Egypt's Christians see bias in pig slaughter

Cairo, Egypt - The Egyptian government is using swine flu as an excuse to get rid of tens of thousands of pigs raised by garbage collectors who live amid the refuse in Cairo slums. But the move has prompted accusations Monday that Muslims are attacking minority Christians, who breed the animals.

The government last week ordered the slaughter of all the country's 300,000 pigs as a precaution against swine flu, even though no cases have been reported in the country. But after the World Health Organization criticized the measure as entirely unnecessary, the government expanded the rationale for the slaughter to confront a long-standing hygienic problem posed by pigs and garbage dumps in the midst of densely populated areas of the capital.

An estimated quarter of a million people in Cairo, primarily poor Christians, make their living from garbage collecting and raising pigs in city slums. They collect the refuse, dump it in the courtyards of their house and comb through it for material recycled in crude workshops nearby while the animals feed on food waste.

Islam forbids Muslims from eating pork because pigs are considered unclean. With pig raising and consumption almost entirely confined to Christians, some see the slaughter as having religious overtones.

The city's garbage collectors say destroying pigs is an attack on their livelihood that will only further impoverish them and they clashed violently with police on Sunday as government workers came to haul the animals away for slaughter.

"This is all because we are Christians. This is the only reason," said one middle-aged garbage collector in Cairo, evoking a common sentiment. He would not give his name because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million and for the most part live in harmony with the country's Muslims, though they occasionally complain over discrimination.

The government denies the slaughter has anything to do with Muslim distaste for pork and maintains that new, hygienic pig farms using imported animals will be set up in two years time.

But Adel Hammouda, the chief editor of the weekly al-Fagr and a Muslim, picked up on the religious undertones in his column this week entitled "Sectarian flu in Egypt."

"They found in this black epidemic their golden opportunity to wage their religious war against Christianity, hiding behind the pigs," he wrote.

Egyptian Christian groups in the U.S. have also condemned the move as singling out Christians and targeting their economic lifeline.

"The question is why the government decided to destroy all Egyptian swine? The answer is simple, it's part of the forced Islamization which has been planned for over 50 years," said Archbishop Ashraf Ramelah, head of the U.S.-based Voice for Copts, as Egypt's Christians are known.

The government maintains that it has long been working to move the pig farms out of these slums because their steady diet of scraps and the city's organic refuse, is unhygienic.

According to Isaac Mikhail, the head of Garbage Collectors' Association, pig farmers want to move out of the slums to cleaner pastures, but have been prevented by the local municipality.

"If the government had moved us ten years ago, we wouldn't have faced this problem now. People are desperate to move to healthier location," he said. "We want to separate the pigs from the birds from the humans to prevent the virus."

Other critics of the government decision have pointed out that removing the pigs does not address another major part of the health hazard—the massive piles of rotting garbage in the slums.

Egyptian officials say they have killed about 700 pigs so far and they insist they are pressing ahead with slaughter of all swine in the country despite the mounting criticism.

The World Health Organization says the H1N1 virus that sickened 1,000 people around the world and killed 27 is being spread by humans, adding that pork products are safe to eat.

Egypt's decision threatens to devastate the country's largely Christian-run pork industry in Egypt. Girgis Youssef Boulis, the head of pork producer Ramsis Meats, said pork accounts for about 30 percent of the country's total meat production.

"There is a 100 percent impact on sales. They've ground to a halt," said Boulis, whose company—one of the largest pork producers in Egypt—employs about 100 people and runs state of the art farms in the countryside.

"If this continues, one of the first things that I will think about is layoffs," he said. "But more than that, there are the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people at stake in this industry, from the farmers, to the producers, to the workers and the drivers who deliver the meat."

"I've invested millions of pounds in equipment, including buildings, fridges, etc. Who will compensate me for these millions in investments?"

The move is already having an impact on the market for other meats, he said. Domestic fish prices have surged about 100 percent as people turn to other lean, protein-rich meats in place of pork.

"If beef prices haven't gone up now, they will in a week," Boulis predicted.