Rioting in Cairo

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Riots broke out between groups of Salafi Muslims and Coptic Christians in the Imbaba region of western Cairo late Saturday night, leaving 12 dead and upwards of 200 wounded, according to medical sources. Owing to rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held against her will in a local church, scores of conservative Salafi Muslims converged on the Saint Mary Mena church demanding her release. One Salafi leader in the area, Muhammad Ali, reportedly tried to intervene to prevent the protestors from gathering, to no avail. Various Salafis have asserted that dozens of converted women are being held in monasteries and churches across the country, a charge which the Coptic Church fervently denies.

Witnesses reported gunfire as well as firebombs during the fighting, with armed forces attempting to break up the conflict by firing into the air. As of 4 am Cairo time (9pm EST) there were ongoing confrontations in the region, with large groups of young Coptic men forming citizens’ brigades to protect the area, while streets in the region were reported as closed off. Director Saleh Nasir of the Imbaba General Hospital reported that the wounded had been transported to six different hospitals around the city, undergoing treatment irrespective of their religion.

“They opened fire on us,” said Father Hermina, one of the pastors of the church, according to an Arabiya news article. At least one shrouded body was reported within the church itself, with bloody marks on the floor of the building. His Grace Theodesius, the Bishop of Giza, issued a statement to the news agency “Youm7” in Egypt, stating that the woman’s situation was under investigation, but that nothing known so far could justify the day’s events. He attributed the attacks to “dark forces”, asserting that their plans were posed to strike at the unity of Egypt itself. While the Bishop called on the Egyptian Interior Ministry and the Supreme Council of the Armed forces to maintain the peace, he also said that the Church would look to God for protection, “as there is no one on this earth who would defend the church.”

While it is far too early to have any idea of how this riot will play out, how the government responds will send an important signal to the Coptic community in Egypt. One of the enduring symbols of both the Revolution of January 25 and the show of national unity following the January 1 Qadiseen Bombings in Alexandria was the image of Egyptian Christians and Muslims walking hand in hand, marching towards a common goal. Regardless of the true motivations behind the confrontations in Imbaba, Egyptian Copts need to feel that they will receive the full protection of the state as they share in the shaping of the new Egypt.

Written by Andrew Leber a student at Brown University

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