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Egyptian Activists: Our Religion Is None Of Your Business

Egyptian Christians gather around four coffins during a funeral service at the Saint Mark Coptic cathedral in Cairo on April 7. Religious violence this month has killed three Muslims and at least six Christians.
Amr Nabil
Egyptian Christians gather around four coffins during a funeral service at the Saint Mark Coptic cathedral in Cairo on April 7. Religious violence this month has killed three Muslims and at least six Christians.

Since Egypt's revolution began, tensions among Egypt's Muslims and Christians have only increased. Earlier this month, it once again turned deadly. Tit-for-tat killings left three Muslims and at least six Christians dead.

That and other religious violence is prompting a public debate about religious identity in Egypt. One group of young Egyptians wants to remove religious labels from national ID cards.

'Where The Trouble Starts'

Aalam Wassef, one of those advocates, will gladly tell you he's a video artist, a musician and a publisher. When it comes to his religion, though, he says it's none of your business.

That's the motto of his new campaign, too. Wassef, along with two other Egyptians, is calling on others to cover up their religion on their national ID card and start identifying as human first. They're spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

One of their videos plays images of a particularly bloody day for Christians last year, when the military — in power at the time — drove over Christian protesters, and state television called on "honorable" Muslims to come out and defend the troops from the Christians. Twenty-seven people were dead by the end of that day.

The lyrics sung to these images are just as chilling: "The racist republic of Egypt, the sectarian republic of Egypt. It's ingrained on your ID, and this is where the trouble starts."

"Egypt has a long history of sectarian violence and sectarian issues, which have always been covered up with this narrative of national unity," Wassef says. "And so it's a big lie, actually, because there's a lot of embedded discrimination in the society."

Institutionalized Differences

For decades in Egypt, Christians haven't had the same access to education and job opportunities. They are about 10 percent of Egypt's population and predominantly Coptic. They can't build churches without a presidential permit, and some Islamists have blamed them publicly for stirring violent protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. A fiery ultra-orthodox preacher who supports the Muslim Brotherhood said this about Christians:

"I tell the church, yes, you are our brothers in this nation. But there are red lines. Our red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Morsi. Whoever sprays it with water, we will spray them with blood."

The preacher's name is Safwat Hegazy, and he sits on Egypt's National Council for Human Rights.

Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at The Century Foundation in New York, says he's seen an increase in religious-based violence.

"I think what's different is that, we have officials of the government now — not underground preachers, not opposition members, but formal members of the government — who engage in sectarian rhetoric," he says. "And we've seen no effort or real response to rein that in."

The lack of response, Hanna says, creates a permissive atmosphere where religious discrimination can thrive.

President Morsi has distanced himself from language like Hegazy's. He's issued permits for two new churches, and during religious violence earlier this month, he called the top Coptic Christian leader and said that he takes attacks on the church personally.

A 'More Useful' Distinction

As quickly as the religious violence breaks out, it is swept away.

Earlier this month, clashes began in the village of Khosous, just outside Cairo, after young boys painted a swastika on a Muslim institute. In the melee, a Christian man shot a Muslim man, witnesses said. After that death, five Christians were killed in apparent retaliation. Another Muslim man later died of his wounds.

But now it is quiet again. A black banner hangs above the entrance to the city. It reads, "Christians and Muslims are one hand."

Yet it's evident that religious tensions lie just under the surface. One ultra-orthodox Muslim lawyer who insisted the incident was not a religious conflict went on to describe "pig-rearing Christian thugs." In return, local Christians blame Muslims and often use language that's just as inflammatory.

Bolbol Khalil, a Christian juice shop owner on the street where the violence was the worst, says Muslims came from outside Khosous and attacked Christians.

He points to a nearby building. Merzam was killed there, he says. Victor, a taxi driver, was killed there, too, and a man named Peter was soaked in gasoline and set on fire because he was Christian.

We never expected this here, he says. We celebrate weddings together, we mourn at funerals together. We are all brothers.

Back in Cairo, Wassef pulls out his ID. In the space for religion, he's covered it with a piece of paper that has his blood type written on it.

"It is good to remind everyone that whatever your religion, whatever your origin, the color of your blood is just red like anyone else," he says. "And it's actually much more useful, especially in the context that we live in, to have your blood type written on your ID."

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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