As an Egyptian church refused to hand over its pigs to the authorities without compensation and an online video showing pigs being tortured surfaced, tensions over the government’s anti-swine flu measures continued to prompt allegations of discrimination by the Christian community.
For most countries swine flu is simply a health issue. But in Egypt the virus has raised concerns over government discrimination against the Coptic Christian population – who make up 10-12 percent of the population -- who accuse the authorities of threatening their livelihood and purposely attacking them.
Although no cases of swine flu have been reported in Egypt, since the news of the virus broke, Cairo has ordered a mass culling of the country's 250,000 pigs, which are found in the city slums and which pose a serious risk to a nation already suffering from an outbreak of bird flu.
Al-Soryan Monastery said it would not give up its remaining 330 pigs to Egypt's national committee for swine flu unless the government compensated them for the huge financial loss.
"Pigs and other animals represent the economic independence of the monasteries in which they are raised," Bishop Abdul-Maseeh, professor of theology at the Egyptian church, told Al Arabiya.
"We have agreements with the biggest hotels in Egypt," he said. "There's no way the government will just kill them and the monasteries bear such huge financial losses."
There's no way the government will just kill them and the monasteries bear such huge financial losses
Conspiring with Islamists
Thousands of swine breeders, nearly all Copts, have protested, rioted and slammed the government's decision to slaughter all pigs, a measure the World Health Organization (WHO) criticized as "unnecessary" and that several right groups slammed as an attack on the minority population.
"They were not so radical against the birds [during the bird flu scare] as they are now against the pigs,” Inspire, a U.K.-based Christian monthly magazine, quoted the president of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights Egypt as saying. “We would like to ask them, ‘Why?’ Is there a special reason?”
Egypt's minister of agriculture and land reclamation, Amin Abaza, denied accusations of discrimination and said health conditions at pig farms, which are located in city dumps, were unbearable.
Arab intellectuals, both Christian and Muslim, have accused President Hosni Mubarak's government of conspiring with the Islamist opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes rearing pigs "on Islamic land."
"The Copts are victims of the flu without ever having been contaminated," said Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, adding that the government "clearly acted under pressure from Islamists" when it ordered the mass cull.
They were not so radical against the birds [during the bird flu scare] as they are now against the pigs
ociety for the Protection of Animal Rights Egypt
Not a sectarian issue
Despite the outcry, Bishop Saleeb Matta Sawiris, member of the Coptic Orthodox Ecumenical Council, denied that there was a government conspiracy against Copts and said there was no crisis.
"We are not against slaughtering the pigs in principle and the church announced that more than once," he told Al Arabiya. "But the pigs are an important source for the people and places that raise them and all we asked for was compensation.".
Sawiris stressed that the problem has no sectarian dimension whether on the part of the church or the government.
Dr. Hamed Samaha, head of the General Authority for Veterinary Services, added that the country's churches had agreed to cull their pigs and said committee officials could not take them by force.
"The government and the administrations of monasteries made an agreement that each monastery would get rid of its pigs in its own way," he told Al Arabiya. "I don't think the monks are lying to us or going back on their promises."
The government and the administrations of monasteries made an agreement that each monastery would get rid of its pigs in its own way...I don't think the monks are lying to us or going back on their promises
General Authority for Veterinary Services
Earlier this month a video of pigs being culled surfaced on YouTube and caused outrage at the way the animals were slaughtered.
The clip posted by Egypt’s independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm showed gory images of pigs being beaten with iron bars, piglets being stabbed and animals being kicked alive into bulldozer buckets.
The clip sparked horrified reactions from Muslims and Copts.
Sheikh Salim Mohammed Salim, head of the fatwas committee at the University of Al-Azhar, said that killing an animal that way is "strictly forbidden by Islam... whatever it is, including a pig."
This month online animal welfare community, www.care2.com, launched a petition calling on the Egyptian government to end the "senseless slaughter" of pigs.