12:01am

Thu April 21, 2011
Middle East

Rising Religious Tension Sparks Fear In Egyptian City

Many who took part in Egypt's popular uprising hoped it would lead to improved relations between the country's Muslims and the Christian minority.

But in some Egyptian cities, residents say religious tensions are worse than ever. One of the hotspots is the southern Egyptian city of Qena, where there have been several attacks on Christians by Islamist extremists.

This week, thousands of Muslim hardliners are blocking railroad tracks and roads in and out of the city to protest the appointment of a Christian governor.

Qena is a rural governorate renowned for its sugar cane fields. But its capital by the same name has a surprisingly cosmopolitan feel.

Veiled Muslim girls in loose-fitting clothes chat with unveiled Christian friends wearing short sleeves as they amble past fancy shops.

Resident Mustafa Hussein, a liberal activist and a Muslim, says tribal ties are what count here. But he and Coptic friend Hala Helmy Botros, also an activist, worry this city could be torn apart by growing religious strife. They blame that on hard-line Islamists who call themselves Salafis.

'It's Unspeakable, This Injustice'

Botros says since the revolution, extremist Salafi gangs have been trying to impose their brand of Islamic law. She claims the Egyptian police do nothing to stop them, even though the gangs are linked to the deaths of two Copts and the maiming of a third.

Botros say the extremists post decrees warning they will chop off the hair of any girl who walks around unveiled.

Another Copt, Gihan Saad, says people quickly tear down such posters. But she still is uneasy. The 32-year-old nurse says she used to feel safe living in an all-Muslim neighborhood. Now she is afraid to let her fifth-grade daughter go outdoors.

Christian landlord Ayman Dmitry is another who refuses to go out since a dozen men with long beards attacked him inside an apartment.

Dmitry says they hit him with their fists and sticks. He says they tried spitting on the tiny cross tattooed on his right wrist, but he pulled away. That earned him a deep knife cut on his arm.

Dmitry says his attackers told him they were punishing him for renting the apartment to two Muslim sisters. They claimed the girls were prostitutes, a charge he denies. They accused him of improper relations with a third sister, whom Dmitry says he met only once.

He says his attackers told him they would let him go if he converted to Islam. When he refused, they held him down and cut off his right ear.

"It's unspeakable, this injustice," he says. "It's bearable only because I managed to defy them and stand up for Christ. But I'm deformed now, so I don't go out."

'We Favor Reconciliation'

No one has been charged in the attack. Everyone interviewed for this story claims the police in Qena either fear the gangs or are in cahoots with them.

Dmitry's priest, the Rev. Moussa Boris Gibril, says the authorities and local Muslim leaders pressured their Coptic counterparts and relatives of the victim to form a reconciliation commission.

The priest says five days later the matter was declared resolved, although Dmitry and his family are far from satisfied.

Across town, several Salafis who say they are spokesmen for the fundamentalist movement in Qena acknowledge that sectarian tensions are rising. But they disavow any connection to the gangs.

One spokesman, who gave his name as Mahmoud, denies that the Salafis are trying to impose Islamic law.

His friend, Dr. Mostafa Mohamed Abdou, says Salafis are more public now because the revolution made them free to speak out. He says Christians in Qena have nothing to fear.

"All my neighbors are Copts. You can ask them how Mostafa treats them and they'll tell you always well," he says. "We all live here. That's why we favor reconciliation to handle any problems that arise."

Back in Cairo, human rights activists aren't convinced. Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks sectarian violence, says Egypt's military rulers are wrong to ignore such attacks.

"We want to see a proper prosecution of the criminals that attacked a Christian citizen in Qena," he says. "Without holding the perpetrators accountable and compensating the victims, we will never see a real decline in sectarian tensions and sectarian violence in our society." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.