Attacks on Christians: Can Egypt Deal with Extremist Mobs?

Cairo, Egypt - On the night of March 8 Yasser Makram was on his way home from work, his pick-up truck full of garbage as he turned up the winding dirt road on the edge of Egypt's capital, to approach his home in the crowded Cairo slum known popularly as Garbage City. As he inched around a curve, he saw a swarm of people running towards the truck in his rearview mirror. "I didn't know what was happening," he says. But before he could consider the possibilities, the mob had pulled him from the truck. "They demanded to know if I was Christian."

Makram's hospital report says the 27-year-old suffered "nerve damage" and "multiple deep wounds and fractures" that night. A long, sinister scar — a knife wound — now cuts across his face, ear to ear. And it will be at least a year before he can drive his garbage truck again. The mob stabbed him in the chest and beat him with pipes, breaking an arm and one of his ribs, before stripping him naked and dragging him, semi-conscious, up a dark and dusty road to the foot of the Citadel, a medieval Islamic fort.

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Three months later, no one has been charged with the crime, the police apparently having shown no interest in filing a report while Makram was hospitalized. And Makram has no idea who his attackers were. But he remembers their response to the strangers who finally intervened to help him: "This is a Christian son of a bitch," they said. "We're going to kill him."

Rising sectarianism has been one of the ugliest challenges to emerge since President Hosni Mubarak's downfall in February. The attack on Makram came as part of the first big wave (a second came in May) of religious violence that has exploited the country's post-revolution security vacuum. Days before, a church was destroyed in a village south of Cairo, after clashes erupted over a Muslim-Christian romantic relationship. The ensuing tensions sparked more days of Christian protest in and around Cairo, which erupted into clashes again on March 9, killing more than a dozen people.

Various political parties, including the popular Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the violence. The transitional government rebuilt the church. And in Tahrir Square, liberals and moderates briefly revived popular slogans for national unity in an effort to drown out the uncomfortable new voice of the minority Salafist Muslims — strict adherents to a conservative, purist sect of Islam — who have gathered strength since the revolution.

And yet, sectarian violence has continued to fester — fueling protests that blocked the instatement of a Christian governor in Egypt's south in April; and sparking a fresh round of clashes in May that destroyed another church and left 12 people dead. "No, the problem is not solved," says one Christian activist, Fady Phillip, even as he watched last week's re-opening of the second desecrated church. "We need whoever provoked the people to do it to be arrested. If they're free without punishment, what's to stop it from happening again."

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Many in the Christian community, which make up roughly 10% of Egypt's 80 million people, say the Salafists are to blame. And indeed, in the post-Mubarak political free-for-all, the sect has enjoyed a new level of political and religious expression. Violent jihadists who were jailed under Mubarak have been released. Some have formed political parties, and others are calling for greater conservatism in mosques and on talk shows. One has called for a million Egyptians to grow beards by the time the holy month of Ramadan starts in August, according to a local newspaper. And the day after U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden, a Salafist preacher in Egypt openly called him a "hero."

The extremists may be a crucial part of the problem, but there's another endemic component that has allowed them to flourish. In late April, Makram's neighbors say they attended Easter services as Salafists pelted them with rocks from a nearby cliff and soldiers watched passively. In the May violence in Cairo's Imbaba slum, parishioners say the army and security forces watched the violence build for hours before intervening. "["The instigators"] are well-known to the government, but the silence of the army is allowing the people to do whatever they want — like burning churches, and knocking them down," says Phillip. "The discrimination is not against the building," he adds. "It's against the people."

And indeed, that will be harder to remedy. Religious intolerance may be one of most daunting challenges on the revolutionary road ahead, but it also ranks among the issues that Egyptians, including their temporary military leaders, are least willing to talk about. In part, that derives from a Mubarak-era tendency to blame outsiders, or at most, a few trouble-makers, for domestic problems, rather than challenge Egyptian national pride. At last week's re-opening of the Virgin Mary church, which was set ablaze in May, many Muslim onlookers declared the problem resolved in its entirety. "It wasn't people from Imbaba who did this," said Mahmoud al-Attar, a 24-year-old Muslim. "It was outsiders. Because in Imbaba, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for a long time."

But they haven't, says Phillip. And failing to acknowledge that perpetuates the divide. "The funny thing is that as far as I can remember, from 1990 until now, we've had thousands of fights and no one was brought to justice," he says. That was why he helped to rally Christians to protest outside of the state television building last month. The reconstruction of damaged churches is a positive step, he says. But until attitudes change and laws are enforced to guarantee equal rights, it will happen again.

For its part, the interim Egyptian government says it is making strides in protecting Christians, amid a myriad of other challenges that include meeting the demands of an emboldened population of protesters, and confronting a battered economy. Government funds paid for the speedy reconstruction of both churches.

And officials say a draft of a new law governing the construction of houses of worship is in the works. Previously Christians were required to seek presidential approval to build a church, a procedure that often involved a litany of hoops, bribes, and disappointments. The proposed legislation would shift that decision to local governors, and would mandate that permits be delivered within a set amount of time.

Inherently, Phillip says, the logic is still flawed: "Why do I need permission to build a church?" And it's unclear whether such a law would include any guarantees of freedom from discrimination. If the residents of Qena governorate could block the instatement of a governor, some activists reason, why not churches too?

To Girgis Sabr, a Christian cab driver from Makram's neighborhood, tweaking the legal discourse doesn't make a difference for his reality. "When people get in my car, they see the cross and the Virgin Mary and they ask me if I'm Christian. This is unacceptable," he says of the rudeness. "I'm a human."

Building a culture of tolerance may be the loftiest challenge yet, and it may take decades. Phillip worries about the influence that the Salafists have on previously neutral, but poorly educated ears — a legacy of Mubarak's decrepit education system. But at the very least, he says, confronting sectarianism needs to become a priority that extends beyond the facades of newly painted churches.

On the night of the Virgin Mary Church's re-opening in Cairo's Imbaba district, parishioners, Muslim residents, and journalists jostled for positions beneath strings of lights and banners bearing the images of saints. And yet, emblematic perhaps of sectarianism's place on the post-revolution to-do list, many of the Muslim attendees admitted they had come for different reasons. Several rows of picketers held signs bearing demands for the Prime Minister. Others waved documents listing personal grievances. One young man, Mahgoub Mahmoud, stood by the church entrance clutching a sign that called for better trash collection. He was indifferent to what had happened here, and to whether religious tolerance was an issue to consider for the future. "We're not here for the church," he shrugged. "We're here for the garbage."