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Drive-by shooting mars Coptic Christmas

Revenge killing of at least seven points to tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the al-Wattani Coptic newspaper, believes that many Christians don’t feel equal citizenship rights with Muslims in Egypt.

“It is a bitter fact that sectarian violence erupts from time to time in Egypt,” said Sidhom. And Christians are the victims in most sectarian strife.”

Egypt’s Coptic Christians represent roughly 10 percent of the country’s 80 million residents. Relations between the Copts and Egypt’s Sunni Muslims are generally calm, but sporadic incidents of violence have occurred, mostly over conversion, marital and land issues, and the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the construction of new churches.

In Egypt’s Qena province, where yesterday’s attacks occurred, clashes broke out last November when news emerged that a Christian was being held on suspicion of assaulting a Muslim woman. Muslims burned and looted several Christian storefronts in the area.

Wael Aboulmagd, Deputy Assistant Minister for Human Rights at Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, says that “the word strife is pretty strong” when it comes to relations between Christians in Muslims in Egypt. Though he admits that there will always be individual problems on a small scale, Aboulmagd says society, not the government, is to blame for any tensions between faiths.

“The vast majority of Egyptians enjoy their ability to believe in what they want and worship in the manner they wish,” said Aboulmagd. “In fact, I think the government deserves some credit for making this a national holiday.”

President Mubarak declared Christmas a national holiday in early 2003. The move drew much praise from Egypt’s Coptic leaders at the time.

Violence yesterday in Upper Egypt has left the zabaleen frustrated, feeling that sectarian clashes may never cease. But most acknowledge that outbreaks are too limited in scope to lose faith. Mebkhet Boutros, a plastics recycler, said that over 50 of his Muslim friends called to wish him a merry Christmas.

For Abdel Meseeh Fayez, the economic realities on the ground are much more important.

Like many Copts in Egypt, Fayez used to eat ham, a relatively cheap source of protein that was sold by several butchers throughout Cairo. But with no reserves left since the slaughter, most of the pork has all but dried up.

“Our holiday feast will definitely be smaller,” said Fayez. “Everything about this Christmas will be different than last year.”