The tragedy at St. Marmina church in Imbaba on Saturday is not a new story. A young Muslim man from Asyut claims he married a Christian woman who converted to Islam five years ago, and that his wife’s brothers kidnapped her in recent months. The young man then claims he received a phone call that his wife is detained at an Imbaba church. The young man then goes to Imbaba and gathers a group of Muslims, most of them Salafis, from nearby mosques. Together they head to the church and instigated yet another incident of sectarian strife.
When the police learned of the gathering in front of St. Marmina church, they sought the assistance of Sheikh Mohammad Ali, a prominent local Salafi leader and a preacher at the nearby Toba mosque. Along with other religious leaders, Sheikh Ali went to the gathering outside the church and listened to the young man recount his story in the presence of some police officers. The sheikh did not buy the story and was especially skeptical about the fact that the young man did not file a police report immediately after the kidnapping. To Sheikh Ali, it appeared that someone was trying to incite sectarian tensions.
Sheikh Ali immediately told the protesters that the young Muslim man was lying. “Because they trust me, they believed me and began to chant: ‘Muslims and Christians are one,’” he said. Ali added that he accompanied an interior ministry official to the church to inform church leaders that the conflict was over.
“But Copts residing in nearby apartment buildings thought we were entering the church to search it, so they started to throw bottles at us. Then I heard gun fire and things escalated from there.”
Rumors quickly spread through the media and a group of young men in the area headed to an adjacent church and set it ablaze. Clashes broke out and by the end of the evening 12 people were dead and over 100 were injured.
There will be more rumors tomorrow about imaginary incidents of rape, theft, marriage, and divorce that will provoke both sides to engage in more violence to avenge the dignity of their religious group. Many will fail to see that their anger is unwarranted.
In all these cases, the solution is that suspected criminal – regardless political, sectarian or class affiliation – be subjected to a fair trial. Taking the law into our own hands to avenge crimes committed against our family, or sect deals a serious blow to the idea of a civilized society.
Serious warning bells are ringing in Egypt. Since the 25 January revolution, forces that benefited from the old regime have not been willing to give up their power so easily; they know very well that undermining Egypt’s national unity is the only way to reverse the gains of the revolution. I’m confident that these counter-revolutionary forces will not succeed. There will be no large-scale sectarian conflict in Egypt. But official institutions and civil society organizations will pay a heavy price if they do not deal with these events in a new way.
We can no longer tolerate the behavior of religious leaders, Christian or Muslim, who incite sectarianism in mosques, churches or other public spaces. Fanning the flames of hatred has nothing to do with freedom of religion or expression.