Egypt: sectarian strife escalates as Salafists attack Coptic protesters

At least two were killed and some 70 injured as presumed Salafists attacked Coptic protesters with sticks, firearms and Molotov cocktails in the Cairo neighborhood of Maspero early on May 15. The Copts fought back with hurled rocks, and police finally intervened with tear gas. The protesters were holding a sit-in in front of the Egyptian state television headquarters to demand justice in the face of growing attacks on their community.

Egypt’s Pope Shenouda, head of the Orthodox Coptic church, called on his followeres to abandon the sit-in, which was launched after a church was damaged by fire and 12 people killed in an attack on a Coptic community in Cairo’s Imbaba district last week. Salafists accused the Christians of holding a woman who had allegedly converted to Islam. This was but the most recent in a string of such attacks in recent months. March saw the torching of a church in the Helwan provincial city of Sol.

“My protesting sons and daughters, the matter has gone beyond expression of opinions and there are those who have come between you and who have ways that are not your own,” Pope Shenouda said in a statement. “There are now fights and exchange of fire which are hurting Egypt’s reputation and yours too and therefore this protest must be immediately broken up.” the statement said.

But some 2,000 protesters remain in place and vowed to continue the sit-in. “We will not leave until our demands are met,” said protest leader Beshara Marzouk. “The pope is a man of religion but he is too forgiving and his people want their rights. We see that our rights are always being overlooked.” (Reuters, May 15; CNN, Reuters, May 14)

Added Antonius El-Gawargui, a Coptic monk who is participating in the vigil: “We will not leave until our demands are met, which are the apprehension and trial of all those responsible for the attack on the church in Sol to the attack and the events in Imbaba. If the [Higher Council of the Armed Forces] had brought the criminals responsible for the first incident to justice we would not be here today. If it does not take a firm stance on the events in Imbaba, who knows where sectarian violence will erupt next?” (Al-Ahram Weekly, May 14)

Just hours before the Cairo violence, suspected Salafists bombed the tomb of a Muslim saint in the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zweid. A security official said a group of eight or nine attackers fled the area. Salafist militants have blown up at least five other Muslim shrines in recent weeks, believing the veneration of saints is a violation of Islam. (AP, May 15)

See our last post on the struggle in Egypt.

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  1. Egypt: bad precedent in Qena
    Amid all sectarian violence in Cairo, Qena governorate has seen repeated protests demanding the removal of Emad Shehata Mikhail—a Copt and former head of police in Giza—as governor. Egypt’s interim prime minister Essam Sharaf caved in to the pressure and had him suspended late last month. The secretary-general of Qena governorate, Maged Abdel Kareem, assumed the governor’s responsibilities pending further notice. (Ahram Online, May 3)