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01 August 2011

With regime's fall, Christians become prey

954540707.jpgQENA, Egypt -- When Ayman Anwar Mitri heard his apartment building had burned, the high school administrator rushed to see the damage.

He found a crowd of bearded men waiting.

They "beat me all over" with charred furniture, recalls Mitri, 47, one of the Coptic Christians who make up 10 to 15 percent of Egypt's 83 million people.

He says a rival falsely accused him of renting the apartment to two Muslim prostitutes and of having sex with them -- a social and sectarian taboo that inflamed local Islamists.

"They were chanting, 'There is no god but Allah.' They wanted me to convert to Islam," Mitri says. "... I was on my knees with my hands over my head. It felt like icicles falling on my body, and I prayed."

An attacker slashed his back, an arm and a cheek with a box cutter before slicing off his right ear.

Afterward, a caller told police: "We took our Islamic justice; you can now take your civilian justice."

White gauze is wrapped around Mitri's head, covering the wound and part of his receding hair. A small cross is tattooed on his right wrist.

He says he learned his attackers -- who were never charged -- were Salafis.

Four days later, he says, authorities forced him into a "reconciliation" meeting with the men and made him change his police statement to deny knowing the culprits.

Across Egypt, Salafis are accused of increased violence, mostly against Christians, since the Mubarak regime fell in February.

"A month ago, you wouldn't even dare to walk around. We were expecting them to throw acid (on us)," says Hala Helmy Botros, 47, a Coptic activist and blogger here. "They were on fire, cutting off ears and making lots of threats."

In one incident, Botros recounts, an unveiled girl was stabbed in one arm.

Qena is the capital of a province of about 3 million Egyptians; a third are thought to be Christians. The place prides itself on its clean, tree-lined boulevards.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of an Egyptian newspaper that covers Christian issues, says officials have allowed Salafis "to become wild ... to know that they are not paying any price, whatever atrocities they do."

Three local Salafi leaders agreed to discuss the Mitri incident. Refusing to make eye contact with two female reporters during a two-hour interview, they insist that media reports distorted the attack.

One of the men, Abdel Rahman Adly, a civil engineer, says, "Prostitution isn't acceptable by Muslims or Christians" and "lots of people, not only Salafis," were involved.

Islam provides "no punishment such as cutting off ears for adultery or prostitution," he says, and what occurred had "nothing to do with religion."

Salafis, as well as other Muslims and some Christians, have protested the recent appointment of Qena's new provincial governor, who is a Christian and police general; Egyptians widely revile police officials as corrupt.

According to Botros, Salafis at one protest chanted, "Oh Christians, you pigs!" and "There is no god but Allah, and Christians are the enemy of Allah!"

Others blocked the region's rail line for more than a week.

Acting Gov. Magid Abdul Kareem says he has heard much talk about local Salafis but denies that a problem exists.

Social worker Naser Yasin, 27, disagrees. The Salafis' actions are "a message to the Christians in general and the ruling military council in particular that they ... (can) take control of the street," he says.

Dr. Mona Makram Ebied, a Harvard-educated professor at American University in Cairo and former parliamentarian, describes Salafis as "the boogeyman we have today to frighten people."

Egypt's Copts feel insecure, she says, because government inaction gives "a free hand for the Salafis to continue doing this -- cutting off ears, refusing a Christian governor, or burning a church."

Mitri says he wants to immigrate to Australia; his 11-year-old son is too afraid to attend school.

"They have the upper hand," he says of Qena's Salafis. "If they were able to shut down the train tracks throughout the governorate for a week, this proves the power they have."

Read more: With regime's fall, Christians become prey - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/middle_eas...

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