declared resolved, although Dmitry and his family are far from satisfied.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
SARHADDI NELSON: Across town, several Salafis who say they are spokesmen for the fundamentalist movement in Qena acknowledge that sectarian tensions are rising. But they disavow any connection to the gangs.
MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: One spokesman, who gave his name as Mahmoud, denies that the Salafis are trying to impose Islamic law.
His friend, Dr. Mostafa Mohamed Abdou, says Salafis are more public now because the revolution made them free to speak out. He says Christians in Qena have nothing to fear.
MOSTAFA MOHAMED ABDOU: (Through translator) All my neighbors are Copts. You can ask them how Mostafa treats them and they'll tell you always well. We all live here. That's why we favor reconciliation to handle any problems that arise.
SARHADDI NELSON: Back in Cairo, human rights activists aren't convinced. Hossam Bahgat heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks sectarian violence. He says Egypt's military rulers are wrong to ignore such attacks.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: We want to see a proper prosecution of the criminals that attacked a Christian citizen in Qena. Without holding the perpetrators accountable and compensating the victims, we will never see a real decline in sectarian tensions and sectarian violence in our society.
SARHADDI NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.