Egypt's Christians Wary of Post-Mubarak Future

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After another violent incident left 12 dead, many Coptic Christians are wondering if they were better off before the revolution

CAIRO, Egypt -- The day after sectarian violence in the Cairo slum of Imbaba left 12 dead, over 200 injured, and two churches damaged, tense residents turned away reporters trying to photograph the still smoldering scene.

"No pictures! Go away," an elderly man shouted, drawing the approach of grim-faced young men carrying foot-long segments of iron pipe. "You show only bad things."

Despite the anger, tension, and implied violence in the scene, the man had a point: media reports have focused on the division, rather than on the more usual peace between neighbors.

Residents of Imbaba say that despite its reputation as one of the most violent districts in Cairo, Saturday night's riot was an aberration. Generally, they say, relations between Christian and Muslim neighbors there are good.

"We get along," Imbaba resident Ali said, declining to give his last name. "There is no dividing line. We are mixed. We live, work, and go to school together. We are friends."

By most accounts, the riot was sparked by a rumor, later shown to be false, that a Christian woman wishing to convert to Islam was being held against her will in the church. Residents there suggest that Salafis, a fundamentalist sect of Islam, comprised most of the initial crowd that massed outside the church to confront the growing crowd of Copts arriving to defend it.

Imbaba is a perfect cauldron for trouble, Ali said. Unemployment, which is already high in Egypt, is rampant among Imbaba's relatively young population. Groups of teenage boys loiter around the neighborhood's litter-strewn dirt alleyways, and on this day stopped and challenged passers-by to identify themselves.

"Unfortunately, if there is trouble in Imbaba," Ali said, "people get hurt. If you want trouble between Christians and Muslims, this is where people will die."

This is not the first time that Salafis have been involved in post-revolution unrest in Egypt. Last month, a group of them protested the appointment of a Coptic governor in the Upper Egypt town of Qena, contending he wouldn't enforce their more conservative interpretation of Sharia law. They blocked train service and a popular tourist route to Luxor until the Coptic governor was replaced with a Muslim.

Persecution of Christians is not just a post-Mubarak problem. In a still unsolved attack on New Year's Day, a bomb detonated in front of a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 and injuring over 100.

The revolution and ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak's repressive regime, however, has allowed extremist groups greater reign in a society from which they had been forcefully excluded. Though the Salafi branch of ultra-conservative Islam is more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia, andtheir number is relatively small in Egypt, they have become more vocal and disruptive since the departure of the old regime.

For this reason, many Coptic Christians, who had felt tolerated and to some extent even protected under Mubarak's secular rule, are wary, or outright unsupportive, of the revolution.

Fearing an increase in persecution and sectarian violence, and comprising only 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million population, they worry now about September's upcoming parliamentary elections. The religiously devout Muslim Brotherhood are expected to do well.

"The Coptic community wasn't very happy about the revolution," said 58-year-old radiologist Salam Fahmy Attia, who attended Palm Sunday mass with his family at Cairo's oldest Christian house of worship, known as the Hanging Church. "The protests for the removal of Mubarak," he said, "frightened many of us."

The Democracy ReportDespite his fears, Attia emphasized that there is a general harmony between Muslims and Christians. Copts live throughout the country and are well integrated into Egyptian society, he said. But the political instability of the future concerns him. "Young people don't have the long memories of their parents and grandparents," he said.

"In general, our community was fairly neutral towards Mubarak -- he kept the country secure and on a somewhat liberal social course. Maybe there was corruption and maybe the rich got richer and the poor poorer, but at least the upper and middle classes were protected."

His daughter, 24-year-old pharmacist Sally Attia, summed up her fears in three words: "Becoming Saudi Arabia." She predicted, "At best, we're going to face greater restrictions -- like censorship of the arts, headscarves, and limited freedom for women. At worst ..." she left her sentence unfinished.

Back in Imbaba, Muslims and Christians alike buried and mourned their dead. On this day, six Muslims and six Christians.

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Colleen Gillard & Georgia Wells

Colleen Gillard & Georgia Wells are a mother/daughter team covering Egypt after the revolution. They blog at Egypt Unplugged.

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