It began with an argument over money, says a resident of Karam village in Minya. A shop-owner called Ashraf, a Coptic Christian, could not pay his Muslim suppliers. So they started a rumour that Ashraf was having an affair with a Muslim woman. In May a group of enraged Muslim men burned down his house along with several other homes owned by Christians. Ashraf’s elderly mother was stripped naked and dragged around the village.
Tensions are rising between Egypt’s two largest religious communities. The head of the Coptic church, Pope Tawadros (pictured above), says attacks against Christians, who make up between 5% and 15% of the population, occur about once a month. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a pressure group, counted 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya, where there is a large Christian minority, since 2011. At least ten incidents this year have resulted in discord, death and destruction.
The EIPR’s count excludes a spate of violence three years ago, when protesting supporters of Muhammad Morsi, an Islamist president who was ousted in 2013, were violently dispersed by the government. In response, they burned dozens of churches. Since then Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who deposed Mr Morsi, has tried to ease religious tensions. In 2015 he became the first president to attend (albeit briefly) Christmas mass at Cairo cathedral. “We’re all Egyptians, first and foremost,” he said. He attended again in 2016, vowing to restore churches and homes that had been burned down.
Pope Tawadros has staunchly supported Mr Sisi, whom he once referred to as a “saviour” and “hero”. But Christians are growing disenchanted with Mr Sisi’s lack of progress. “We were expecting it to be much better,” says Magdi Kemal Habib of Minya, who nevertheless backs the president. The church’s leader in Minya is more critical. “He just gives good feelings, but these feelings need to be translated into actions,” says Bishop Makarios. Christians still face discrimination in the job market and are under-represented in government. The authorities often treat them like second-class citizens. It is, for example, exceedingly hard to get the state to recognise conversions to Christianity from Islam.
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SOURCE: The Economist