Monday, August 04, 2008

As Tensions Rise for Egypt’s Christians, Officials Call Clashes Secular

An excerpt from a NY Times article.

As more and more conflicts pile up and as the tensions of daily life increase, many people in Egypt and around the region said the problem of sectarian clashes had become more urgent. They said that ordinary conflicts had become more bitterly sectarian as religious identity had become more prominent among Muslims and Christians alike.

“It is as if there is a struggle — each against the other — and it creates a sectarian atmosphere,” said Gamal Assaad, a former member of Parliament who is a Coptic intellectual and a writer. “This tense atmosphere makes people ready to explode at any point if they are subjected to any amount of instigation or incitement.”

Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with about 80 million people. About 10 percent are Coptic Christian.

For most of Egypt’s Coptics, the major flare-ups — the attack on the Abu Fana Monastery or riots in 2005 in Alexandria — are faraway episodes that serve only to confirm a growing alienation from larger society. For most, the tension is more personal, a fear that a son or daughter will fall in love with a Muslim or of being derided as “coftes,” which means “fifth column.”

“We keep to ourselves,” said Kamel Nadi, 24, a Coptic who runs a small shop in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo. “Muslims can’t say it, but it’s clear they don’t accept us. Here no one can speak the truth on this issue, so everybody’s feelings are kept inside.”

Christian Arabs have increasingly complained of being marginalized in the Middle East, with large numbers leaving over the decades. Now it appears that pressure on these communities is spiking, whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or the West Bank. In each, Christians speak of specific national behavior that has made them feel less welcome. While governments are generally regarded as more accommodating than they used to be, the overall environment is seen as less hospitable.

“Yes, we are feeling marginalized,” said Dr. Audeh Quawas, a surgeon in Amman, Jordan, who serves on the central committee of the World Council of Churches, a Geneva-based group. He rattled off a list of grievances, from the refusal of the state to acknowledge Easter as a national holiday to the insistence that Christians abide by Islamic law regarding inheritance.

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