Christians and Muslims on a knife-edge in Egypt

Fire ravages a church in the district of Imbaba

Originally published in the Independent, May 9th, 2011

Just a few yards away from the alter in Saint Menas Church, and not far from a large painting depicting the resurrection of Christ hanging on a nearby wall, the floor was sticky with blood.

“They were putting injured people inside the church,” said Awatef Saad, a 44-year-old nurse. “There must have been 100 people in total. We were trying to stitch all the wounds but there were so many injuries.”

Some of the dead were also brought here. One was a middle-aged man called Medhat Magdy, according to Ms Saad. “He was shot in the neck,” she said. “I found his body at the alter when I arrived at the church.”

He was just one of 12 people who were killed during violent clashes between Muslims and Christians which flared up on Saturday night in Imbaba, a dirt-poor district of western Cairo.

The pitched street battles continued into the early hours of yesterday, and two Coptic churches were set ablaze in a night of unrest which also left 200 people injured. The trouble began on Saturday after a rumour spread around the neighbourhood that a woman was being held against her will in the Saint Menas Church because she had married a Muslim man and wanted to convert.

The claim was denied by Christians at the church and never substantiated, but by nightfall several hundred members of the Salafi movement – a hardline branch of Islam which has become increasingly vocal since the fall of the former president Hosni Mubarak in February – had gathered in the street outside.

After barricading themselves inside the church, the Christians were attacked by Salafists, who hurled petrol bombs at homes and shops and torched the front of the church building.

Gunfire rang out around the area as the two sides hurled stones and bricks at each other. Riot police and soldiers arrived later and fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds, while another nearby church, the Virgin Mary Church, was also torched. “The people who did this were from outside the area. But we have nothing but love to give and we don’t want anybody killed in return,” said Misak Gameel, a priest who works at the Saint Menas Church. “The gates of hell themselves couldn’t destroy this church. We blame the army and the police. They didn’t deal with the Salafis and thugs as required.”

George Ishak, a prominent Christian pro-democracy activist who visited Saint Menas Church yesterday, said: “There is a very tense atmosphere in our country between the Muslims and the Christians. What happened on Saturday was a very bad thing. We don’t accept it. Why is there so much anger? Where is it coming from? It’s unbelievable how people can treat each other.”

Speaking from a nearby tea-house as he sat smoking a shisha pipe, an elderly resident called Abdul Rahman said he had seen large groups pf Salafists gathering in the area on Saturday night. He added: “The Salafists don’t even like me, and I’m a Muslim. They don’t like the revolution because they think we will end up like Lebanon.”

Egypt’s government moved swiftly to try to quell the unrest, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelling a tour of Gulf Arab states to chair a cabinet meeting where it was decided to deploy more security forces near religious sites and toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship. The military, struggling to maintain security and public support in the aftermath of protests earlier this year, said that 190 people would be tried in military courts over Saturday’s violence.