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The Ongoing Attacks on Egypt's Coptic Christians

Paul Marshall

The violence against Copts in Egypt reported yesterday on NRO by Nina Shea is now being covered more widely (see here, here). There is still much that has not yet been reported in the West, but many in the Egyptian press are doing a good job.

The violence in the last two days has been concentrated on the east side of Cairo in the famous Christian neighborhood of Mokatam, more popularly known as “Garbage City.” Most of the garbage collection in Cairo is done privately, by Christians, the zabaleen, who pick it up in trucks and carts, take it back to where they live, and sort through it for anything valuable, which they sell. They live amongst the garbage. This Coptic community, numbering perhaps in the tens of thousands, used to live closer in, but Nasser forcibly removed them to what was then a remote area outside the city.

They have suffered many indignities. In what was first said to be a swine-flu precaution and later a general health measure, the Egyptian government announced in April 2009 a mass cull of pigs in the country. Since Islam holds pigs to be unclean, nearly all the pigs were owned by Copts, many in Garbage City. Hundreds of Coptic pig farmers in Mokatam clashed with police as the latter sought to take the animals for slaughter: Many Christians, already quite literally dirt poor, lost their livelihoods. Egypt is the only country to have engaged in such a killing of pigs; the World Health Organization has said it is unnecessary to combat the A(H1N1) flu strain.

Mokatam is also the site of one of the most unusual churches in the Middle East: the Church of St. Samaan (Simon) the Tanner, popularly known as the ‘cave church.’ Despite its huge Coptic population, Garbage City had no church at first, and the government stymied attempts to get permission to build one. The Copts then deepened the caves in the hill overshadowing their warren of streets and began to meet and worship there. Now the largest of the caves will hold over 10,000 people, and regularly does.

So far, the promise of a new Egypt is not materializing for many Copts. If anything, the rate of attacks on them has increased in the last month. Veteran reporter Arne Fjeldstad, in daily contact with people in the area, notes: “Particularly serious is the fact that the army people shot against the zabaleens. This may be a social/class issue — garbage collectors are ‘unclean,’ used to have pigs, etc. — but it definitely is a warning against Copts. The whole area is poor and there is a lot of anger (against society, the powers, as well as ‘the others’) that has been built up over the years, and which had been mostly suppressed under Mubarak.”

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