Outrage over film worries Coptic Christians in Egypt

by Sarah Lynch, Special for USA TODAY

Khalil Hamra, AP


Egyptian Coptic Christians protest attacks on Christians and churches, in front of the state television building in Cairo.

CAIRO -- Sitting in a shaded, stone alleyway of Cairo's old Coptic Christian quarter, Adl Iskander wonders what regionwide anger over an anti-Islam film promoted by an Egyptian Coptic Christian in the United States will mean for Copts like him.

"I don't agree with the film, and I don't agree with what happened as far as reactions," Iskander said about the movie that portrays the Muslim prophet Mohammed in a demeaning and vulgar way. "Of course, we're worried."

Some of Egypt's roughly 8 million Coptic Christians fear they might face backlash either now or later amid outrage over the film, which was produced by an Egyptian Copt living in California. The film gained no attention and few viewers in the United States but created a huge firestorm when Muslim clerics learned of its existence and called on their followers to march on U.S. embassies here and elsewhere in protest.

Egypt's Coptic Christians make up about 10% of the country's population and have been subjected to anti-Christian discrimination and attacks for years. Following the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, came a rise in influence of hard-line Salafist Muslims who have called for an Islamic state and whom some fear will further restrict the rights of non-Muslim minorities.

"We are worried about violence" over the film, said Mina Thabet, an activist and founding member of Maspero Youth Union, a group of Coptic Christians."There will be more violence against us. There will be more discrimination.There will be more hate."

Others argue that the protesters who demonstrated in Cairo, and breached the compound of the U.S. Embassy, tearing down its American flag, are small groups and do not represent Egyptians as a whole.

"There are people who are respectful in our society, and they didn't react in a stupid way," said Mary Abdallah, 32, from the Cairo neighborhood Helwan. "We're not worried."

Egypt's Coptic Christian community, once a majority in Egypt, has dwindled since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Mubarak did little to stop attacks against them and legal discrimination, which continues today.

In the wake of Mubarak's ouster, the parliament and presidency have been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that believes in enforcing Islamic law. The Brotherhood took nearly 50% of the seats in parliamentary elections, and one of its own, Mohamed Morsi, was made Egypt's president. An Islamist coalition that includes the Salafists and supports strict adherence to Islamic law won 25% of the vote.

The nation has witnessed an uptick in violence against Christians alongside an overall rise in crime since Egypt's 2011 revolution, which was followed by a lack of effective security. Whether the rise of Islamists will mean trouble for Christians or other minorities is in debate.

"Right now, I'm not projecting anything will happen," said Hossam Kadry, an Egyptian photographer. "When violence rises, it rises all at once, but now things have calmed down."

"But it could be worse later," Kadry said.

Some Coptic Christians point to a recent arrest as one cause for concern. The Egyptian media reported Sunday that a young Coptic Christian in Cairo is being detained for posting the anti-Islam film on his Facebook page. His family's home was attacked, according to the news reports.

Others do not see the attacks as a sign that violence will necessarily escalate against Christians, who have lived alongside Muslims in Egypt for centuries.

"The film aired on the biggest news channels," said Medhat Emad, a Christian Web designer who follows Egyptian politics closely. He said he is apprehensive about ignorance and radical Islamists who"follow their religious leaders and whatever they say."

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani newspaper, which has a large Coptic Christian readership, said Copts in Egypt have expressed anger at the film and denounced it for the same reasons Muslims have. Egypt's Coptic Christian Church denounced the film as "part of a wicked campaign against religions, aimed at causing discord among people, especially Egyptians."

And among the demonstrations against the film were peaceful protests by Copts expressing solidarity with Muslims, Sidhom said.

"So I don't expect any backlash here in Egypt," he said.

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