CAIRO: Deadly Muslim-Christian riots that left 12 dead and a Cairo church a burned-out husk have magnified worries in Egypt over Islamic ultraconservatives who have grown more assertive since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s military rulers are stumbling over how to deal with them, reluctant to crack down and spark a backlash.
The weekend clashes in the working-class district of Imbaba were rooted in a personal dispute. A Christian woman had an affair with a Muslim man. And when she disappeared, the man spread rumors that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner in a local church because she converted to Islam, security officials said Monday.
That brought out a mob of Muslims, led by members of the hardline movement known as Salafis, who attacked the church late Saturday. The assault prompted clashes with neighborhood Christians that spiraled into an hours-long melee, with gunfire and a church set ablaze. Seven Christians and six Muslims were killed and more than 200 people were injured.
The escalation of a household drama into a national crisis reflected the stormy politics shaking Egypt at a fragile time, with the ruling military trying to navigate a transition to democracy following the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak. The former president’s authoritarian rule kept an uneasy lid on sectarian tensions, but they have now been given a freer rein since his ouster.
Most worrying for Christians and many Muslims is the increasing boldness of the Salafi movement.
Salafism is a hard-line movement preaching a strict version of Islamic Shariah law, shunning anything they see as an "innovation" in the religion. Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi ideology, with its staunch segregation of the sexes, is a version of Salafism.
For years, Mubarak’s regime cultivated the spread of the Salafi movement because its followers generally stayed out of politics, making them a counterbalance to the less radical Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak’s top political rival.
Now with Mubarak out of power, Salafis have rushed into politics, organizing to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections and demanding a say in shaping Egypt’s future.
In one sign of Salafis’ growing confidence, one prominent preacher, Hafez Salama, on Friday publicly praised Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US troops in Pakistan, calling him "a hero." The same day, a few hundred Salafis marched through Cairo condemning the killing.
Under Mubarak’s rule, Egypt’s Salafis avoided any public show of sympathy with Al-Qaida’s leader, a red line for a regime that was wary of any sign of the terror group’s spread.
Salafis and Christians have traded blame for Saturday’s violence, with Salafis insisting that they only wanted to free the "imprisoned" woman and claiming Christians started the shooting.
But for the past year, Salafis have been stoking rhetoric against Egypt’s mostly Coptic Christians as a way to rally their base.
In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.
Salafi clerics have drummed up outrage over several Christian women who converted to Islam in order to get divorces from their husbands and were then reportedly imprisoned by Church officials. Divorce is strictly forbidden in Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church, and leaving the faith is one of the few ways for a woman to get out of a marriage.
In mosques and on satellite TV stations, Salafis have accused Christians of trying to break what they call Egypt’s "Muslim character" and storing weapons in churches and monasteries.
On New Year’s Eve, a suicide bomber killed 21 people at a church in the port city of Alexandria, which has a strong Salafi presence. Some arrests were made in the attack, but no one was ever charged.
Amid Saturday’s clashes, a Salafi accused Christians of "terrorism" and denounced the Coptic Pope Shenouda III as "filth."
"Do you all hear me? All the Christians have weapons, and we Muslims are ignoring it … We wouldn’t be men if we didn’t set fire to all the churches in Imbaba," he shouted to a crowd, according to a video of him posted on YouTube.
The violence underlined the uncertainty among Egypt’s new rulers, the military’s Supreme Council, over how to deal with sectarian tensions and the rising prominence of Salafis. Witnesses said rioting went on for several hours before troops and police intervened.
Egypt’s police force — widely accused of abuses under Mubarak’s regime — has been in disarray since the former president’s ouster. The military has been reluctant to take heavy action, wary of causing deaths with a crackdown, although activists have accused it of violently cracking down on protesters in Tahrir Square on several occasions and torturing some of them.
"The military council has one main consideration, and that is not to allow bloodshed. We don’t want to see one drop of blood," said Hossam Sweilam, a retired military general. The Salafis, he said, "have taken advantage of this attitude" to cause unrest.
The Supreme Council, which groups the military’s top generals, sought to show a tougher stand, announcing that more than 200 people — Muslims and Christians — were arrested for Saturday’s riot and saying they would be put on military trial. The cabinet later said suspects, as more were arrested, would be referred to the State Security Emergency Court.
But hundreds of Christians and Muslims demonstrating against the violence demanded stronger measures.
"We don’t want to bury our heads in the sand," said Rami Kamel, a Christian among the protesters gathered outside the headquarters of state-run TV. "The issue is bigger than rebuilding a church or arresting the culprits. This is Egypt’s fate. Is Egypt becoming a religious state or can we change course and opt for a civil state?"
The weekend’s violence stemmed from a soured marriage in the southern Egypt province of Assiut, far from Imbaba. Security officials said Abir Fakhri, a Christian woman in her 20s whose husband works in Jordan, had an affair with a Muslim, Yassin Thabit, in their home village of Bouait. Fakhri said in a video that she was seeking divorce from her husband and was romantically involved with Thabit, whom she met after she fled her hometown.
In October, Fakhri and Thabit fled to northern Egypt, the officials said. Three months ago, Thabit returned to Bouait saying Fakhri had disappeared. He was told by locals that she was with her uncles in Imbaba. Thabit went to Imbaba and told Salafis that Christians had imprisoned Fakhri in the local Mar Mina Church, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigations into the clashes.
In her video, Fakhri said that the person who had helped her leave her hometown told her family about her whereabouts. The family took her to the church in Assiut, which moved her to different areas. She said she was held against her will but wasn’t forced to convert back to Christianity. She said she called Thabit for help who in turn called the police who also called her.
On Saturday, Salafis mobbed the Church, and Christians formed a human chain around it. Gunfire erupted, which the Salafis claim came from a nearby cafe owned by a Christian. The crowd attacked the cafe and set fire to two nearby buildings, prompting clashes with gunfire and stone throwing. The mob then attacked another church several blocks away, setting it ablaze and — according to witnesses — slit the throat of a church employee before setting his body on fire. An official report released on Wednesday said those who attacked the second church were “thugs” unrelated to the mob clashing at the first church.
Thabit and the cafe owner are now among those under arrest.
Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups, said the Imbaba violence appeared to be a wakeup call for the military.
"The army wanted to deal with everyone in a new way, without harsh security," said Hassan. "But what happened could be the start of a new relation" in which the military will confront "any Salafi cleric trying to preach against other religions." –Maggie Michael and Daily News Egypt contributed to this report.