Egypt: Riots, Threats, and a Stabbing in Alexandria


Massive Muslim riots, Islamist web threats, and the stabbing of a
Coptic nun have forced Egyptian authorities to place an armed guard
around St George (St Girgis) Coptic Orthodox Church in Muharram Bik,
Alexandria on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. The sudden eruption
of aggression against the Church demonstrates the extremely fragile
nature of religious harmony in Egypt where Muslim hostility and
contempt towards the Christian minority simmers just below the
surface and very little provocation is required to make the volcano
blow. In this case, the provocation consisted of totally
unsubstantiated reports that a theatrical production performed in St
George Coptic Orthodox Church had defamed Islam.

As the Egyptian weekly ‘Al-Ahram’ explains, “…the sectarian
tension in Alexandria began in much the same way previous
Muslim-Christian disputes had: with the publication of a tabloid
story. This time, the newspaper in question — Al-Midan — published
an article about a church play that defamed Islam.” (Link 1)

According to Al-Ahram, “Waleed Orabi, the journalist who wrote the
Al-Midan story, said he had obtained a CD of the performance from a
source inside the Alexandria church where the play took place. He
refused to provide any other details on the matter.” Orabi goes on
to describe Muharram Bek, where the protests took place, as “a
hotbed of Islamism”.


On Friday 14 October, the day after the article was published, a
group of Muslims allegedly from Cairo entered the neighbouring
mosque with copies of the article and incited the worshippers to
protest. Al-Ahram describes what happened: “An angry crowd of about
100 people promptly marched towards the neighbouring church. As word
spread around, the crowd got bigger, with some 3,000 people
eventually taking part. Some were there to support the
demonstrators’ demands, while others were just curious about the
goings on. Local police were quickly deployed in the hundreds; and
by three in the morning, had dispersed the angry demonstrators.”

Adnkronos International (AKI) reports that the protesters shouted
slogans such as, “Oh Islam, we will defend you with our body and
soul!”, and “Christians and Jews, the army of Mohammed will return”.
Jihad groups linked to al-Qaeda posted video footage of the protest
on their websites along with exhortations to follow this example and
attack Christians. (Link 2)

On 18 October, the Islamist group “mujahadeen of Egypt”, which
claimed responsibility for the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, posted a
notice on the Internet inciting Muslims to take action against
Christians in revenge for the alleged offence against Mohammed.

AKI reports, the mujadadeen described their posting on the Internet
as, “an urgent message to the followers of the cross living in
Egypt”. The message made specific reference to the “crusaders’
church”, which it deemed guilty of staging a theatre performance
offending the Prophet Muhammed. According to AKI, the “mujahadeen of
Egypt” decided to destroy the church, but found the security too
tight to perpetrate an attack. As the militants explain in their
Internet statement: “After hearing this news, we had decided without
hesitation to destroy that church. The mujahadeen prepared
themselves but found what they were expecting. The … police,
secret services and internal security forces had surrounded the area
of Muharram Bik, protecting the church. If those responsible for the
offence do not admit their guilt, then every Christian holding a
sermon in the incriminated church will become a target of the
mujahadeen.” (Link 3)


On 19 October, the day after the incitement from “mujahadeen of
Egypt”, a Muslim student in his early 20s entered St George Church
as a prayer service was finishing. He shouted “Allah akbar” (God is
great) and stabbed a novitiate nun in the chest with a knife. The
nun, aged in her mid-40s, required surgery for her wounds. One other
worshipper, Ali al-Jani, was wounded as he intervened to protect the
nun. Father Augustinous, head of St George Church was not present
during the attack. However, it was reported to him by eye witnesses
that after stabbing the nun, the attacker knelt and prayed “as if he
was thanking God for finishing a task”. (Link 4)


Following Friday prayers on 21 October, after the ultimatum
demanding an apology from Coptic Pope Shenouda III had expired, more
than 5,000 angry Muslims demonstrated outside the front of St George
Church. They brandished sticks and threw rocks. Around 90 people
were injured as police fired tear gas and fought to disperse the
angry crowd. Twenty police officers were amongst those injured. Two
protesters and two policemen died in the violence ? one protester
being trampled to death. Nine cars and seven Christian-owned
businesses were torched and a gold store was looted. (Link 5)

Seven churches in Alexandria were attacked by a violent mob of
Muslim youths that Friday evening. Reports are coming from
Alexandria that tell of significant damage to church property,
including broken gates, doors, windows, and furniture. Pews were
reportedly burned and Bibles were thrown into the street to be
trampled by angry crowds. Families, especially pastoral families who
live in the churches, have been traumatised. Many from the
congregations were too afraid to meet on Sunday.

New York Times (NYT) reports, “In Alexandria, several shopkeepers
and pedestrians spoke of their waning patience for their Christian
neighbors, and of a sense that their tolerance has been taken for
granted and abused.” (Link 6)

Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, 25, a pharmacist whose shop is opposite St
George’s Coptic Orthodox Church told the NYT , “People are very,
very provoked. They are boiling. Did we make plays that insult the
Christians? They will pay the price in terms of their security,
comfort, and now no priest will be able to walk in the streets.”

NYT also spoke to a shoemaker who said his name was Muhammad Abdo.
He said that police first fired tear gas into the crowd, which only
served to anger those in the streets. They then went wild, turning
over cars and setting them on fire, smashing storefronts and looting
a gold shop. ” ‘No one will stop until they give a formal apology,’
Mr. Abdo said, adding that he heard the play denied a central tenet
of the Islamic faith – that Muhammad was God’s prophet.”


The play which Muslims allege defamed Islam is called, “I Was Blind
but Now I See”. It was based on a 1990s movie called The Terrorist,
which starred Egyptian comedian Adel Imam. It is the story of a poor
Coptic University student who converts to Islam after a group of
Muslim men offer him money to do so. However, the young convert
becomes disillusioned after the local sheikh exhorts him to kill
priests and destroy churches. Abused and maltreated by the sheikh
and his group, the young man eventually abandons Islam and returns
to Christianity. His apostasy enrages the Islamists who then seek to
kill him. His life, however, is ultimately saved by his faithful
Muslim friend.

According to Coptic leaders, the play was a statement against
extremism and radicalism. However, Islamic voices are claiming that
the play “defamed” Islam. Osama Gado, of the Muslim Brotherhood
claimed the play “clearly harms the image of Islam”. Tamer Harfush
also lambasted the play saying, “The play compares Islam and
Jesus and Prophet Muhammad, presenting the first as a
man who sacrificed his life and the second as more preoccupied with
earthly pleasures.” (Link 7)

The most critical thing about this play is that it was performed


Apart from the standard questions: “Does this defame Islam?” (the
dictionary defines “defame” as: To damage the reputation, character,
or good name of by slander or libel), and “Why riot?”, the most
obvious question is: Why now? Considering the play was performed
once, TWO YEARS AGO, why is this sectarian hatred, specifically
anti-Copt hatred, being whipped up now?

Legislative elections commence on 9 November. Already the trouble in
Alexandria has driven Maher Khella, the local Coptic candidate of
the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), to withdraw from the
parliamentary race “to defuse tensions”. Maher Khella was one of
only two Copts amongst the 444 candidates fielded by the ruling NDP.
(Link 7)

According to Al-Ahram, Al-Midan is not the only newspaper inflaming
Islamic sentiments. Al-Ahram reports, “Sameh Fawzi, the editor of
Watani (My Nation), a prominent Coptic newspaper, says that ‘reading
a number of tabloid newspapers will clearly reveal how a sensitive
topic like religion is often manipulated to pit Muslims and
Christians against each other.’ Several newspapers, for instance,
have recently been running stories claiming that churches are doing
intensive missionary work among university students across the

On Thursday 20 October, supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood
marched in Cairo in an effort to encourage Egyptians to vote for
their Islamist candidates in next month’s parliamentary elections.
As noted by Reuters, the Muslim Brotherhood sidesteps its ban by
fielding candidates as independents. As they marched they chanted
“Islam is the Solution” as well as other slogans such as “We make
the pledge and guard the dhimma…”.(Link 8)

(Dhimmis are second-class citizens in historic, orthodox Islam, with
limited rights and no equality before the law. Dhimmitude (see ) is based on Islamic theology and is an
Islamic form of religious apartheid. Historically, in the context of
Islamic imperialism, it has permitted the preservation of Jews and
Christians for the purpose of exploitation. To receive and maintain
“protection”/right to life, dhimmis must live in subjugation and
submission, eternally grateful for and humbled by the “protection”
afforded them.)

These religious issues ? “defamation” of Islam, Christian
evangelism, and dhimmis abusing Muslim tolerance and taking it for
granted (NYT) ? will ensure that Islamic zeal and anger are running
high. This should give the Islamists a boost at the polls at the
expense of Copts, other Christians, and secularists. Many observers
suspect that political Islamists, who can gain political mileage
from sectarian tensions, are behind the Alexandria riots.

Al Ahram reports, “A US-government sponsored conference on Coptic
grievances in Egypt is scheduled for 16 November in Washington.
Participants will reportedly press for the Egyptian government to
provide more freedoms for Copts. They will also demand the amendment
of a constitutional article that considers Islam ‘Egypt’s official
religion and main source of legislation’. The meeting is seen as a
means for Washington to exercise more pressure on the Egyptian
government, and for Copts to extract more concessions at home.”

Some analysts believe that State Security Forces have orchestrated
the Alexandria protests in order to embarrass and discredit the
Copts at home and abroad before the Washington Conference so as to
limit, or even cripple, its effectiveness.


Even though more than one hundred rioters have been detained for 15
days pending investigations, Christians in Alexandria are afraid and
are staying home indoors.

Several facts indicate that this situation has potential to escalate
and spread like wildfire:
1) The approaching legislative elections will arouse further
sectarian zeal and tension, especially as media provocation and the
Alexandria riots have already ignited hostility and fractured unity.
2) In the light of the troubles and controversies in Alexandria, the
Washington Conference on Coptic grievances will doubtless now
receive more attention on the street in Egypt than it otherwise
might have, and the Muslim response will probably be further anger
and resentment.
3) The involvement of al-Qaeda linked organisations with their calls
for jihad against Christians and churches is extremely worrying.
4) … and Ramadan, which because of the fasting and restrictions
required can tend to raise Islamic zeal and cause frustration and
irritability to overpower tolerance, is not over yet!

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]
For an excellent and most insightful comment, see:
Alexandria, Yesterday and Today
By Mona Eltahawy, 25 October 2005

1) One step forward, two steps back
Mustafa El-Menshawy, in Alexandria
Al-Ahram Weekly 20 – 26 October 2005. Issue No. 765

2) Web video incites attacks against Christians. 21 October 2005.

3) New Threats Against Coptic Community. Cairo, 18 October 2005.

4) Stabbing of nun sparks tension in Alexandria
By Maamoun Youssef, 20 October 2005

5) Christian DVD sparks riot. Saturday, 22 October 2005
Three killed in Egypt church riot. Saturday, 22 October 2005.

6) Egyptian Police Guard Coptic Church Attacked by Muslims
By. Michael
Slackman in Alexandria, Egypt. 22 October 2005

7) Coptic Play Shadows Egypt?s Legislative Polls
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, 23 October 2005
Deadly protest adds to grievances of Egypt’s

8) Islamists hit streets in Egypt election campaign
By Tom Perry in Cairo. REUTERS. 24 October 2005

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