(CNSNews.com) – The uncertain future faced by Egypt’s Christian minority was highlighted at the weekend both by a violent attack by Islamic radicals that killed 12 people and by the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best organized political force.
Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims in Cairo on Sunday as the Copts protested an attack the night before in the capital’s Imbaba district, where 12 people died, more than 180 were injured and two churches and a residential building were torched.
The latest attack occurred after some 500 Muslim radicals – described in Egyptian media reports as Salafists – gathered on Saturday night to demand the handover of a woman the Muslims claim wanted to convert to Islam but was being held against her will in a church. Violence erupted, with stones and Molotov cocktails thrown and gunfire breaking out, eyewitnesses told Egyptian media.
Almost 200 people were arrested and interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called an emergency meeting to discuss the violence.
Sunday’s demonstrations by Copts included a rally by some outside the American Embassy, where Christians called for international protection. But their plan to remain outside the mission until the ambassador arrived at work on Monday was stymied when the army dispersed several hundred people.
Thousands of protesters staged a sit-in near the state TV building, demanding that the ruling military council investigate the violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) denounced the attacks, blaming unidentified “external and internal forces” for attempts to rouse sectarian conflict and said those responsible should be brought to justice.
Failing to identify perpetrators and victims, however, the MB condemned “extremists” in both camps and referred vaguely to “unpatriotic people” trying to sow disunity.
It said religious intolerance was “the most serious threat to the revolution” that led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February.
Ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due in September, the MB – like other parties – is polishing its credentials. Conscious of suspicions of an Islamist agenda, it is presenting “moderate” stances on some issues.
But while distancing itself from Salafists in some instances, in other areas it is highlighting common ground.
On Saturday, a reported 50,000 people took part in a joint rally held by the MB and Salafists in Giza, where participants chanted slogans saying the MB and Salafists were “one” and calling for the application of Islamic law (shari’a), according to an Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper report.
The daily also said Salafist preachers condemned the Christian-Muslim violence, and quoted one, Mohamed Hassan, as saying Copts were “protected by Islam” and need not look to the United States for protection.
A key area of agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists is the importance of shari’a and the primacy of Islam.
Fearful of a future Egypt dominated by radicals, many Copts have been hopeful that constitutional reforms would include the removal of a provision in the current constitution, article II, which reads, “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.”
At a conference in Cairo Saturday, some liberal and secular groups called for a new constitution to be drafted before the September election, to ensure that Egypt would remain a civil state.
Among their demands was an amendment to article II, with the insertion of language giving non-Muslim Egyptians the right to be ruled in line with their own religious beliefs.
But the MB, which strongly opposes any change to the article, issued a statement rejecting the calls, saying those making them were “only interested in their personal benefit with no consideration for the country’s best interests.”
The ruling military council in April issued an interim constitutional declaration that will stay in place until a committee, established by parliament after the election, drafts a permanent new constitution.
The interim document retains article II, and the liberal groups meeting on Saturday want a new constitution drawn up before the elections.
The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, earlier asked the government to amend the article to include a reference to non-Muslim minorities, but Muslim leaders including the cleric regarded as the top authority in Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar University head Ahmad al-Tayyeb, say it should be left alone.
‘Violence continues unabated’
Copts account for about 10 percent of the Egyptian population and have long been the victims of attack by Muslim radicals. The weekend violence was the worst of its kind since previous incidents in March in Cairo, where a church was set on fire, and then Copts protesting the arson attack were themselves attacked, with 13 people killed in ensuing clashes.
Before that, in what was described as the worst attack targeting the minority in a decade, a suicide bomber killed 23 people at a Coptic church in Alexandria as Christians attended a New Year’s Eve midnight service.
Fearing more violence in the months ahead, Copts in the capital reportedly are setting up small self-defense groups to protect churches and other potential targets.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, in its latest annual report released in late April, for the first time called on the U.S. government to blacklist Egypt for religious freedom violations, by designating it a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law.
“Instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities,” said the commission’s chairman, Leonard Leo.
“Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice,” he said.