June 1, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 693

In Egypt, Muslims' Attacks on Copts Increase

June 1, 2011 | By L. Azuri and N. Shamni*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 693


Since the January 25, 2011 revolution, Egypt has seen several clashes between Muslims and Copts, and attacks on Coptic churches have increased.[1] In early March, clashes broke out in the village of Sol, in the Helwan Governorate, over the demolition of a church there.[2] On March 23, in the Upper Egyptian city of Qena, Salafists attacked and cut off the ear of a Copt suspected of having relations with a Muslim woman.[3] Qena also saw mass demonstrations by Muslims over the appointment of a Coptic province governor, ultimately leading the authorities to suspend his appointment for a period of three months.[4] In April in the town of Abu Qarqas, a quarrel over a building put up by a Copt, which obstructed traffic, sparked clashes that ended in numerous arrests and dozens of injuries, with the homes of several Copts torched.[5] Violence also erupted on May 19 in the Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, when Muslims demonstrated against the government's decision to reopen the Church of the Virgin there, which had been closed for three years.[6]

The clashes peaked on May 7, when a fight broke out outside the Mary Mina Church in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo, in the Al-Giza Governorate, leaving 12 Copts and Muslims dead and hundreds of others wounded. Violence was sparked off when hundreds of Muslims gathered outside the church, demanding the release of 'Abir Tal'at Fakhri – a young Coptic woman who, according to her Muslim husband, was being held there against her will after having converted from Christianity to Islam.[7]

Since then, Copts have staged numerous demonstrations throughout Egypt, as well as a prolonged sit-down strike outside the state television building in Cairo, demanding protection of their rights and the prosecution of those responsible for the violence. It should be noted that in recent years, there were a number of similar incidents in Egypt involving young Coptic women who were reportedly held captive by the Church after converting to Islam.[8]

In the Egyptian press, Muslim and Coptic writers pinned responsibility for the events on various elements. The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces was held largely responsible, on the grounds that the security forces were failing to respond with sufficient urgency and resolve against the attackers. Some blamed the previous regime, stating that its supporters were trying to create chaos in order to pave the way for a counterrevolution. There were also those who blamed Egypt's Salafists, who, they said, have been intimidating the country's residents, Muslims and Copts alike, since the revolution. Others faulted the Coptic Church, claiming that it has placed itself above the law, and that the young women in question converted to Islam in order to escape the church's rigid divorce laws. Yet others said the events were a result of the sexist attitudes of Egyptian society.[9]

Following is an overview of reactions to these events that appeared in the Egyptian press and on Coptic websites.

The Military Wants the People to Beg It to Stay in Power

Coptic writer Ihab Shaker suggested that the military was deliberately failing to quell the Muslim-Copt tensions, in hopes that the resulting chaos will create a demand for a strong ruler – someone from the military establishment itself: "The whole world witnessed the drama and massacre that took place in Imbaba, [namely] the attack on the Mary Mina Church on Al-Aqsar Street, and the torching of the Church of the Virgin on Al-Wahda Street. What happened, unfortunately, directly reflects the weakness of those currently responsible for [governing] the state... I hope with all my heart that I am wrong in my assessments and conclusions. It is, after all, inconceivable that the military, which stood alongside the revolution from its outset, is behind these events.

"Someone [from the military] told me that, in his estimation, the military wants the next president to come from within the military establishment, but it does not want – and is unable – to declare so [openly]. Therefore, it is letting the country squirm, so that the people themselves will demand a president from within the military establishment. It is worth mentioning that it reportedly took the military at least two and a half hours to arrive in Imbaba after the [clashes] broke out.

"The military is not imported; it is part of the Egyptian people and [represents] all of its sectors. Therefore, it can be expected to include some extremists and zealots. The Supreme Council [of the Egyptian Armed Forces] needs to clarify its stance and policy over the next few days, impose a [firmer] grip on the state, and enforce the law against those sparking riots and fitna [civil strife]..."[10]

Loyalists of the Previous Regime Are Trying to Sabotage the Revolution

In an article in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, journalist Nahi Muhammad Mujahid wrote: "The abominable assaults on the Mary Mina Church [and the Church of] the Virgin which took place last Sunday, [May 8, 2011,] in Imbaba... were a scenario carefully scripted by unseen fingers – both domestic and foreign – aimed at perpetuating a state of anarchy in Egypt and even sparking fires of sectarian strife the likes of which have never been seen [here], by exploiting the [current] security vacuum...

"[There have been various] false rumors: [according to] one, Ms. Camilia [Shehata] converted to Islam and was tortured by the Church; [according to] another, she did not convert to Islam; [according to] a third, those who incited the attack on the Mary Mina Church were Salafis, and the story of Ms. 'Abir [Fakhri] is true, [but] another [rumor] denies this incident, and blames the Christians of inciting [against the Muslims] in a bid to gain more rights – it's an endless stream of rumors. I am certain that all [these rumors] are fabricated tales that have a motive, and which were invented by the remnants of the previous regime with the aim of cutting down the revolution. Among [these remnants] are [former] members of the People's Council, the Shura Council, the municipal councils, and the National Democratic Party [NDP, the former ruling party], and the state's security chiefs, in addition to its foreign enemies..."[11]

The Salafists Paved the Way for the Events in Imbaba

In an article in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Mahmoud Gad wrote: "Maybe the Salafists are not [directly] responsible for the bloody events in Imbaba. But there is no doubt that some of them created an atmosphere in which the common man on the street who is religiously inclined would believe the rumor that the Church is holding a Muslim woman, a [story] beyond all reason... Perhaps it will displease you that [I] accuse the Salafists of being behind the massacre, and you may even accuse me of 'secularism'... but I assure you that the common man, whom we all took part in inciting... was ready to blindly attack the church and would have welcomed [the opportunity] to do so. Without a thought, he surrendered his mind to 'Abir [Fakhri's Muslim] partner, that mysterious man who came from Asyut to Imbaba bearing [the flag] of fitna [and claiming that his wife was being held in the Mary Mina Church]..."[12]

The Church Is Acting Like a State within a State

Writing in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun, which is close to the Islamist movement in Egypt, journalist Hilmi Mahmoud Al-Qa'oud said that the church was acting like a state within a state: "The problem of Camilia [Shehata], plainly speaking, lies not in [the question of] whether or not she is a Muslim, but in the fact that she is a woman who was arrested, denied her freedom, and walled in, and that all this [was done] illegally. Camilia is not the only one; there are others... The church-state believes [that these women] are its own citizens, and that it has a duty to protect them from Islam and from integrating into the Arab Egyptian sister state.

"The church-state, which perpetrates intellectual terrorism and sectarian insurrection, and which was an ally of the previous regime, has striven for two important things. The first is to segregate the [Coptic] sect from the Islamic society which is its natural environment, while the Church [continues to] enjoy the privileges the previous regime showered upon it... The second is to [tear] the Muslims [away] from Islam by [spreading] fear of extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and Salafism. [The Church's] opposition to the Islamic shari'a and the second clause of the constitution [according to which Islam is Egypt's official state religion and the shari'a is the primary basis for legislation] was one of the conspicuous signs that [the Church] was challenging the overwhelming Muslim majority...

"In the era of the revolution, it is essential that the church-state be toppled, in order to [ensure] that a single state, called Egypt, will remain on the banks of the Nile. [The accusations that] the Salafists and the Islamic movements [instigated the sectarian strife] are cheap lies..."[13]

The Church's Strict Divorce Laws Drove the Coptic Women to Convert to Islam

Journalist Farag Isma'il claimed that Fakhri and the other women had been driven to convert to Islam by the Church's strict laws, which prevented them from divorcing and thus denied them an honorable life: "'Abir [Fakhri] did not take Islam upon herself out of knowledge or faith resulting from study. She is a very simple woman... who was smothered by the [Coptic] Orthodox Church's strict position, [which permits] divorce only in cases of adultery. Her life with her husband was an insufferable hell of beatings, humiliation, and impossible relations... How could 'Abir, or any other woman, live this way, in the shadow of such strict religious law, while the Church makes no effort to [amend it] and make things easier for its congregants? The Church's stringency [ultimately] harmed the Muslims, who were forced to suffer its consequences, though they had nothing to do with it...

"In addition, there is mistrust of the authorities which, [in the past], failed to respond when the Church refused to obey the state law, seeing itself as a state within a state that has its own laws and controls its congregants, who are beholden to it alone... We cannot demand that the Coptic Church address the issue of [its] prohibition on divorce; that is its own affair and that of the Christians. But we do demand that the 'Abir affair constitute a reason to end the era of the 'religious state' which the Church has established, and that the monasteries and churches be turned [back] into places of worship and spirituality which do not assume the role of interrogation facilities and prisons..."[14]

The Events Are the Result of the Sexism Permeating Egypt's Society

Al-Ahram columnist Hazem 'Abd Al-Rahman wrote that the humiliation suffered by 'Abir and others like her was not the product of their religion, but rather the product of the sexism prevalent in Egyptian society: "One of the sources for the latest fitna in Imbaba is the outmoded social tradition that dominates [Egyptian] society as a whole and the [Egyptian] woman in particular. What is worse is that many do not dare call to change this tradition, so that the woman can be liberated from the bonds of servitude and live as a fully free person, no less than a man.

"Just think that broad sectors among us simply reject the notion of a woman's right to rebel and to stage a revolution, and that, though she may be in the prime of her years, her family will force her to marry a man she does not love and who is likely to humiliate, beat, or curse her. Is it not her right to leave him? Is it not her right to rethink and re-plan her life in order to restore her pride?...

"The main reason for this oppression and humiliation is not religion, but rather a rigid and backward social tradition. If a woman is unlucky enough to come from Upper Egypt, [her situation is especially bad, because] this tradition and these customs have an especially great [influence] on religion there... It is no coincidence that all the young girls we hear about rebelling are from Upper Egypt. These are girls who received some education, found work, and [began to] earn an income that allowed them to feel a degree of independence. So they began to feel it was their right to decide how to live their life and who to marry. Why shouldn't they do so, when the television says it is their right? But the reality is different. There are strong social forces that impinge upon this right – the family [unit], patriarchy, matriarchy, and the rule of older brothers, uncles, fellow villagers, the village sheikhs, etc.

"Unfortunately, we still live in a backward society in which a woman's, and even a man's, freedom is strictly limited. Just think that Egypt revolted and cut itself free of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years, yet most of its daughters still cannot break free of the shackles fettering their freedom and preventing them from liberating themselves and choosing the life they want..."[15]

Senior Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya Ideologue: 'Abir Fakhri Is Not the Muslims' Priority

In an article published on Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya's website, Dr. Najjah Ibrahim, one of the organization's senior ideologues, wrote: "[Another] example is the affair of 'Abir Fakhri. This [Christian] woman led a wretched life with her Christian husband, who cursed her, beat her, and threw her out of the house after she bore him a daughter, because he comes from an environment where sons are considered preferable to daughters. She [returned to] her parents' home, at loose ends, neither married nor divorced. [So] she found shelter in Islam, and made a show of [converting] – not out of love for Islam but [only] in order to solve her problem by transforming it from a social problem into a religious one. Then the Church [abducted her] and turned the [whole thing] into an affair in which an Egyptian woman was held captive without any legal justification.

"Later, some [Muslim] preachers turned [the affair] into a sectarian one [by] calling to hold demonstrations outside the church in the Imbaba [neighborhood] where she was held... The demonstration turned violent, [generating] bloodshed and civil strife, and the church was torched, nearly setting the whole country on fire. [Consider] how many Muslims were wounded or lost their lives over a woman whose conversion was of doubtful sincerity. Many people who knew ['Abir] in the recent past have confirmed this. According to them, after she converted, she did not pray and did not memorize any part of the Koran. She may have converted, but this conversion left no trace on her heart and the rest of her being. What has 'Abir done for Islam that we should make such a commotion on her behalf? The church too made a fatal mistake by holding her without just cause, as though her conversion [was tantamount to] the loss of all Christianity, which has over two billion [believers] worldwide.

"The religious principle of setting [correct] priorities was completely absent here. There are millions of Muslims in Egypt, yet nobody takes an interest in them or bothers to teach them about their faith. Some of them go to sleep hungry and naked, yet nobody cares. They deserve attention more than 'Abir does, but the [principles of setting] priorities, [considering] interests, and [fighting] corruption were completely neglected in this case. Who should have received priority, 'Abir, or some Muslims who need all [the help they can get] in order to become proper Muslims and lead a stable life?"[16]

* N. Shamni and L. Azuri are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1] The months leading up to the revolution were also marked by numerous conflicts between Muslims and Copts, in which then-president Hosni Mubarak attempted to arbitrate. (See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.646, "Rising Tensions between Muslims, Christians in Egypt," November 15, 2010, Rising Tensions between Muslims, Christians in Egypt). These events came to a head with the terrorist attack on the Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve (December 31, 2010) which left 21 dead and more than 80 injured.

[2] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 8, 2011; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 7, 2011.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 25, 2011.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 28, 2011.

[5] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Al-Dustour (Egypt), April 20, 2011.

[6] Al-Dustour (Egypt), May 20, 2011.

[7] Al-Ahram, Al-Shurouq, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 8, 2011.

[8] One such affair was that of Camilia Shehata Zakher, the wife of a Coptic bishop who disappeared from her home in July 2010, and was allegedly held captive by the Coptic Church after she converted to Islam (or was forced to convert, according to some accounts). The incident sparked mass protests by Muslims who demanded to know what had become of her. Recently, the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces promised to summon Shehata for interrogation. On May 7, 2011, she appeared on Al-Hayat TV, an Arabic-language Christian television channel broadcast from the U.S., and said she had never converted to Islam and was living at home with her husband and son. Another affair a few years ago involved Wafa Constantine, an agronomist and the wife of a Coptic priest from the Al-Buhaira Governorate. She too was allegedly held by the church after converting to Islam. Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 30, 2011; Al-Ahram, Al-Shurouq, Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), May 8, 2011.

[9] Some also claimed that Israel was behind the clashes. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.3844, "Article in Egyptian Daily: The Jews Are behind the Clashes between Egypt's Muslims and Copts," May 17, 2011, Article in Egyptian Daily: The Jews Are behind the Clashes between Egypt's Muslims and Copts.

[10], May 11, 2011.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 12, 2011.

[12] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 10, 2011.

[13] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), May 11, 2011.

[14] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), May 11, 2011.

[15] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 14, 2011.

[16], May 16, 2011.

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