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Monday, April 8, 2013

Attack at Coptic Funeral Increases Interfaith Tension in Egypt

As my colleagues David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported, violence erupted on Sunday after unknown assailants attacked a funeral at Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, killing one and injuring scores at the seat of the Coptic Church and home of its spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II.

The clashes occurred during a funeral for four Christian victims of sectarian fighting that took place over the weekend outside Cairo, and were an escalation in the interfaith tension in Egypt since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. The earlier fighting, in the town of al-Khusus, also killed one Muslim.

This weekend’s clashes represented the first major sectarian incident since Mohamed Morsi, a high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood, became president last year. In response to the violence on Sunday, state news media reported that Mr. Morsi said, “I consider any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally.”

But the violence has also revived anxieties over how religious minorities and Egyptians who do not share the religious and political beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood will fare under a government headed by a president from within their ranks. Several leaders and high-profile allies of the Brotherhood have demonstrated a willingness to engage in sectarian rhetoric, especially when video cameras are rolling. The group has also frequently highlighted what it has called attempts by Christians to undermine Egypt’s democratic process in Arabic-language materials published on the Internet.

One high-profile Brotherhood supporter who has frequently engaged in sectarian saber-rattling is Safwat Hegazi, a popular pro-Brotherhood speaker who introduced Mr. Morsi at his first presidential rally in the Delta city of Mahalla last year.

According to a video of that rally translated and subtitled by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, an Arabic media watchdog founded by a former Israeli intelligence officer, Mr. Hegazi introduced Mr. Morsi by telling the crowd that he would usher in a “United States of Arabs” and “Islamic caliphate” with its capital in Jerusalem.

As Mr. Morsi sat on stage nearby smiling, Mr. Hegazi continued: “Our capital will not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina; it will be in Jerusalem, God willing. And our cry shall be, ‘Millions of martyrs march to Jerusalem.’ ”

A singer then serenaded the crowd, and Mr. Morsi, with a song whose refrain was: “Banish sleep from the eyes of all the Jews. Come, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas.”

A December video showing Safwat Hegazi sending a message to the Egyptian Coptic Church that supporters of President Mohamed Morsi would “spill the blood” of anyone who challenged his legitimacy.

As violent clashes took place outside of the presidential palace last December, Mr. Hegazi turned his ire toward Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up about 10 percent of its 85 million people, sending a message by way of a large crowd of Morsi supporters.

Mr. Hegazi told the cheering crowd that 60 percent of those engaged in fighting outside the palace were Christians, sent there at the instigation of secular opposition leaders, and then issued a threat to the church: “We say, and I say, to the church: You share this country with us, you are our brothers in this nation, but there are red lines, and one red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Morsi. Whoever splashes water on that, we will spill his blood.”

During an interview on a Brotherhood-linked satellite television channel, another prominent Brotherhood figure â€" Mohamed el-Beltagy, a charismatic senior member who is popular with many of the organization’s younger members â€" repeated the claim that most of Mr. Morsi’s opponents outside the palace last December were Christians.

Mohamed El-Beltagy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that Christians made up the majority of rioters outside the presidential palace.

Mr. Hegazi’s sectarian rhetoric predates the 2011 uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak and the 2012 election that elevated Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. In 2009, he used his television program on an Islamic religious network to urge viewers to boycott Starbucks Coffee, in part because of the religious and ethnic background of the woman he believed was portrayed in the company’s logo. Video of the segment has also been posted to YouTube by Memri, which has translated and subtitled it.

Video posted online showing Safwat Hegazi urging viewers to boycott Starbucks because its logo portrays Queen Esther, “queen of the Jews in Persia.”

“The girl you see is Esther, the queen of the Jews in Persia,” he said. “Can you believe that in Mecca, al-Medina, Cairo, Damascus, Kuwait and all over the Islamic world hangs the picture of beautiful Queen Esther, with a crown on her head, and we buy her products”

In 2009, Mr. Hegazi was blacklisted from entering the United Kingdom, but his star has risen since Mr. Morsi became president, and last September he was appointed to a seat on Egypt’s official human rights council.

In response to last weekend’s violence, Basil al-Dabh, an Egyptian-American reporter for The Daily News Egypt, an independent English-language newspaper, began translating articles from official Web sites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and posting the translations to a blog, MBinEnglish.

He also initiated a Twitter feed to link to his translations, @MBinEnglish.

Among his findings have been multiple articles from Ikhwan Online, a Brotherhood Web site that has reported on acts of Christian trickery and sabotage at election time, during both the presidential race last summer and a referendum on a new constitution last December. The Web site accused Christians of destroying ballot boxes, disguising themselves in Islamic headscarves to stump for Mr. Morsi’s opponents and transporting dozens of nuns to a polling station to try to swing the vote.

Mr. Dabh said he had collected articles from Brotherhood-affiliated Web sites for several months out of a sense of “general frustration in the vast difference of rhetoric” between the group’s statements in English and Arabic. In an e-mail to The Lede, Mr. Dabh said he focused on articles “with strong sectarian undertones that the group wouldn’t dare publish in English.”

“It’s important to us that we only provide translations (as literal as possible),” he wrote. “This isn’t a platform for us to convey opinions. Our only goal is to remove the massive filter that exists between the Brotherhood’s Arabic and English media.”

Mr. Dabh is not the only person to notice a difference between the statements released by the Brotherhood in Arabic and English. Two days after protests at the American Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012, and an attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the official English-language Twitter account of the Muslim Brotherhood posted an update expressing relief that no diplomats in Cairo were harmed. The Twitter account of the United States Embassy in Cairo responded with a sarcastic rebuke.