Taking a Stand against Terror with Crucifix and Koran
"My name is Ahmad and I'm a Muslim, but that's not important now," says the young Egyptian high-school student. He's holding the Koran in one hand, a crucifix in the other. "I've come to protest against what happened to our Christian brothers and to show that the religious communities in Egypt won't let themselves be divided."
Over a thousand people have come together spontaneously on the first evening of the new year in Shubra, an area in the centre of Cairo where many Coptic Christians live. At around the same time, some three hours' drive away, the 21 people killed in a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria are being buried. A group close to al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility on the Internet.
Egypt is still in a state of shock. Sanaa, a young Muslim, has also come to Shubra. She is not the only woman wearing a headscarf at this demonstration. This is the first time in her life she has taken part in a protest.
"We are Copts and Muslims"
"It was just too much, seeing the pictures from Alexandria. I've come to express my condolences to my Christian fellow Egyptians," says Sanaa, a journalism student. She's holding a home-made cardboard cross and a crescent moon. In the background, demonstrators are chanting their slogan: "Who are we? We are Copts and Muslims. We have churches and mosques and Jesus and Muhammad – so what?"
But the atmosphere is not just one of mourning. The Christians in particular are angry – at the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his government. An older woman tears at her clothing, shouting: "I've lost one son, shot by the police, and my other son is in prison."
That was last month, when street battles erupted between the police and young Copts over the construction of a church in Cairo's Omraniya district. Permission to build churches is complicated and difficult to attain, whereas new mosques are springing up in practically every corner of the city.
This is one reason why the Christians are angry. "When we lay one brick to build a church we get summoned by the secret service. Where were the security forces to prevent the bombing in Alexandria?" the woman shouts, bursting into tears: "Did you see them collecting up the body parts of our children in the church?"
Abdel Halim Qandil has come along as well. He is one of the founders of "Kifaya", the "Enough" movement, its name playing on almost three decades of Mubarak's rule. "The security forces are too busy protecting the regime and fixing the elections; they've forgotten to protect the people and especially the Christians among us," he says.
An inactive government
The government, he says, has always legitimized itself by declaring itself to be a guarantee for stability in Egypt. But the opposite is the case, he claims, with the regime doing nothing to stop the country dividing up into religious communities, the dissolution of society and the rising chaos.
A group of men is marching behind him with a large banner. One of them asks: "Where are our rights as Christians?" There are hardly any Christians in parliament, no Christian officers in the army or in important civil service positions, he says. "We are buried alive here."
And like many others this evening, he lists the three events now deeply embedded in the collective memory of Copts: the attack on a church in south Egyptian Naga Hamadi last Coptic orthodox Christmas Day, which is approaching again on 7 January, the riots and the people killed because of the church building in Omraniya last month, and now the massacre in Alexandria.
The man hasn't finished talking before pushing and shoving breaks out. The Egyptian riot police are doing their usual job. Like every demonstration, the government considers this gathering suspicious. The people who came here today wanted to take a stand against the al-Qaeda terror network and to stand up for unity in their country. They end up all running away from the Egyptian police – Christians and Muslims alike.
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Karim El-Gawhary is an expert on politics and Islamic Studies and works as Cairo correspondent for various German newspapers, including the taz and the Badische Zeitung. He has been head of Austrian public television's ORF Middle East bureau since 2004.