Egypt’s Christians fear ‘a season of blood’

By Betsy Hiel

CAIRO — In the Shubra El Kheima section of this  sprawling capital’s outskirts, a herd of goats and three rail-thin horses pick  through garbage piles.

Rattling old cars and exhaust-belching buses honk at  darting three-wheeled “tuc-tuc” taxis.

On a narrow dirt street, four police officers guard  brick pillars rising from the mud.

This was going to be a Coptic Christian community  center — until ultra-Islamist Salafis seized it and declared it a Muslim mosque,  according to Emad El Erian, a spokesman for a Coptic rights organization.

“They threatened to burn some of the Coptic houses in  the neighborhood,” he said.

Salafis occupied the site every night until a  prosecutor ruled that the land belonged to the Copts and ordered a police guard,  local residents say.

“It’s as if (they) are challenging the police, the  government and the general prosecutor, and that they want to drag the Coptic  Christians into sectarian violence, a season of blood,” El Erian said.

Last week’s incident was the latest attack on Egypt’s  Christian minority — but not the week’s only one: A veiled woman sheared a  Christian girl’s hair in Cairo’s subway.

Such attacks — like crime in general — have risen in  number and intensity since last year’s ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Christian churches, homes and shops have been looted or torched; Christians have  been forced to flee some villages.

The situation seems to contradict President Obama’s  assertion in the Oct. 22 presidential debate that Egyptian officials must “take  responsibility for protecting religious minorities, and we have put significant  pressure on them to make sure they’re doing that.”

President Mohamed Morsy, a former Muslim Brotherhood  leader, insists Egypt is open to Muslims and Christians. Yet many Christians,  who make up 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, believe the Islamist  government is not protecting them.

“Nothing has been done to reform or achieve equality  among Egyptians,” said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani, a Christian  newspaper. He dismisses Morsy’s commitment as “superficial.”

The post-Mubarak rise of the Salafis, who are akin to  Saudi Arabia’s ultra-religious Wahhabis, frightens Christians and less-fanatical  Muslims.

On Friday, thousands of Salafis marched here to  demand “implementation of the Shariah,” or Islamic law. The mostly bearded crowd  waved green Saudi flags and the black banners of al-Qaida and other jihadi  groups.

One veiled Salafi woman carried a sign congratulating  Obama on his re-election as president. Other posters demanded freedom for Omar  Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian “Blind Sheikh” who is in a U.S. prison for his role  in the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.

‘A dangerous, slippery slope’

Sherif Rushdy

Sherif Rushdy, chief judge of a Cairo appeals court,  describes Copts as “a ship in the middle of a sandy hurricane.” Many are trying  to leave the country, he said.

Eighteen months ago, a fight erupted between a Muslim  and a Christian in Abu Qorqas, a village in Upper Egypt. Muslims then rampaged  for days, looting and burning 36 Christian homes and shops.

Rushdy’s brother Ala’a owned a restaurant that was  torched and a small cafeteria that was ransacked. Soldiers guarded Ala’a’s home  from a mob shouting, “God is great!”

Twenty people were arrested: 12 Christians, including  Rushdy’s brother, and eight Muslims.

“They investigated him and accused him of owning  machine guns, but they didn’t find any,” Rushdy said. “They accused him of  attempted murder.”

At a trial nine months later, an Egyptian general  called the charges nonsensical, Rushdy said. Yet Ala’a and the other Christians  were convicted and given life sentences; the eight Muslims were acquitted.

“We were shocked,” Rushdy recalled. “We had brought  his clothes (to the courtroom) because we thought he was coming home with us.”

He continues to file legal appeals but said that only  a presidential pardon will free his brother.

“We are on a dangerous, slippery slope,” he said. “The extremists have a principle: Whoever is not with us is against us.”

He dismisses the possibility of any help from the  Obama administration: “They didn’t do anything for their own ambassador, who was  killed in Libya. What will they do for us?”

Read more at Trib Live