By MICHAEL SLACKMAN, NY times
NAG HAMMADI, Egypt — State security agents wearing black uniforms and armed with automatic weapons stood guard at the entrance to this small city. Armored personnel carriers and rows of boxy troop carriers parked along the main road. Local police officers and the secret police patrolled nearly every block, on foot and in vans.
A damaged home in the village of Bahjora, near Luxor. Riots and clashes followed a church attack last month.
A police officer guarded a church in Nag Hammadi. Three weeks ago, a Muslim gunman opened fire on worshipers as they walked out of church, killing 7.
People were scared, and the police were edgy. “We want you to leave; you must have special permission to be here,” Gen. Mahmoud Gohar, head of security for the region, said as he slapped his hands together and demanded that reporters leave town, immediately.
A few weeks ago, on the day that Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve, a Muslim gunman opened fire on worshipers as they walked out of church, killing 7, wounding 10 and leading to the worst sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt in years. In the days that followed, there were riots and clashes. Stores were wrecked. Homes were burned.
The government responded by sending in heavily armed police officers, banning the news media and insisting that the Jan. 6 attack was retaliation for a rape.
“There are initial indications connecting this incident to the consequences of accusing a young Christian man of raping a Muslim girl in one of the governorate’s villages,” the Interior Ministry said after the attack.
The one thing the government would not do was admit the obvious: Egypt had experienced one of the most serious outbreaks of sectarian violence in years. Instead, it said talk of sectarian conflict amounted to sedition.
But the evidence, provided in newspapers, was irrefutable: 14 Muslims arrested, 28 Christians arrested, Christian shops burned, Muslim houses burned.
“We are now facing a sectarian society and street,” wrote Amr el-Shoubky, a political analyst and columnist, in an article under the headline “The New Sectarianism: The Alienation of Christians,” which appeared in the daily newspaper Al Masry al-Youm.
Egypt has experienced many clashes over the years between its Muslim majority and Christian minority, and has always insisted that the conflicts were driven by something — anything — else. A land dispute, a personal grudge, a crime for profit. The official narrative is that these are singular, unrelated crimes.
That is the case since the shooting. Three people were arrested for the attack, which killed six Christians as they left church (Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7) and a Muslim guard.
“The crime of Nag Hammadi is just an individual crime with no religious motives, just like the crime of raping the girl,” Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the Parliament speaker, said in Al Ahram, a state-owned newspaper.
But local people, commentators, members of Parliament, Christian and Muslim alike, say that the government’s narrow view of the shooting ignores an underlying tension that is roiling society all across Egypt, where an estimated 10 percent of the population of about 80 million is Christian. No matter the gunman’s motive, the attack and subsequent clashes and riots have underscored the religious divide.
“Those calling it an individual crime were not able to explain until now why there was shooting on a group of people leaving church at the time of a big religious celebration, which left six Copts dead,” wrote Salama Ahmed Salama, who is in charge of the editorial board of Shorouk, a daily independent newspaper. “And what was the real motive, especially that the man who committed the crime is among the thugs and hit men, and not from the religiously extreme?”
Nag Hammadi is a city of about 50,000, 40 miles north of Luxor, site of the famed Valley of the Kings. It is a commercial center that hugs the Nile, where the river is wide and the horizon framed by sand-colored cliffs. The streets bustle with taxis, horse-drawn carriages and fruit peddlers. The skyline is pierced by minarets and church towers. About 10 percent of the city is Christian.
“Everyone is together here; we have no problems,” said Korashi Ali Mahran, 22, an employee of a pharmaceutical company with a warehouse on Central Street. He and 11 co-workers were taking a break outside one afternoon. Half were Muslim, half Coptic Christian. “I personally have Christian friends,” said Mr. Mahran, smiling at Sami Haroon, a Christian beside him. “I am not scared. I send him to get food, we eat together.”
All the men nodded and smiled.
What he meant was that lots of people are superstitious about eating with someone of another faith, as if it might lead them to convert. It is a rumor, spread with the utmost seriousness.
In daily life secular divisions can be subtle. People work together, study together, but then go their separate ways. The neighborhoods are integrated, but private lives are segregated. Tension grows as young men talk about cellphone videos showing Muslim girls with Christian boys, or as Christian parents complain that their children are forced to study the Koran in public schools.
The group outside the warehouse slowly acknowledged that there was little mingling in Nag Hammadi. “We are separated,” said Essam Atef, 32, a Christian who manages the pharmaceutical business. “If there is a wedding, you offer congratulations, and if there is someone sick, you might visit, but we are both on our own here.”
All the men agreed.
The shooting took place down the street from where the men work, an area now heavy with police officers, security agents and spotters with walkie-talkies.
Many political analysts and commentators and local people say that this approach — treating all crises as a security problem — tends to aggravate tensions. A group of Christians and Muslims agreed to speak with a reporter about life here, about interfaith relations and about their government. But they wanted to meet at a private compound outside the city limits.
There were five Christians and three Muslims. Everyone agreed that interfaith relations were fine on a daily basis. A Christian lawyer, Tharwat Shaker, said his clients were mostly Muslim. A Christian businessman, Maged Tobya, said most of his employees were Muslim. A Muslim woman, Wafaa Rashad, said one of her best friends was Christian.
But they also said that there was interfaith tension, especially among the young people, and they called on the government to deal with it.
“The government bodies should not say a Christian raped a Muslim, they should say a man raped a woman,” said Ms. Rashad, a social worker who runs a women’s organization in town.
“Religion in Egypt,” she concluded, “is not like before. It used to be a unifying element.”