Row over Coptic village church puts Egypt on edge

October 12, 2011

(Egyptian Coptic Christians carry coffins as they make their way to Abassaiya Cathedral during a mass funeral for victims of sectarian clashes with soldiers and riot police, after a protest about an attack on a church in southern Egypt, in Cairo October 10, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Police line the dirt roads of the village of Marinab in Egypt’s deep south, whose dispute over a Christian place of worship has spread nationwide and plunged the ruling army into its deepest crisis since Hosni Mubarak was ousted. A Coptic Christian woman who called to a visiting reporter from a balcony in Marinab, a settlement of hundreds of Christians and thousands of Muslims, said the Muslim villagers had effectively imprisoned her.

Although there were no physical barriers to her home, police tried to stop visitors going in and the family stayed huddled fearfully inside. “Our children haven’t gone to school in 15 days! We are trapped!” the woman yelled, before her husband quieted her for fear of the neighbours.

The trouble began when Christians in the village in the summer started building a dome on a half-finished building used as a place of worship for decades. Details of what happened next are hazy: the Copts say some Muslim residents tried to tear the new structure down, arguing it did not have proper licensing, but the Muslims say there was a fire which they tried to put out. Tensions in the village quickly spread and this week boiled over onto the streets of Cairo, 700 km (440 miles) north of Aswan city, Marinab’s nearest big town, leaving 25 dead as Coptic protesters clashed with military police.

Rows over places of worship have long been at the heart of complaints by Christians in Egypt, who make up 10 percent of the population. But a spate of such attacks since the uprising that deposed Mubarak in February has upset Copts who say the country’s interim army rulers have ignored their grievances and failed to protect them.

The rise in attacks on churches this year has been particularly blamed on Salafists and other strict Muslims who have emerged after the toppling of Mubarak, who repressed Islamists. “This is not the Islam we grew up with,” a Christian villager named Morkos shouted at a visiting reporter as his brother tried to calm him down. “We know Islam, we live among it, it never meant tearing down our churches,” he said.

Read the full story by Dina Zayed here.


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