WASHINGTON, May 8, 20112 — Tensions between Egyptian Muslims and Christian Copts have led to increased sectarian violence as angry Muslims strike out against the Copts and Coptic churches. This is in retaliation for their response to the alleged conversion to Islam of a Coptic Christian woman, Kamila Shehata-Zakher.
But Shehata is probably not the reason for the radical Islamic uprising: This is not the first time she has been used as a rallying point for violence. She became a media tool for extremists in July, 2010, when the militant group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq”, an Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, called for the November 3, 2010 release of two women, Kamila Shehata-Zakher and Wafa Constantine.
(Update: In a recent report from Cairo by Communities columnist Dr. Anwaar Abdallah, Sectarian tensions between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, the actual woman in question is named Abeer, however the situation regarding her allegedly being held by Coptic Christians is similar.)
The Islamic State of Iraq claimed the women had converted to Islam but were being held captive within Coptic churches in an effort to reform them.
The subsequent 2010 attacks on a Baghdad Coptic church left sixty-eight people dead and others wounded.
Last night’s violence began in the poor neighborhood of Imbaba and has radical Muslims creating unrest, resulting in at least twelve dead and more than 200 injured as protesters hurl rocks, fire bombs, and in some cases, shoot at the crowds from the roof tops, often killing other, usually non-radical, Muslims.
The true impetus behind the violence appears to be the Salafi, a group of ultraconservative Muslims trying to gain a foothold in the region. The group has become more assertive and aggressive since the revolution, and appears to be pushing violence
On Friday, May 6, Islamic groups performed the funeral prayer for the absent, a special rite for the dead in the “absence of a body,” for Osama bin Laden. They then marched toward the U.S. embassy several kilometers away, growing in strength and visible protest.
Last Friday’s rite included violent sentiment against the U.S. for the killing of bin Laden, while also celebrating and venerating the man’s life and leadership.
This leads to the question of what the true motive behind this violence is. Is it simply the continuing debasement of Coptic Christians by yet another radical Islamic group rising up to incite violence? Is it the continuation of violence not just against the Copts, but against non-radical Muslims and the rest of the world?
Religious violence is nothing new in this predominantly (90%) Muslim state, even though there are strict laws against it and severe punishments for those who incite such violence. There are reports that authorities have recently arrested two hundred or more people for attacking houses of worship in Egypt.
It’s worth noting that, with divorce banned in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which is by far the largest of the Coptic churches, people who are unhappy in their marriages may convert to another faith in order to dissolve those marriages.
Past reports are that Kamila Shehata, married to a Coptic priest, converted to Islam in order to escape her unhappy marriage in 2010. As it is against the law for a Muslim to be married to a Copt, it is not unheard of for individuals in an unhappy Copt marriage to “convert” to Islam or to another Christian sect as an exit strategy.
Unsubstantiated reports are that the woman, Shehata, was once again kidnapped and was being held in St. Mena’s Coptic church, where attempts to thwart her conversion to Islam were being made.
This would, presumably, give an excuse to the conservative Muslim groups to lay siege to Coptic churches.
Contradicting this, however, is the fact that prior to the violence escalation, Shehata was seen, with her husband and child, on television, a broadcast said to be from outside of Egypt, stating that she was not converting and was in fact still very married to her Copt husband.
During that telecast, she stated, “Let the protesters leave the Church alone and turn their attention to Egypt’s future.”
In this violence, the Salafi are using Shehata as their excuse for burning the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Menas, one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt. The historic structure dates back to the 6th century AD.
Also being attacked are surrounding neighborhood buildings and homes.
This violence is simply yet another conservative Islamic movement attempting to gain foothold in the region.
Last night, the Salafi set fire to St. Menas Church, burning the façade while, according to the Associated Press, they chanted, “With our blood and soul, we defend you Islam.”
The Salafi justified their violence with their claims that Christians were holding Shehata inside St. Menas church. When crowds, including Muslims, attempted to get water to put out the fires at the church, a National Heritage Site, and nearby stores and apartment buildings, they were barred by Salafi from access to a nearby Mosque to get water to fight the fire.
Once the violent group turned away from the Imbaba neighborhood and St. Menas, they are reported to have moved to the Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, a structure that dates back to the 3rd Century AD.
The already violent Salafis were probably reinvigorated and angered by the death of bin Laden, turning their anger on the Coptic Christians. They are also probably trying to gather Egyptian Muslims under their mantle and to assert their strength as Egypt moves toward a new political reality.
This is not the first violence to escalate since the Egyptian revolution began. In March, thirteen people were killed following the radical Muslim burning of a church. This violence was also supposedly in response to a relationship between a Muslim woman and a Christian man. Prior to that, a New Year’s Eve suicide bombing at an Alexandria Coptic Church killed twenty-one people.
Coptic Christians are a minority in Egypt, representing less than ten percent of the country’s total population of 82 million. The Muslim majority has long discriminated against the Copts, forcing them into lesser paying jobs and the low-income slums of Cairo.
The weakened political state of Egypt has allowed the Salafis to rise up and perpetuate violence in an atmosphere that does not prosecute those who commit these crimes.
Coptic scholar Sameh Fawzi has stated that military rulers must hold down the rising mobs, like the Salafis, and treat these attacks as crimes of “thuggery”.
While we wait to see what the continuing radical terrorist response to bin Laden’s death will be, it is with concern that this may be only the beginning to violence that will swell as groups like the Salafi, The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, even al-Qaida all seek to lead radical Islam in Egypt.
Jacquie Kubin is a 15-year, award-winning veteran of travel and culinary writing. Today, Jacquie edits and directs a staff of writers for Donne Tempo Magazine, where you can read more of her entertainment, travel and culinary reviews. Jacquie is always looking for new talents who want to expand their horizons.
- An Egyptian protester holds a picture of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, close to his heart during a protest held by Islamist groups against the killing of Bin Laden, in front of the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, May 6, 2011 (Image: Associated Press)
- Egyptian army forces, left, guard as smoke rises from a building belongs to Christians set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo Sunday, May 8, 2011 (Image: Associated Press)
- Egyptians gather next to a building that belongs to Christians set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo Sunday, May 8, 2011. (Image: Associated Press)
- Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. (Image: Associated Press)
- Egyptian military police stand guard outside the Nour mosque, where Islamist groups were protesting against the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, following Friday prayer in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, May 6, 2011. (Image: Associated Press)
- Interior of St. Menas' Orthodox Coptic Christian Church
- Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard outside the burned Virgin Mary church in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, May 8, 2011 (Image: Associated Press).
- Firemen fight a fire at a church surrounded by angry Muslims in the Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo late Saturday, May 7, 2011.
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