From kids' quarrel to religious strife in Alexandria

Cairo - Fifty years ago, no Egyptian would have believed that a fight between two children - a Muslim and a Christian - could ignite violence requiring the presence of truckloads of heavily-armed riot police to contain it. But this happened last month in the once cosmopolitan Mediterranean city of Alexandria, albeit in one of the city's poorer districts. There, a fist fight between two boys in front of a church turned into a full-blown sectarian clash between Muslims and Christians.

As religious zealots and angry mobs fanned the flames, the incident could have escalated had it not been for police which arrived quickly on the scene and contained the clash.

"This situation is not unique to Alexandria. The tension is everywhere," says Father Yohanna Naseef, a Christian Coptic priest and an Alexandrine.

He lists three reasons at the core of the clashes: "The education system that does not encourage dialogue among co-patriots belonging to different confessions, discrimination against Christians in work places, and an underdeveloped environment which breeds hatred."

"Troubles of this kind usually surface in poor areas, where the cultural, social and economic conditions are grim,"says Naseef.

The Dekhela district in Alexandria, where last month's incident took place, is a popular neighbourhood where Muslims and Christian Copts have long co-existed peacefully.

The neighbourhood sports a church, the Holy Virgin, and a number of small mosques. The son of one mosque Imam rowed with a Christian boy and the result was dozens of zealots on both sides clashing in the street, with Muslims pelting the church's windows with stones. Several were injured and police arrested 13 people.

This latest incident in Alexandria has rekindled sleeping tensions and raised many old concerns.

In October 2005, on two consecutive Fridays, angry Muslims who had just finished Friday prayers in the mosque marched on St George's Church in Alexandria's Moharam Bek district, attacking the church and terrorizing Christian inhabitants of the district.

The clash was sparked by the leaking of a CD of a play performed inside the church and said to be disdainful of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

In April 2006, an extremist, claimed by security authorities to have been mentally deranged, attacked four churches in Alexandria. One Coptic citizen was killed and five others injured.

Every incident of violence seems to have awakened the anger inside the Copts' hearts. The mood in the political, judicial and social arena has arguably made matters worse.

Politically, Copts have little representation in Egypt's houses of parliament or within political parties.

With the rise in popularity of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, who are fiercely active on the political arena and have strong representation in parliament, Copts have begun to fear they would be treated as aliens in their homeland, or even persecuted because of their faith.

Claims of discrimination and even religious persecution against Copts are on the rise. Egyptian authorities claim radical Coptic communities resident abroad, especially in the United States, are fanning the flames, and asking foreign powers to intervene to empower Egypt's Christian minority.

In the last 30 years, a "political Coptic project" has emerged, according to Rafiq Habib, a renowned expert on Coptic affairs and a Christian himself, though not a Copt. Habib says the Coptic Church is gradually becoming the main representative of Copts, "a Coptic party of sorts."

He adds that "foreign intervention in the affairs of the Copts, and the idea of establishing quotas for Copts in parliament are part of this project, which is being supported and publicized by some Coptic circles inside and outside Egypt."

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