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Egypt town's Muslim-Christian unrest speaks to bigger challenges

Dahshur's strife is a test of whether Egypt's transition to democracy under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi will soothe or exacerbate religious tension.

September 07, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian police sit in the shade of a building in Dahshur, where deadly rioting between Christians and Muslims erupted this summer.
Egyptian police sit in the shade of a building in Dahshur, where deadly rioting… (Tarek El Gabbas, AFG/Getty…)

DAHSHUR, Egypt — It began when a Christian dry-cleaning business scorched a Muslim man's shirt.

First came the insults, and then Muslims and Christians were clashing in a square in this farming town rimmed by pyramids. A gasoline bomb whistled off a roof and struck Moaz Hasaballah, leaving him blistered and, days later, dead.

Now radios squawk and patrolmen camp like an army near the doors of a locked church. But deaths like that don't come in ones — not here, anyway — and there was talk that another killing wasn't far off.

"There was nothing wrong before all this," said Ahmed Araby, a Muslim car dealer in a white tunic standing in the shade of a mosque. "It was a mistake. It was over a shirt. Muslims and Christians were like brothers, but a huge problem has fallen on our doorstep."

Hasaballah was a Muslim.

"The people won't be happy until they kill a Christian in return," Araby said. "It's the way things are in the village."

The unease here speaks to what troubles much of Egypt: poverty, bad government and the slow-burn indignities of dirty drinking water, power outages and daily misfortunes that can fill a man with rage. These slights have been compounded by the political rise of Islamists, which has left many Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, living in worry.

Sectarian tensions have ignited deadly outbursts over the last 18 months, including churches set ablaze and the killing of more than 20 Copts by security forces and armed thugs at a rally in downtown Cairo. President Mohamed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who took office in June, has been criticized for not stemming the animosity that has sent thousands of Copts fleeing the country.

Dahshur is a test of whether the transition to democracy led by an Islamist-influenced government will soothe or exacerbate religious suspicions. The heavy security presence here — at least 12 large police trucks — suggested Morsi was seeking to contain the sectarian passions that have smirched Egypt's international image.

Many of the town's 120 Christian families have locked up their homes and taken refuge in Cairo and other cities. A fading mural of St. George slaying the dragon rises above the sealed metal doors of the church, which Muslim mobs have attempted to attack several times. The pastor, Father Takla, returned to hold prayer services but left again. Muslims whisper that he was once too friendly with the secret police of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Rumors seep through the air like incense and there has been a recalibration of all that once was. Muslims said the dry cleaner's family was confrontational and that Takla, who took over the parish about a decade ago, brought with him new Christian families who bought land and disrupted the sectarian equilibrium in the town, where the vast majority of the population of 40,000 or so is Muslim.

"Any citizen has the right to buy land and to build on it as long as that does not violate the law, which in turn is not supposed to discriminate between Muslims and Christians," Takla told the Egyptian Independent newspaper.

The faiths have battled over land for generations in a pattern of "check" and "checkmate": When a new church goes up, the building of a nearby mosque quickly follows.

Detectives gathered at the mayor's house, looking down at the patrolmen, black-clad and sweating. Work went on in the fields. Corn was cut and dates, days from harvest, hung in amber and red plumes. Women hung laundry and men stood along rows of water pipes, trucked in two years ago but never sunk into the ground.

"Everything's OK," said Mohamed Gamal, a plainclothes police officer. "People feel safer this way. The Christians are back in their shops."

That seemed doubtful amid the shuttered windows, riot shields propped in the sun and reports that authorities had urged Christian families to temporarily evacuate.

"We're being extra cautious now," Gamal said. "Imagine when you're sick and how you have to stay in bed. We're nursing the town back to health."

At least four men have been charged in the riot in the square this summer, including a Christian accused of throwing the gasoline bomb at Hasaballah, whose family has demanded the death penalty. If that doesn't happen, the clan said, it will exact its own justice: a centuries-long rural code that has little to do with religion and is rooted in tribal sensibilities to balance right and wrong through acts of revenge.

Fayda Fahim sat beneath a crucifix in the doorway of her home, wedged in the alley across from the church. Police guarded the corner. Amid the slap-slap of sandals hurrying past on a hot day, Fahim, a widow who earns $50 a month working in a chicken factory two hours away, turned on a fan.

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