The Egyptian government said it would strike with an “iron hand” those who threatened the country’s national security, the justice minister said Sunday, after clashes between Islamists and Christians that killed 12 people and wounded 232 in Cairo.
“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz Al Gindi told reporters after an emergency cabinet meeting convened by Prime Minister Essham Sharaf. “The authorities will strike with an iron hand all those who seek to tamper with national security.”
On day when casualty figures relating to clashes between Islamists and Coptic Christians over a controversial interfaith marriage kept rising, Prime Minister Sharaf had postponed a trip to the Gulf to hold the emergency meeting with his cabinet members.
Meanwhile, about 5,000 Egypt Coptic Christians blocked two main roads in downtown Cairo on Sunday as they marched to the state television building in protest against Saturday’s fights, in which the interior ministry earlier said six Christians and at least five Muslims were killed. But the figures were revised during the course of the day.
Among the wounded, 65 were shot by firearms.
Saturday’s incident was the second deadly sectarian clash since the January 15 revolution, in which Muslims and Christians joined hands together in Tahrir Square to demand the departure of then President Hosni Mubarak.
In March, Muslims and Christians clashed in the town of Helwan near Cairo. Thirteen people were killed and a church was torched. The cause of the fighting was a rumored romantic relationship between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.
In swift response by the country’s military rulers, 190 people were arrested in Saturday’s violence and were sent to trial, as security was stepped up at houses of worship, amid indications that Egypt’s conservative Islamic movement, led by Salafis, was becoming increasingly restive about the country’s traditionally secular environment.
Among those detained were suspects involved not only in a melee at the Church of St. Mina, but also at the nearby Virgin Mary Church. Islamists stormed a six-story residential building in the low-income Imbaba neighborhood of western Cairo, claiming that Christian snipers were positioned in it.
Ahmed al-Saman, a cabinet spokesman, told the official MENA news agency that Mr. Sharaf was scheduled to visit Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The trip appears to have been indefinitely put off.
The Imbaba development drew statements of shock from politicians of several persuasions, and also from religious figures in Egypt.
“These events do not benefit either Muslims or Copts,” said Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Sheikh of Al Azhar, Cairo’s main Islamic seminary and center of learning.
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said: “The violence is endangering Egypt’s security.”
A senior security official, Mohsen Murad, told state TV: “The area in Imbaba has been sealed off and security has been stepped out around key churches in the country.”
The clashes on Saturday evening were triggered by a controversy over interfaith marriage concerning a 26-year-old woman, Camilia Shehata. She is the wife of a Coptic priest, Tadros Samaan, and disappeared in July 2010 after reportedly converting to Islam, possibly on account of an unhappy marriage. Divorce is forbidden by the Coptic Church, and some Christians have been known to convert to Islam in order to remarry.
Islamists, charging that she was forcibly confined in a church, protested several times. They gathered in front of the Saint Mena Church, which was where the clashes occurred.
But Ms. Shehata has appeared in a new picture published by Al Ahram newspaper with Naguib Gebrael, of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization. Mr. Gebrael, a lawyer, told Al Ahram that he would represent her in a court where a complaint was filed against the church for allegedly holding her in forced confinement.
Ms. Shehata also appeared on a Christian broadcasting channel, with her husband and child.
“Let the protesters leave the church alone and turn their attention to Egypt’s future,” she said, adding that she had never converted to Islam.
Inter-faith relationships among faiths are frowned upon in Egypt, where Christians make up about 10 percent of its 80 million people. Such relationships are sometimes the source of deadly clashes between the faiths, said The Associated Press.
If a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is expelled from the church. A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian man, according to state law.
Because divorce is banned under the Coptic Church, unless under extenuating circumstances, many women resort to conversion as a way to get out of a marriage.
Christians complain about unfair treatment, including rules they say make it easier to build a mosque than a church.
In 2010, Egypt saw more than its usual share of sectarian strife, and a rights group has said such clashes have been on the rise. Muslims and Christians had been brought together during the protests that ousted Mr. Mubarak.
The case of Ms. Shehata captivated attention last summer and has again become a source of tension.
Ultraconservative Muslims have held protests and appeared on talk shows demanding the return of Shehata to Islam. They accused the police of collaborating with the church by handing Ms. Shehata over to church authorities to reconvert her.
Saturday’s clash between Muslims and Christians represents another challenge to Egypt’s military rulers. They are trying to restore law and order after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in a popular uprising in February.
Observers note that while political and economic challenges facing Egypt are grave, perhaps more serious is the danger to the social fabric. This fabric—despite sporadic violence between conservative Islamists and Christians—has largely benefitted from social tolerance and understanding.
Episodes such the one in Imbaba posed a serious risk to communal harmony in Egypt, these observers said. And such incidents could also turn away tourists and foreign investors, both of whom Egypt desperately needs in order to revive sustainable economic development in the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime.
“Religious intolerance is not what Egypt needs now, or ever,” the daily Al Ahram, said.
Witnesses said the army and police deployed armored vehicles in Imbaba, a low-income suburb in western Cairo after some 500 Islamist Salafists surrounded the Saint Mena Coptic Church, demanding those in the church hand over the woman to them.
The Salafists—conservative Islamists—and Christians exchanged gunfire and threw firebombs and stones at each other before the army and police arrived. Security forces fired tear gas to stop the clashes. The façade of the church was badly burned in the fracas.
(Mustapha Ajbaili of Al Arabiya can be reached at: Mustapha.firstname.lastname@example.org)