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Religious Tensions Escalate In Egypt Amid Violence


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is reporting from Venezuela this week as that nation holds a presidential election. I'm David Greene in Washington. Over the weekend, Egypt suffered the worse religious violence it has seen since President Mohamed Morsi came to power last year. At least six people were killed, including five Coptic Christians. More than 80 others were wounded.

Egyptians are already struggling with an economic crisis and political instability, and now religious tensions appear to be boiling over. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us from Cairo. Good morning, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So can you bring us up to date on how all of this got started over the weekend? What lit the fuse here?

FADEL: So it began north of Cairo. Christians and Muslims got into a gunfight. It's unclear exactly how it started, but that gun battle ended with five people dead - a Muslim and four Christians. On Sunday, those four Coptic Christians were being buried and as Christian mourners exited the cathedral, they were apparently attacked by residents in the area. And during those clashes, another Coptic Christian man was killed.

And this cathedral is very important religiously for the Coptic community. It is where they go to pray. It is where their Pope resides. And the mob went after that cathedral. And many say the police also really chose sides for a while during those clashes yesterday, firing barrages of tear gas into the cathedral. So it really got out of control very quickly.

GREENE: And so what is President Morsi saying he might do? These tensions are the kind of thing that sound like they could really get out of control quickly.

FADEL: Yes. Late yesterday after these clashes had happened, he did issue a statement saying he's calling for an investigation immediately. He said that an attack on the Coptic Christian community is like an attack on himself. And in that statement, he said that he did call the Pope and assure him that he would do everything to stop this.

But it still didn't do much to quell the fears among Coptic Christians. He has been condemned by a lot of his critics, opposition groups, saying it is his fault that the country is at this stage where religious violence like this can get out of control so quickly.

GREENE: Leila, how organized did you get a sense that this is? I mean, is this mobs that, you know, just the violence starts after a funeral service or do you get the sense that this is really organized?

FADEL: Well, things are always really unclear in situations like this. It's real rioting. But it doesn't seem to be really organized. Witness reports really differ depending on who you spoke to about how it started. So, no, I don't know that it's necessarily extremely organized but it's always unclear exactly how things start when it becomes chaotic like this.

GREENE: So religious violence? I mean, tell us what role it plays in Egypt both before the Arab Spring and since. Is this something we see a lot of?

FADEL: There has been a history of religious tensions here in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community makes up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population. And that population has long said that they're not getting the rights that they deserve, the right to build churches when they feel they want to. It's something that the former president, Hosni Mubarak, never addressed, turned a blind eye to.

And now people are saying that President Mohamed Morsi is acting the same way. His political party, or the political party that he ultimately came from, talked about how this was a conspiracy to undermine Egypt, to destroy Egypt. And it's not something from within. But there is a history of religious tension here that has never been addressed. Nobody can deny that these tensions exist. Especially in the smaller villages outside Cairo we have heard of a series of Coptic-Muslim violence since the revolution in 2011. And it seems to be on the rise.

GREENE: And Leila, we've often talked about, you know, difficult transitions post-Arab Spring. Mohamed Morsi has just come in and everyone's been sort of watching Egypt. And what does this violence say about the state of things there right now? How big a deal could this be?

FADEL: Well, it's just one more thing that Egypt needs to deal with while it's already struggling in a transition. The economy is tanking. There is a deepening security vacuum. People feel that they can't turn to the state for very much, be it protection of their church or protection of their home. And so it's just another thing piling up on top of all the problems Egypt's dealing with.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Leila Fadel, talking to us from Cairo. Thanks, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.

GREENE: She was talking to us about religious violence that has broken out in Egypt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.