CAIRO, 30 Oct 2005 (IRINnews.org) - Recent anti-Christian riots in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria show that tension between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority remains high as the country heads towards parliamentary elections in November.

The riots erupted on 21 October following rumours that Saint George’s Coptic church in Alexandria had distributed a DVD containing material that was offensive to Muslims.

The Interior Ministry said 5,000 angry Muslims staged a protest demonstration outside the church, but the situation got out of hand after some of them began throwing stones at the building and at police who were present at the scene.

The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets and three people were killed and dozens were injured in the ensuing melee.

According to independent Arabic-language daily Al-Masry al-Youm, three nearby shops selling alcohol – which is banned in Islam – were destroyed by angry demonstrators.

By the time the dust settled, 150 people had been arrested.

“There’s rising sensitivity over religious issues these days,” said Mohammed Sayyed Saïd, deputy director of the state-run Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I don’t think there were any political, or parliamentary, reasons for the disturbances. The immediate cause for the riots was a number of rumours circulating on the Internet,” the political analyst said.

These refered to the distribution of a DVD of a play performed by Saint George’s church two years ago. The play entitled “I Was Blind, But Now I Can See” supposedly tells the story of a young Christian convert to Islam who eventually becomes disillusioned with the Muslim faith.

“What’s interesting about this whole affair is that hardly anybody has seen the DVD in question,” Saïd said.

Worst incident for five years

It was Egypt’s worst outbreak of sectarian violence for five years, but the latest of several clashes between Muslims and Christians over the past year.

The Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, and Coptic Pope Shenouda III, issued a joint statement expressing their regret at the violence in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

They both urged calm and called for inter-faith dialogue in order to resolve outstanding differences.

The government also expressed concern and the Pubic Prosecutor’s office announced that it would launch an investigation into the incident.

About 8 to 10 percent of Egypt’s 77 million people are Christian. Most belong to the Coptic, or Egyptian Orthodox church.

However, Islam is Egypt’s official state religion, and, according to the constitution, legislation is loosely based on Islamic Sharia law.

Christian-Muslim relations have generally been peaceful, although there have been periodic outbreaks of violence, especially in southern Egypt, where the issue is particularly sensitive.

Looking to the United States for protection

One Christian history expert at the American University in Cairo, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the problem had been exacerbated by the rise of US power and influence in the Middle East.

“Neo-conservative opposition to Wahabi Islam in Washington,” he said, had served to bolster the leverage of Christian minorities in Islamic countries around the world and many of these minorities had looked to the United States as a potential source of protection.

The historian noted, however, that Egypt’s Coptic community was well aware that such “empowerment” from abroad could prove detrimental if it led to a fitna, or religious war.

Large-scale sectarian violence last erupted in Egypt in 2000, when 20 people were killed during armed clashes between Christians and Muslims in the village of al-Kusheh in the Nile valley south of Cairo.

The village was subsequently renamed Dar Al-Salaam, or “Haven of Peace,” as part of official efforts to smooth over the politically sensitive outburst of blood-letting.

Four years of relative calm ensued.

However smouldering resentment between Christians and Muslims burst into the open again in December 2004, when hundreds of Christians staged angry protests in Cairo and other towns in the Nile Delta to protest at the alleged forced conversion of the wife of a Coptic priest to Islam.

It subsequently emerged that the woman in question had converted voluntarily to Islam, but all the same, the government handed her back to church authorities, who whisked her off to a monastery.

Christians allege discrimination

Shortly afterwards, clashes between Muslims and Christians broke out in Minya province, 250 km south of Cairo, leaving one Muslim dead and 80 people wounded.

They appear to have been sparked off by a Coptic Christian attempt to build a church without official permission.

Many Copts complain of official discrimination against Christians, particularly at the local level.

Copts also point to the under-representation of Christians in the government, army and police at the national level.

Saïd, the political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that from a Muslim point of view, the importance attached to religious differences within Egypt was often exagerated.

“It sounds like a big conspiracy to cause divisions in the country,” he said.

Saïd discounted suggestions by some commentators that the Alexandria riots were instigated by politicians seeking to whip up anti-Christian feeling ahead of the November elections.

One Christian candidate in the city has subsequently stood down.

The coming parliamentary elections are supposed to be freer than previous polls, following reforms enacted by President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation which is widely seen as the most influential opposition movement, is still banned from taking part.

However, several independent candidates who are closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood are being allowed to stand.