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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Christianity

EGYPT: Police use tear gas, fire shots as protesters gather outside Israeli Embassy


Egyptian riot police fired tear gas and live ammunition at several hundred protesters gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in the Cairo suburb of Giza late Sunday.

At least two dozen protesters were injured, a health ministry official told Egyptian state television. A security official told the Associated Press that one of the injured was in critical condition Sunday.

The protest followed calls on Facebook for a march on Israel on Sunday in solidarity with Palestinians marking Nakba Day, the anniversary of the displacement of Palestinians with the founding of Israel in 1948.

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EGYPT: Thousands march in Tahrir Square, Coptic Christians continue sit-in

Tahrir Square

Thousands of protesters marched in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to stress the unity between Egypt’s Muslims and Christian Copts following sectarian clashes that ended with a dozen dead and more than 200 injured last week.

The march, which coincided with a rally in the square in solidarity with Palestinians, began with a Christian Mass followed by Friday prayers.

Cleric Mazhar Shahin, who delivered the Friday prayer speech, said Islam and Christianity do not teach hatred or incitement of violence.

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

“Such strife is intended by a group of people who are neither Muslims nor Christians,” Shahin said as he warned Egyptians not to let extremists divide them.

Both Muslim and Coptic Christian protesters joined the demonstration, chanting, “Muslims and Copts are one hand” and carrying banners that said, “Egypt is for all Egyptians.”

“We need to have constitutional guarantees securing equal citizenship rights and respecting all religions without discrimination between Muslims and Copts,” Adel Mahmoud, who is Muslim, told Babylon and Beyond.

Mahmoud said he wants to see those responsible for sectarian violence on both sides punished under Egyptian law.

Also in Cairo on Friday, several thousand Coptic Christians continued a sit-in that started Sunday, calling for the immediate capture, trial and conviction of religious extremists responsible for last week’s violence.

On Wednesday, Egyptian leaders promised to draft laws to deter religious violence and authorities announced that more than 200 suspects had been detained in connection with last week’s sectarian clashes.

However, some Coptic Christians were still in disbelief Friday.

“I don’t trust news like this. I doubt if anyone will be brought to justice. It’s the same as many previous clashes where no one was held accountable for sectarian violence,” said a Coptic protester who asked not to be identified.


Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Khaled Desouky /Getty Images

EGYPT: New laws planned to fight sectarian violence


Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians that left a dozen people dead last week have led the Egyptian government to consider new regulations criminalizing sectarian violence.

A new committee will consider laws banning protests outside places of worship and prohibiting the use of religious slogans by political parties, as well as forming a unified law for building houses of worship, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Egyptian ministers' Cabinet.

Coptic Christians, about 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, have long complained that the Egyptian government forces them to overcome onerous bureaucratic red tape in order to build new churches, while Muslim counterparts have no difficulty constructing new mosques. 

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

Tensions soared in Egypt on Saturday when several thousand conservative, or Salafi, Muslims rioted around a church in Giza, about 12 miles southwest of the capital, following allegations that a female Muslim convert was being held there against her will by Coptic priests.

Copts gathered around the church to prevent Muslims from entering. The confrontation that seemed inevitable was soon triggered as bullets and Molotov cocktails began flying.

More than 240 people were injured and a nearby church was torched.

The woman in question, Abeer Talaat Fakhry, broke her silence and spoke to Egyptian and Arab media on Monday, confirming that she converted to Islam last September and was abducted and held inside the Coptic church. She said she managed to escape amid Saturday’s violence.

While her story was disputed by a Giza priest, local news site published a purported copy of a certificate proving her conversion.

A number of Islamic clerics have argued that Fakhry converted to divorce her Coptic husband and marry a Muslim. Coptic Christians in Egypt cannot obtain a civil divorce.

Egyptian military authorities have detained more than 200 suspects in connection with Saturday’s violence, including a Salafi cleric accused of inciting hatred against Copts in a video streamed online before clashes erupted.

A fact-finding panel appointed by the National Council for Human Rights said Wednesday that "groups that can be described as thugs" and might be related to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak may have played a role in igniting Saturday's clashes in order to disrupt Egypt's post-revolution progress.

Hundreds of Copts have been protesting outside Egyptian state TV headquarters in Cairo since Sunday, calling for the swift capture and trial of those responsible for the clashes and demanding better protection in their homeland.


Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: A church burns during Saturday's clashes in Giza. Credit. Ben Curtis / Associated Press

EGYPT: Coptic protesters demand government accountability, protection

Copts _picnik

Hundreds of Coptic Christians took to the streets in Cairo on Monday to protest recent Muslim-Christian clashes that left a dozen dead and a church badly damaged.

By sunset, about a thousand demonstrators had gathered outside the headquarters of Egypt’s state-run TV building, a familiar backdrop of revolutionary protests, to criticize the Egyptian army’s handling of the weekend clashes and to demand international intervention.

About three dozen riot police stood waiting nearby as the crowd grew increasingly agitated, chanting, "We want our kidnapped girls," a reference to rumors that Coptic women had been held against their will by those who want to convert them to Islam.

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

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EGYPT: Religious conflict becomes the revolution’s biggest enemy


The clashes between thousands of Muslim extremists and Coptic Christians that left 12 people dead, more than 200 injured and a burned church on Sunday rings yet another alarm to the threat Egypt faces over deepening religious animosity.

For decades, recrimination between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, has been taboo, with many Muslims refusing to acknowledge the lack of harmony. But the last few years have marked a notable rise in violence between the two sides, especially in southern Egypt, where large communities of Copts live next door to Muslims.

Former President Hosni Mubarak's regime relied on dividing Egyptians.  Authorities carefully presided over a volatile status quo between Muslims and Copts, all the while pretending religious strife didn't exist. Tribal settlements to conflicts were preferred and supported by police officials, who often blamed disputes on individual grudges or foreign terrorists. Mubarak skillfully manipulated the threat of outside extremists to convince the West, which long criticized Egypt's human-rights record, that he was an ally in battling terrorism.

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WEST BANK: Palestinian Christians denied access to holy places in Jerusalem during Easter

As Christians get ready to celebrate Easter, Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are envious of fellow Christians from all over the world who are able to visit Jerusalem’s holy Christian sites and worship freely while they cannot.

Since Israel cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories in the early 1990s, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been required to get Israeli army permission before they can enter Jerusalem.

The situation worsened since the turn of the century and restrictions got tighter after a 20-foot concrete wall was built all around East Jerusalem barring both Muslim and Christian Palestinians from reaching their holy sites in Jerusalem and its Old City.

“For Christians, Holy Week in Jerusalem has a special spiritual connection,” said a statement issued by the Christian community in the West Bank. “The Old City, its gates and roads, the Mount of Olives, Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre Church, where pilgrims from all over the world journey to, are equally important to the Palestinian Christians of Gaza and the West Bank, who want to join their Jerusalemite Christian brethren in the liturgical events leading to the resurrection, the holiest celebration in Christianity.”

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EGYPT: Ordinary Muslims, too, share blame for violence against Christians


Amr Hamzawy is an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Egypt is in need of collective redemption in the wake of the Alexandria bombing.  Egyptians must separate themselves from talk of conspiracies plotted by foreign terrorists. Let them instead take a hard look within and acknowledge that terrorism has a sectarian face.

Carnegie logoTerrorism exercises violence in societies that provide fertile ground for sectarian conflicts, as in Iraq, or likewise as it is being cultivated in Egypt today.

Egyptians must discard the deceptive displays they mechanically regurgitate each time blood is shed in crimes of sectarian violence. Championing national unity and flaunting it with kisses of priests by sheiks is baseless. Muslims who speak of their Christian brothers often do so incredulously.

Copts’ refusal to accept the condolences of government representatives to senior members of the All Saints Church is not an act to be feared. Rather, it is an explicit expression of a frustration gripping many Christians who are ruled by a government resigned to their discrimination.  Public institutions fail to soberly consider the root causes of such vehemence, and are lax in their responsibility to provide them with protection.

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EGYPT: Eyewitness claims train attacker did not target Copts, state media say


An off-duty police officer who killed one Copt and wounded five others on board a train Tuesday didn't intentionally target Christians, Egypt's state news agency quoted an eyewitness as saying.

"The attacker boarded the train with his face to the passengers' backs, before pulling out his gun, turning and firing randomly without saying anything or seeming to know any of the people he aimed at," Hossam Abd El Aal, who entered the train when it stopped at Samalut station, where the assault occurred, told MENA.

Officials said a 71-year-old Copt was killed and his wife and four other Christians were seriously wounded when Amer Ashour Abdel Zaher fired at passengers heading from the southern city of Assyut to Cairo. According to the Health Ministry, two of the wounded remain in critical condition.

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SUDAN: Referendum might mark birth of a new nation, though fear of violence looms

Southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote for independence — splitting the largest country in Africa and the Arab world in two — in a referendum on Sunday. Secession would mark the beginning of a complicated process of creating a new African state.

Carnegie logoThe referendum was designed to be the culmination of a peace process ending decades of conflict between the north and the south in Sudan, but there are lingering fears that tensions could erupt into violence.

Tensions between the north and south have a long history, going back to pre-colonial days. The two areas have significantly different cultural, ethnic and religious makeups — the north is mainly Arab and Muslim while the south is mainly African and Christian or animist — which have complicated relations for many years.

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MIDDLE EAST: Can the region's Christians survive the 21st Century?


As the 21st Century enters its second decade, two millennia of Christian presence in the Middle East might be eclipsed by the end of the century.

Carnegie logoThe new decade began in the Middle East with a car bomb that went off minutes after midnight outside an Egyptian church and left more than 20 people dead. This bombing came just a few weeks after radical Islamic gunmen killed dozens of people in a church in Iraq. The rise of Al Qaeda and the spread of radical Islamic movements have made the difficult situation of the Middle East’s Christian minorities far worse.

Comprising 20% of the region’s population at the beginning of the 20th Century, the remaining 10 to 12 million people make up only 5% of the population today. Though Christians played prominent roles in the cultural, nationalist, leftist and anti-colonial movements of earlier decades, they are excluded from the Islamist politics of recent years.

Since 2001, they have also borne some of the brunt of the confrontation between radical Islam and the (Christian) West.

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IRAN: 'American' detained as alleged spy amid crackdown on Christians [Updated]


[Updated, Jan. 6, 10:56 a.m.: Iran's state-controlled Al-Alam television channel is quoting an "informed source" as denying reports by other news outlets that an American woman had been arrested at the Armenian border. According to Iran's Arabic language channel, the woman arrived at the border requesting entry but was denied entrance because she did not have a visa.]

A woman referred to by authorities as American, who is of possible Armenian Christian descent, has been arrested on espionage charges, an Iranian newspaper reported Thursday, as officials launched a major crackdown on the country's Christian minority for alleged proselytizing.

According to the Iranian daily newspaper Iran, a mouthpiece of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 55-year-old "American" was detained in the Iranian-Armenian border city of Nordouz.

Customs officials allegedly discovered she was carrying hidden "spy equipment" and microphones on her body.

According to the privately owned conservative Iranian news website Tabnak, the woman -- identified in media reports as Hal Talayan -- had spy equipment in her teeth at the time of arrest and feared she'd be killed by Armenian security forces if she were returned to Armenia.

"If sent back to Armenia by the Islamic Republic of Iran, then the security forces of that country will kill her," Tabnak quoted her as saying.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency, quoting a "well-informed source," reported that the woman was detained by customs officials a week ago.

Meanwhile, Iran appears to be ratcheting up pressure on the country's mostly Armenian Christian minority, reportedly arresting Christian leaders and missionaries on accusations of promoting "hard-line" religious views with foreign backing. Morteza Tamadon, the governor of Tehran province, where the Christians reportedly were detained, said more arrests would be carried out soon.

Christianity is recognized as a religion in Iran, but Christians there are not allowed to proselytize.

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LEBANON: Proposed ban on sale of land between Muslims and Christians sparks controversy

ChurchMosque Labor Minister Butros Harb on Tuesday vigorously defended his controversial draft law that would ban the sale of land between Christians and Muslims for the next 15 years on the pretext of protecting Lebanon's Christian community.

Outraged critics have pointed out that the law is not only discriminatory and unconstitutional, but also fails to address the economic and political pressures pushing Lebanese of all sects to leave the country.

"There are suspicious sales of Christian lands as if there is a tendency to uproot Christians from their areas," he was quoted telling a local television news station by the news website Naharnet.

Harb's proposal does not appear to affect the sale of land by Christians to wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Peninsula countries who have invested heavily in the Lebanese real estate sector. Civil-society activists, politicians and ordinary people have reacted with disgust to the proposal, which some have called fear-mongering.

The draft law "is actually a direct violation of the constitution and the coexistence that is part of the constitution," said Kamel Wazne, head of the Center of American Strategic Studies. 

"Today they are calling for not selling land to someone from another sect, tomorrow they will want to outlaw intermarriage," he said. "The premise for the law is very racist, and if this is allowed to pass in Lebanon, it will set a very bad precedent for the country."

Harb did not respond to several requests for comment.

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