Christians, Muslims Clash When Copts Open Church Opposite Mosque

November 27, 2008

Author: Joseph Mayton

Source: Middle East Times

Fears of growing sectarianism in Egypt were again realized this week after clashes between Christians and Muslims saw at least eight people arrested in the Ain Shams neighborhood of Cairo. Coptic Pope Shenouda III called for calm after the violence on Sunday sparked concerns that sectarianism in Egypt is gaining steam.

The incident occurred Sunday after a group of Muslim demonstrators took to the street in front of an area converted by Christians into a prayer hall. According to reports, rock throwing and the burning of two cars ensued after Christians and the Muslim protesters began to fight.

Police entered the fray and ended the violence before it spiraled out of control. But, not before religious leaders and activists began to worry that this is the beginning of more religious-based conflicts in the country that has long boasted of its religious tolerance.

The pope banned Christians from praying in the state-owned building in Cairo after the incident and "has ordered a cessation to prayers in the building belonging to the Church of [the] Virgin Mary ... after confrontations between the worshippers and some of the neighborhood's residents in front of the building," Egypt's state-owned MENA news agency quoted a papal spokesman as saying.

The building in question was a former factory that had been abandoned. The church had bought the property for the prayer hall, which lies almost directly across the street from a mosque, which sparked anger among the Muslim residents.

"The cause behind the recurring attacks in the issue of building churches is the regime and I blame the government before extremists for not solving the problem," said Naguib Gobrail, a Coptic lawyer in Cairo.

Permission for churches is controversial in Egypt, where by law the president must give final say in the use of a certain space for religious purposes. Rights groups argue that because the president delegates authority in the matter to local officials, Copts have been forced to use illegal places for worship.