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Egypt’s Christians are under fire

In a Jesuit-run magazine in 1957, Rev. J.J.W. Murphy recalled a meeting with a Christian priest in Egypt ten years prior. "I was surprised then at what he told me of Muslim hostility to Christianity and of the possibility that persecution would break out," Murphy wrote. "Now I know that his pessimism was well-founded." More ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In a Jesuit-run magazine in 1957, Rev. J.J.W. Murphy recalled a meeting with a Christian priest in Egypt ten years prior. "I was surprised then at what he told me of Muslim hostility to Christianity and of the possibility that persecution would break out," Murphy wrote. "Now I know that his pessimism was well-founded."

More than six decades later, sectarian tensions in Egypt are alive and well. At least six Egyptians lost their lives to religious violence over the weekend: Five Christians and Muslims were killed on April 5 in the town of Khosous; and clashes broke out again on April 7 at a Cairo cathedral, where mourners had gathered for the funeral of the Christian men, resulting in the death of a Christian man.

The April 7 clashes will only heighten Christians’ fears of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government: The Egyptian police seemed to join the assault against them, firing tear gas at the cathedral as Muslim youths hurled rocks in the same direction. From inside the cathedral compound, Christian men threw Molotov cocktails and let off fireworks at the crowd outside.

There were a few bright spots amidst the otherwise grim scene. As the clashes raged, the New York Times‘ Kareem Fahim tweeted a picture of an Egyptian man holding up a Quran and a cross as a sign of religious coexistence. And protesters eventually arrived outside the cathedral, chanting "Christians and Muslims are one hand!"

President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the violence, saying that he considered any attack on the cathedral "an attack on myself." But Mohamed Soudan, the foreign relations secretary for the Brotherhood’s political party in Alexandria, struck a very different note: In an e-mail to a reporter at Daily News Egypt, he blamed the Copts for the violence, writing that they had gathered at the cathedral to "prepare for civil war."

Egypt is a long way from the days when Muslims and Christians united in Tahrir Square to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s rule. In October 2011, Egyptian security forces attacked a demonstration outside of the Maspero television building, resulting in the death of 27 Egyptians. And following the clashes outside Cairo’s presidential palace in December, Islamist figures were quick to accuse Christians of playing a leading role in the violence. Hardline preacher Safwat Hegazy had a particularly unambiguous message for the Copts: "[T]here are red lines. Our red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Mohamed Morsi. Whoever splashes it with water, we will splash with blood."

With the rise of these new threats, questions have arisen about the future of the Christian minority in Egypt. It is not a new issue: As far back as the 1940s, Christians were wondering about their community’s survival. "[The Copt] will bow before the storm and hope that some of his people will survive it, if not himself." Murphy ended his essay. "He will not leave Egypt."

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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