CAIRO – Ahmed Ibrahim says his best buddies are Christian, something he says raises the ire of some of his fellow Egyptian Muslim friends, who often counsel him against being so close to non-Muslims.
"They cite Quranic verses that say Christians are enemies of Muslims but never mention many other verses that speak positively of Christians," lamented the 29-year-old physician. "My wife tells me that my Christian friends are good to me only because they want to improve their image or gain popularity."
"Well, so what? They are still good to me."
In the wake of a shocking New Year's suicide bombing of an Egyptian church, the government is heavily touting national unity. But on the ground, personal prejudices between members of Egypt's two faiths have always run deep and wide, often fueled inadvertently or not by government policies.
Christians, believed to make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 80 million people, say the attitudes create an atmosphere where violence against their community is overlooked, tolerated or explained away. Saturday's bombing, which killed 21 and wounded nearly 100 at a midnight Mass, was the deadliest attack on them in years, but there are regular lower-level instances of violence, which authorities often attribute to personal disputes or mentally ill individuals, not religious hatreds.
Many in the Coptic community — the vast majority of Egypt's Christians — fear new attacks when the faithful gather at churches the next two nights for Masses ahead of Orthodox Christmas on Friday. Egyptian authorities deployed extra security forces, backed by explosives experts, around many churches.
In a sign of some Muslims seeking to bridge the divide, Egyptian activists have called on Muslims to form human shields in front of the churches during Christmas Eve services. On Wednesday, Muslims gathered at the Islamic Al-Azhar University in a rally of solidarity with Copts.
The government has also hauled the spiritual leaders of the two communities before the media for handshakes and symbolic calls for unity. That traditional response rings hollow for many Copts, who say the state only reinforces a second-class status for their community with policies like restrictions on building churches or the informal ban on Christians assuming certain senior government jobs.
Even the Coptic Church's leader, Pope Shenouda III, a stalwart government supporter, seemed to express impatience with the ubiquitous claims of "national unity," saying in a TV interview after the attack that "it should mean unity in action, thought and feelings. Only then can it be truly national unity."
The bloody scenes of bodies in the street from Saturday's attack, which stunned Muslims and Christians alike, did bring soul-searching in some quarters.
Mustafa Fathy, who grew up in Cairo's poor Boulaq el-Dakrour neighborhood, recounted in a Facebook posting the anti-Christian stereotypes he was taught as a child: Christians don't smell good, they engage in sexual acts in churches, where they also hide weapons to use against Muslims when their numbers grow.
"I apologize to every Christian I grew up with in a society that taught me in my young years a great deal of wrong things about Christians, their faith and lifestyle," Fathy wrote. "I apologize to the Christians who lived on my street but I never played with because my family told me not to."
Common stereotypes among Egypt's Muslims about their Christian countrymen vary greatly from the innocuous, ridiculous and superstitious to the malicious and harmful.
Some may have their genesis in the baffling mystery Muslim schoolchildren are posed with at the age of five or six when their Christian classmates are pulled out of class to take their "Christian religion lesson" elsewhere, out of their sight and earshot.
With a room full of exclusively Muslim children, critics say, teachers with militant ideologies enjoy a free rein to indoctrinate the pupils.
That illustrates an irony of government policy: When it does try to deal with each side equally — for example, by giving each faith's children lessons in their own religion — it reinforces their separation.
"Neither side has a clear and correct idea of what the other is really about," said Nabil Abdel-Fattah, a senior researcher at the state-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "What they mostly have is misperceptions that reflect widespread ignorance."
Christian analyst Sameh Fawzi says the government focuses on fighting violent Islamic extremists and has introduced changes in school textbooks on human rights and religious moderation.
But it "fails to introduce direct and courageous policies that reinforce the notion of citizenship and encourage a culture of tolerance," he said.
The deepening Muslim conservativism among Egyptians has exacerbated prejudices, with some Muslims contending Egypt is by definition an Islamic nation where Christians should recognize their minority status. The corollary of that attitude is that any complaint by Christians is inflated into an attempt to take over the country.
Rumors run about Christians secretly meeting in churches to plot lure Muslims with cash to convert or to push Muslim rivals out of business. Some view Christian women as morally loose, bent on corrupting Muslim men. Hard-line clerics have accused Christians of hoarding weapons for a violent overthrow of Muslims. One of the most damaging ideas propagated is that Christians conspire with the West against their own country.
Current tough economic times also play a role. One common stereotype runs that Christians are all rich and greedy and that the government gives privileges to Christian businessmen for fear of criticism from the U.S. and the West. One of Egypt's richest men is Christian, but as a whole the community mirrors the economic situation of the country, with a large number of lower middle class and poor.
Discussions of the issue are often tinged with nostalgia for an earlier time when "we all got along," like a nationwide 1919 uprising against British rule where Christian and Muslim religious leaders marched side-by-side in protests.
Stereotypes and prejudices "retreat or totally disappear during times of a national renaissance, when the nation is rallied around a cause or a project," said rights activist and researcher Samir Morcos.
"We don't have this now."