CAIRO – The New Year's Day homicide bombing of a church that killed 21 people has opened up a vein of fury among Egypt's Christians, built up over years of what they call government failure to address persistent discrimination and violence against their community.
Christian protests spread to Cairo from the northern city of Alexandria where the attack took place. Late Sunday, riots erupted outside the cathedral-headquarters of the Coptic Church after the country's top Muslim religious figures and government officials met with Pope Shenouda III.
Protesters threw bottles and stones at riot police outside the cathedral, injuring 45 policemen, security officials said. Elsewhere, demonstrators threw stones at cars on two main highways, and hundreds marched in other parts of the capital, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
In the last couple years in particular, the country's Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the country's 80 million, has felt under siege following a string of incidents.
In January a year ago, six Christians and a Muslim guard were killed in a drive-by shooting on Coptic Christmas Eve in southern Egypt. Then in November, Christians rioted after government forces violently stopped the construction of a church near Cairo in a long-running dispute over restrictions on building Christian houses of worship. Two people died at the hands of security in the rare instance of Christian unrest in the capital.
In 2009, the government ordered the destruction of a quarter-million pigs as a dubious prevention measure against swine flu, devastating the livelihoods of Cairo's large community of Christian garbage collectors, who raised the animals to dispose of organic waste. The Christians saw it as an expression of Muslim disgust at pigs thinly disguised as a health concern.
After a homicide bomber attacked worshippers in the northern city of Alexandria as they filed out of a midnight Mass at the Saints Church on Saturday, Christian rage exploded on the streets in riots and clashes with police. Protesters also attacked Muslim passers-by and a nearby mosque in an indication of the alienation they feel from the country's majority Muslims.
The protests Saturday and Sunday had an unprecedented edge of frustration: A common theme among protesters was that Christians would no longer be silent over their complaints. Security forces have turned out in force, but appear to be showing restraint, apparently to avoid further enflaming tensions.
"You want me to leave Egypt. I will not leave Egypt. Egypt is Coptic and will remain Coptic," one woman in her mid-40s, wrapped in a white sheet stained with blood from the victims, shouted Saturday in front of the Saints Church. "I have seen discrimination all my life. In college, at work. I am not going to take it any longer. Enough."
Christian anger, says rights activist Hossam Bahgat, stems in large part because they feel attacks against them can be carried out with impunity, something borne out by evidence of past incidents, especially in Egypt's impoverished hinterlands.
In a two-year study conducted by his organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, he documented 52 anti-Christian incidents between 2008 and 2010 and in none of them were the perpetrators punished. Instead security forces arbitrarily arrested a few people.
"Security then forces both sides to accept reconciliation at the expense of justice," he said, which gives the perpetrators a sense of impunity. "It's an invitation for these events to recur and the victims are left feeling victimized twice, first by those who did it and second by the government."
Egypt's government maintains Muslims and Christians are treated equally in the country and after these kinds of sectarian incidents loudly affirms its commitment to national unity.
But Christians have long complained that they are discriminated against in getting jobs in the government, universities — even the private sector. They also point to rising Muslim conservativism that they say affects government officials' dealings with Christians.
Youssef Sidhom, a prominent Coptic intellectual and editor of the weekly Watani newspaper, said that in Egyptian society there has been growing antipathy to coexisting with Christians, undermining such official pronouncements.
"The infiltration of political Islam into our education, our schools, into the hearts and minds of school teachers and into our school books and is extremely dangerous because it produces innocent children who are infected by the version of Islam that does not accept the other and preaches non-acceptance of Christians," he told The Associated Press.
In an editorial in the English-language online version of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, editor Hani Shukrallah slammed the government for trying to appease Islamist sentiment and warned against rising anti-Christian sentiment among Muslims.
"I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us — those who've been growing more and more prejudiced, inclusive and narrow minded with every passing year," he wrote Saturday.
"I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties: 'The Copts must be taught a lesson. The Copts are growing more arrogant. The Copts are holding secret conversions of Muslims.'"
Two other points of conflict that come up repeatedly in Egypt's Muslim-Christian relations are church building and the issue of conversion.
Christians have to apply to local security authorities to build their churches — or even conduct renovations — in a lengthy process that only ends with the approval by the president or a governor. The result is a tendency to build illegally which has been used as an excuse by extremists for mob violence against the Christians.
Conversions are also highly sensitive and rumors of women converting to Islam and then being forced to convert back to Christianity have sparked riots by both religious groups.
Al Qaeda in Iraq justified its assaults on Christians there recently in light of two cases of Egyptian women, one in 2004 and one this year, who supposedly were stopped from converting to Islam and are now being hidden by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The result is that Christians have lost faith in the wider society and have turned increasingly to their church for protection, according to Cornelis Hulsman, who runs the Cairo-based Arab West Foundation for promoting intercultural dialogue.
"Christians tend to rally in support of their church. They do so in staunchly supportive church positions, withdrawing into a virtual ghetto. The result is that contact with Muslims is greatly reduced," wrote Hulsman in an article following Saturday's attack.
"In such a climate, it is easy to hurl general accusations at Muslims in general, thus adding to the polarization of Egyptian society," he concluded.