Monday, May 16, 2011

Egyptian tensions reaching 'breaking point' after church attacks

An expert on Christian persecution says that attacks on three Egyptian churches on May 7 have brought the country to the brink of chaos. “The tension between the various communities has grown to a potential breaking point,” said John Pontifex, head of press and information for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. He told Vatican Radio on May 11 that there was now “great fear” of violence spreading “all over Cairo, and indeed elsewhere.”

Coptic Christians protest in Cairo, Egypt on May 9,
2011 / Photo Credit: Maggie Osama (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Approximately 3,000 members of the Salafist Jihadi movement attacked three Coptic churches in the Egyptian city of Giza on May 7. The violence left at least 15 people dead, and injured more than 200. Initially driven by a rumor about a Muslim woman being kidnapped inside a Coptic Orthodox church, the violence spread to two other churches and left homes in Coptic Christian neighborhoods torched.
Pontifex said he hoped that Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with the smaller Coptic Catholic population, could “find ways to work with the wider Muslim community to restore
He said Egyptian police had “made it absolutely clear that they aren't prepared to brook any opposition” from the Salafist Jihadi movement. The army has promised to use an “iron fist” against such attacks in the future.
But many Copts have reason to be skeptical, on the basis of reports about how the police and army handled last weekend's attacks.
One priest said that six police officers showed up – and later left the scene – in response to the 3,000-strong mob of Salafists. The army arrived more than four hours after the attacks began, and failed to stop the violence from continuing for almost 10 hours afterward.
Since then, the army and police have stepped up security around churches in Cairo, hoping to head off a similar tragedy.
But if peace can be maintained, it may be an uneasy peace from the perspective of local Christians.
“Egypt faces something of an identity crisis,” Pontifex said, explaining difficulties the country has faced since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February. “It has a military-led government in place, but what will happen in the long term is as-yet unclear.”
“The big question is whether shariah” – the Islamic law system derived from the Qur'an – “will be imposed more vigorously as the basis of law and order in society.”
Even if a majority of Egyptians are not pushing for an Islamic state, the advocates of this system are better-organized than their opponents.
Islamists, according to Pontifex, “are seen, with the Muslim Brotherhood, to be the only credible alternative form of government” other than the army. “Those who are promoting democracy in a Western-style government do not have the same level of organization to push forward their agenda.”
He said that some Christians were already beginning to flee their ancestral villages in Upper Egypt.
“All the time, there are reports of Christians saying 'We want to leave. We do not feel safe here. We do not wish to stay in this region.'”
“And, of course, what happens in Egypt has manifest implications for the whole region.”
The first response from the worldwide Church, he said, should be one of prayer.
“Egypt should be a focus for prayer for the faithful at this time,” said Pontifex, urging prayer for “those who do not have the freedom to worship, to practice their faith, as freely as we in the West are able to do.”

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