Copts will long remember Friday, October 21, as a night of terror, flame, and violence in Alexandria. Late that evening, thousands of rioting Muslims targeted three poorly protected Protestant congregations and an Orthodox church in the Muharram Bey section of Alexandria. Muslims were venting their anger over a video of a Christian play, produced at an Orthodox church. Muslims allege the video defamed Islam.
Days after the violence, I visited Christian congregations all over Alexandria and found everyday believers in a state of anxiety and shock over the attacks. Muslim-Christian violence, they told me, was something that happened in poor areas of Cairo or rural Upper Egypt, not Alexandria.
This fall, the relative calm between Muslims and Copts (as Christians in Egypt are known) changed with the publication of an article in Al-Midan, a sensationalist Arabic-language newspaper widely available in urban areas.
The article described a video CD (not a DVD) of a play produced at St Girgis, a prosperous Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, a coastal city of 5 million where little religious violence has occurred.
Headlined "Christian Play Insults Prophet Muhammad," the article detailed how church members produced and videotaped a play titled, "I was blind, but now I see." The newspaper account stimulated deep anger among Muslims. In the days after publication, thousands protested outside Alexandria's churches.
On October 18, the Islamist group, Mujahadeen of Egypt (said to be responsible for the recent Sharm el-Sheikh bombings) incited Muslims via the Internet to act against Christians in connection with the video. The next day, the first violence occurred. A Muslim exited a street car in Alexandria and attempted to assault a group of girls. Sara Rushdy, a Coptic nun, stepped in to intervene, but the attacker stabbed her repeatedly with a knife just outside a church. (She was not seriously wounded.)
After Friday prayers on October 21, Muslims again protested outside St. Girgis church. But local police had cordoned off the area. The crowd grew larger and more violent as attacks with rocks and sticks were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from police.
Rioters moved throughout Muharram Bey and began to target Protestant churches, which had much less security. During an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, one Protestant pastor and his staff members described an unforgettable night of fear inside their sanctuary on a narrow side street in Muharram Bey. The pastor and his staff piled pews against the church's large wooden doors as rioters assaulted them with large rocks, sticks, and crude Molotov cocktails. They showed me the splintered shutters and doors and burn marks on the building exterior.
By the morning of October 22, police found that three people, all Muslims, had died in the riots. It's estimated that 90 people were injured. Some shops were looted and received damage to their exteriors. Vehicles were torched. More than 100 people were placed under arrest.
Christianity Today toured portions of Muharram Bey's Pentecostal church, which received the most extensive damage. Rioters broke through the doors and heavily damaged the church's interior. They destroyed Bibles, hymnals, and other literature.
The rioting has triggered international outcries. "The violence to which Copts in Egypt have been subjected is nothing but state-sanctioned terrorism against the Coptic minority," read a statement from Michael Meunier, president of the U.S. Copts Association, an organization representing Copts in America.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) indicated that local security services in Alexandria were largely to blame for allowing violence to occur. "Egyptian officials have been at best lax and, at worst, criminally negligent in the October 21 riots," Wolf said in a November 9 press statement.
Was the video offensive to Muslims?
On October 31, Christianity Today visited Christian leaders in Alexandria and obtained the video CD from a Muslim journalist after police had confiscated and destroyed most of the CDs, ordering Christians not to show them to anyone.
I viewed the video, while an interpreter provided an English translation. The play chronicles a Copt youth who leaves his Christian heritage behind to follow Islam, guided by a Muslim friend. But after his conversion, the youth discovers the local sheik consumed with a lavish lifestyle of eating and pursuit of pleasure.
Later on, the youth is thrown into a spiritual crisis and wonders whether he made the right choice of rejecting Christianity. He questions fellow Muslims, but is met with great hostility. After the youth declares his rejection of Islam, Muslim radicals chase him down and shoot him. But he is not killed. At the end of the video, the youth is shown as an old man. He warns Coptic children to learn from his example and stay within the Christian fold. At the end of the production, church members applaud enthusiastically.
The play is loosely based on a popular Egyptian film, "The Terrorist." In the church video, Muslims are depicted as concerned with material prosperity and aggressive toward those who question their commitment to Islam. In the wake of the rioting, Coptic Orthodox leaders have taken both priests out of St. Girgis church. It's unclear how long their temporary suspensions will last.
In my interviews with church members, they denied any harmful intent. They believe the video was only for in-church use, not for evangelism, but for education of their youth. "We don't think we did anything wrong," one staff member told me.
But other Christian leaders in Alexandria question whether the play's producers took into account what would happen if Muslims viewed the video. A prominent Coptic Orthodox leader in Alexandria, Father Tadrous Malaty, told CT that the production of the play and video "lacked wisdom." Some Coptic leaders believe the play could easily be misinterpreted as a general critique of Islam, but that in no way justified violence of any kind.
The riots and the video are influencing local politics. This week, Egyptians are going to the polls for the first time since 2000 to elect members to the national parliament.
Religious tensions are higher because the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical group banned for decades, has several candidates on the ballot as independents.
The Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to remaking Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state by gaining control of the political process. For years, the group's slogan has been: "Islam is the solution" (al-Islam Houwa al-Hall).
There were two Christian candidates in Alexandria on the November ballot: Maher Khella of the ruling National Democratic Party and George Gabra, an independent. Some Christian leaders believe that political opponents of Khella (from Muharram Bey) played a role in stimulating the riots.
The only way Khella could win a seat in parliament is with a meaningful number of Muslim votes. The Christian vote by itself would be insufficient to elect him. Others suspect that state security was behind the rioting to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood as violent agitators, thus undermining their popular support.
There are few other Coptic candidates running for office elsewhere in Egypt. The National Democrats have only two Christians out of 444 candidates on the ballot. Political science professor Mona Makram Ebeid, who as a woman and a Copt is a rarity in Egyptian politics, lost in the first round of elections in a predominantly Christian electoral district.
Despite many limitations on Christianity in Egypt, Copts represent up to eight percent of the population and many are deeply integrated into Egyptian society. Of Egypt's 77 million people, about 5 million or 6 million are Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. The Christian population has its greatest concentration in rural Upper Egypt, hundreds of miles south of Cairo along the Nile river.
Influential Christian leaders have supported Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, especially in the campaign against militant Islam. Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Anglican Archbishop Mouneer Anis endorsed the re-election of Mubarak earlier this year.
In Cairo and Alexandria, Copts form a vital segment of Egypt's middle and upper classes. Moderate Muslims and Copts are widely seen as mutually tolerant. Grand Sheik Tantawi of Al-Azhar University embodies the kind of moderate Islam that is more accepting of the Christian presence within Egypt and committed to dialogue. Tantawi recently even invited the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and other Christians to lecture at Al-Azhar, the intellectual hub of the Islamic world.
At the grassroots level, relations between Muslims and Christians are strained. Competition for jobs and educational opportunities in Egypt is fierce, regardless of religious affiliation. A significant part of the Coptic population is entrenched at the bottom of the economy, including the well-known Muqattam Copts. They are Cairo's garbage collectors (zabbaleen) and builders of the famous cave church set under a massive overhanging cliff south of Cairo. Seating 20,000, it is one of the largest churches of the Middle East.
Religion remains one of Egypt's greatest flashpoints. In recent years, the low-water mark for Coptic-Muslim relations is the New Year's massacre in El-Kosheh, an Upper Egypt village, where 21 Christians lost their lives in rioting in 2000. The local courts eventually acquitted all the suspects, triggering cries of injustice among Copts in Egypt and worldwide.
Timothy C. Morganis deputy managing editor of Christianity Today. Additional reporting from Cornelius Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab-West Report, in Cairo.
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More articles about Egypt, religious freedom in the country, and the 2000 El-Kosheh riots are available on our Egypt page.
Weblog linked to several news stories about the riots.
The BBC's Egypt page has links to their latest news stories on the election.