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Egypt sectarian clash blamed on poor state services

By Staff
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CAIRO, Apr 20 (Reuters) Recent clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Alexandria were due to a sectarian divide in Egypt that is widening because the state does little to promote a sense of nationhood, Copts and analysts said today.

One political analyst said the government's failure to provide adequate services had left many Muslims and Christians relying on faith-based organisations, which instilled in them a sense of religious, rather than national, identity.

The government promotes religious tolerance through media campaigns and frequent comments by senior officials, but Christians complain they see no practical steps to remedy their underrepresentation in public life and the media.

In the most recent violence, Muslims and Christians fought for three days in Alexandria after a Muslim man killed an elderly Copt and wounded five people in knife attacks in two churches on Friday. A Muslim man died in the clashes.

The authorities say the attacker was mentally ill but many Copts doubt the official version and accuse the authorities of covering up evidence of a larger, more organised attack on Copts, who account for five to 10 per cent of Egypt's 70 million people.

Yohanna Naseef, a Coptic priest from the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, said discrimination and neglect of minorities, particularly in education, had led to events such as the recent violence.

''Discrimination ... is present in all fields -- in politics, education, the army,'' Naseef said. ''Schools teach that the minorities are not supposed to be there ... They exclude and cancel minorities,'' he added.

In addition, the absence of adequate public services such as health care and education has pushed many Egyptian Muslims into turning to Islamic organisations to fill the gap, strengthening their sense of identity as Muslims.

In October, three people died in Alexandria in clashes with police during Muslim protests over a church play they said was offensive to Islam.

NATIONAL IDENTITY The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, provides social services through a network of volunteers. Some Copts say this sectarianism is creating a hostile atmosphere towards them, and pushing them towards their church for support.

''The state has ... withdrawn socially, leaving people to search for safety networks for themselves,'' said political analyst Sameh Fawzy, a Christian.

''Muslims go to mosques, and Christians are going to churches, so incrementally religious identity will come before national identity,'' he said.

Copts have complained that government officials, including police officers, sometimes deal with Copts as a separate community.

Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights cited an example where Christians in a village were ordered to contribute to compensation paid to the family of a Muslim man killed by a Christian.

Analysts also say the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has adopted some Islamic symbols to gain popular support in the Arab world's most populous country, where the overwhelming majority are religious conservatives.

''Since the 1970s there has been an excessive Islamisation of society ... The ruling elite are, in a way, trying to show society they are more Islamist than Islamists themselves,'' Fawzy said.

REUTERS SH B KP2002

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