Connect to share and comment

Fears of unrest in Egypt in wake of church bombing

Many Christians blame their government before terrorists for recent church bombing.

Egypt, Christians
As Egypt went on high alert ahead of Coptic Christmas, Christians and Muslims joined ranks in a mass protest under the watchful eyes of riot police in the mixed working class district of Shubra in Cairo on Jan. 3, 2011, to condemn the New Year's Eve car bomb attack on a Coptic church in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria in which 23 people were killed. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — Christmas in the slums of Manshiet Nasr was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year for 19-year-old Mena Samy.

Samy and his fellow zabaleen, garbage collectors living in a predominantly Christian shantytown on the eastern edge of this city, usually adorn the otherwise squalid neighborhood with colorful lights, plastic replicas of Santa and nativity scenes in the days leading up to Coptic Christmas — which falls on Jan. 7 this year.

But in Samy’s household, Christmas is canceled this year.

In the wake of a deadly explosion outside a church in Alexandria earlier this week — an apparent suicide bombing that killed 23 people as worshippers exited a New Year’s Eve mass — Samy and his Coptic neighbors are finding little reason to be cheerful.

“What reason do we have to celebrate? We’re all still mourning. If people put up lights or decorations here, we will take them down,” Samy said. “This attack has shaken our entire community to the core.”

As Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian residents prepare for one of their largest religious celebrations of the year, most are still grieving the loss of life in Alexandria, and equally fearful that more violence will take place over the holiday.

Nationwide calls for calm and unity — including a televised speech by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak this week — have largely fallen flat. Violent clashes between Copts and security forces have erupted in neighborhoods throughout the country several times since the attack, raising concerns that Egypt could be headed for greater sectarian conflict.

Coptic communities across Europe are on alert also, after threats.

The impoverished residents of Manshiet Nasr, already economically segregated from much of Egyptian society, said the aftermath of the Jan. 1 bombing has pushed them further into isolation. Now facing what they call increased “persecution and discrimination” by the government, many of the zabaleen are directing their anger toward Mubarak’s 29-year-old regime.

“The government is not providing enough security outside churches,” said Salah Ateya, 75, a plastics recycler. “My wife is scared, my children are scared, and I’m scared. What kind of life are we living if we constantly feel the need to look over our shoulder outside church to see if people are going to blow us up?”

Egypt’s security forces have been on high alert since Saturday’s bombing and in much of the country the police presence and buffer zones surrounding Coptic churches have been drastically increased.

But outside the small Saint Simon the Tanner church in Manshiet Nasr, a lone police officer slouched snoozing in his chair, seemingly even unaware of the dozens of goats running around the alley near the main gate.

Residents in Manshiet Nasr noted that security was supposed to have already been heightened following a warning to the Coptic Church late last year from an Al Qaeda group in Iraq — presumed by many to be the “foreign elements” Egypt’s interior ministry initially blamed for the attack.

“We are angry at extremism but more angry at the government. We know that extremists don’t represent the majority of Muslims,” said Nagafa Rasmy, an artificial Christmas tree vendor who also added that her sales figures were only average this year. “The holiday is coming, and I just hope that nothing more happens.”

The concern for Egypt’s government — eager to maintain security in the Middle East’s most populous nation — is that the Copts' worries will continue to spill out onto the street.

Hundreds of protesters — Copts as well as Muslims standing in solidarity — lobbed rocks and glass bottles at security forces during a demonstration march along Cairo’s main Nile River road on Sunday.

Police forces responded by tossing the same debris back at them, according to local media.

On Monday, local video reports showed security beating several protesters with batons after an attempt was made to push through a cordon of black-clad riot troops during a small rally in a northern Cairo suburb.

Pope Shenouda, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church, has appealed for calm in the wake of recent “panic” to prevent more unrest.

Egypt’s president also urged his citizens of all faiths to unite.