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Theological Notebook: Trouble in Alexandria

So sad to see this in the See of Mark, and the city that gave us Clement, Athanasius, and the mighty Origen. Darn them for conquering so many of our cool spots, anyway! There once was a time when Islam at least had a reputation for a sort of civilized oppression, at least....


Muslims protest outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt Oct. 21 (AP)

Christian DVD Sparks Riot

Muslims Clash With Police Outside Egyptian Church
By MAGGIE MICHAEL, AP

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Oct. 22) - Police manned barricades Saturday around churches in Egypt's second largest city after thousands of Muslims rampaged through a Christian neighborhood in the worst outbreak of religious violence to hit the country in five years. At least four people were killed - two policemen and two rioters - and 90 were injured.

Police said about 100 people were arrested trying to storm St. George's Coptic Church in the rioting that began about midday Friday, shortly after Muslim prayers.

The violence spread throughout a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the Mediterranean port city after windows were smashed in St. George's and one other church. Rioters were beaten back by police, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds.

Protesters attacked five other churches in the district, torched a police car and badly damaged eight others. Most Egyptian Christians are Copts, but in Alexandria the Christian population also includes Roman Catholics and Protestants, who tend to live and worship in the region around St. George's.

With huge numbers of police in the streets, the city was quiet Saturday.

The rioting marked a continuation of a two-week-old Muslim campaign that has focused on St. George's. About two years ago, a religious drama was performed there that Muslims have since deemed offensive to their beliefs. The drama went unnoticed at the time but was recorded by someone and now is being distributed on DVDs.

The Muslim organizers of the protests claim the DVDs are being handed out by the Copts, but a security official said it was the work of Islamic extremists trying to provoke violence in advance of general legislative elections that begin Nov. 9.

"It is all electioneering," one senior security official told The Associated Press. "They are using this to buy more votes from Muslims." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The play, "I Was Blind But Now I Can See," tells the story of a young Christian who converts to Islam and becomes disillusioned.

Father Augustinous, director of St. George's, said it was difficult to explain the reaction to single performance that took place two years ago.

"There are so many questions on what is behind all of that," he told AP in a telephone interview.

He denied the play was offensive to Islam because its Christian hero was ultimately saved by a Muslim friend.

The Interior Ministry described the protesters as "fanatic elements" who "escalated a negative reaction to a play." The ministry said about 5,000 Muslims marched on the church after Friday noon prayers at mosques.

In January 2000, 23 people, mainly Christians, were killed after an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer in el-Kusheh, 275 miles south of Cairo, degenerated into street battles with rifles and other weapons.

10-22-05 12:47 EDT

+++

A later version of the story with more details:

Egypt Police Guard Churches After Riots

Oct 22, 5:51 PM (ET)

By MAGGIE MICHAEL

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) - Thousands of police manned barricades around Christian churches in Egypt's second largest city Saturday, a day after Muslim rioters attacked churches and shops, leaving four people dead in the country's worst religious violence in five years.

Egypt's top Muslim and Christian leaders appealed for calm as tensions simmered in Alexandria, where some 5,000 Muslim rioters rampaged through two predominantly Christian neighborhoods.

Clashes with rubber bullet-firing police killed two rioters and two policemen, police and hospital officials said Saturday. At least 90 people were injured.

The violence followed a week of protests over the distribution of a DVD of a play deemed offensive to Muslims. St. George's Coptic Church, where the play was performed two years ago, was one of the seven churches attacked Friday.

The play, entitled "I Was Blind But Now I Can See," tells the story of a young Christian who converts to Islam and becomes disillusioned.

Islamic leaders accused Copts of releasing the DVDs and demanded an apology.

But political leaders and security officials said Islamic extremists distributed the DVDs in an effort to tarnish a Coptic Christian candidate running in next month's parliamentary elections for Alexandria's impoverished Ghorbal constituency.

Maher Khalah, one of two Copts running on the ruling National Democratic Party ticket in this mainly Sunni Muslim country, announced Saturday that he was withdrawing from the race to prevent any recurrence of the violence.

"This violence is not about the DVD, it is all about the elections," Khalah told The Associated Press.

Coptic Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 72 million, complain of discrimination but generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority. Violence flares occasionally, particularly in small southern communities.

Friday's violence was the bloodiest since January 2000, when an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer swelled into gunfights and other street battles that killed 23 people, mostly Christians, in el-Kusheh, a town south of Cairo.

In a joint statement, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, and Egypt's highest Islamic authority, Grand Sheik of al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, urged Christians and Muslims not to resort to violence.

"We call on everyone to be calm so we can spread the grace of peace, security and affection among us," the religious leaders said. "If something happened and was misunderstood, then it is our duty to deal with it in the spirit of dialogue and understanding."

Shenouda canceled a trip to Alexandria on Saturday for his annual Ramadan fast-breaking meal with Muslim officials because of the violence, church leaders said.

Coptic community leader Kamil Sediq warned that the repercussions of Friday's violence could spread to Cairo and other provinces and reiterated that the church would not apologize.

"We're not going to apologize because we don't want it to become a precedent," said Sediq, of the Coptic Community Council, a secular body of prominent Copts established in 1874 to oversee affairs of the community. "We did nothing to apologize for."
Tags: art, christianity, cultural, eastern orthodoxy, interreligious, islam, middle east, theological notebook
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