Attacks on Copts Expose Egypt's Secular Paradox

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006

ODAYSSAT, Egypt -- Christians called the flat-top mud and brick building in this little farming community a guest house. But inside, big crucifixes adorned an altar chamber separated from two dozen rows of pews by a wooden screen. A baptismal font was hidden in a side room. Pictures of a resurrected Jesus, saints and patriarchs gazed from the walls.

For 35 years, the congregation and priests labeled the place a guest house to avoid restrictions on church construction in Egypt. But on Jan. 17, a police official, tipped off that the Christians were trying to have the building officially recognized, stopped by to inspect.

"This is not a guest house," he said with surprise. "It's a church."

According to residents and officials who described the incident, the monks, priests and worshipers answered, in effect: That's right. What of it?

The next day, a mob of Muslim rioters invaded the neighborhood, set fires to palm trees and stables and tried to burn down the building. Only a frantic defense by the Christians and heavy smoke from the flaming trees kept the mob at bay. Police officers who had already surrounded the building stood idly by. One Christian man was killed by a blow to the head with a hoe.

The sectarian battle was one of a series that have recently pitted the minority Coptic Christians, an ancient community in Egypt, against the majority Muslims. Repeated instances of violence have brought to light a persistent paradox of Egyptian life: Although officially a secular state, Egypt is in many ways an Islamic entity in which non-Muslims are accommodated but not exactly on an equal footing. The constitution specifies Islam as Egypt's official religion; Copts make up less than 10 percent of the country's population.

If the tensions are not new, the willingness of the Copts of Odayssat to stand up is. In part, their reaction to the police inspection exemplifies an increasingly common byproduct of Egypt's two-year-long wave of openness and dissent. Such ferment is putting the quarter-century leadership of President Hosni Mubarak to a test at a time when he is also under pressure from the United States to democratize.

About 30,000 people live in Odayssat, 8,000 of whom are Christians. The town contains the typical features of hundreds of Nile Valley farm communities: ramshackle, bare brick-and-wattle houses clustered around dirt alleys; and donkeys and cows in close quarters with farmers who cultivate fields of sugar cane and grain.

A recent Mass at Odayssat's Virgin Mary Church resembled an updated version of Christian worship as carried out under the thumb of a Roman emperor's centurions. Riot police in black kept sullen guard outside the church, whose facade was newly decorated with portraits of Mary. Inside, women in black sat and stood to the right side of the central aisle, men to the left. Squirming boys clustered at the feet of priests celebrating the rite in Coptic, a language descended from an ancient Egyptian tongue and Greek. Incense tickled the nose.

"What happened now is little in comparison to the past, when the fathers of our church were tortured," said a priest who delivered the homily.

After Mass, a group of Coptic men gathered in a nearby house. They recounted their version of the January melee. Word had circulated about an official announcement pledging to shed the cover of guest house and declare Virgin Mary an open church. On Jan. 17, a police official, Mohammed Nour, visited and made his discovery, residents and government officials said. He told the Christians they would be "held accountable" for the conversion of the building.

On Jan. 18, the Copts held Mass between 4 and 7 a.m. Riot police ringed the half-acre grounds. As worshipers left the church, police told them to lock themselves in their houses. At 8:30, power to the neighborhood was cut.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company