ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, AP -Abu Abbas looked in disbelief around his ravaged cafe just a few yards from a Coptic Christian church. Its wooden chairs lay broken and strewn about and shattered glass from broken lamps littered the floor after his business was caught in the crossfire of Egypt”s latest Christian-Muslim uproar.
Abu Abbas” cafe is right next to St. George”s, one of seven churches in two Alexandria neighborhoods attacked by thousands of Muslims on the night of Oct. 21. The protesters faced off against hundreds of riot police trying to protect the church. But in the melee, they shattered St. George”s windows and destroyed Abu Abbas” cafe.
"The storm passed by my shop, and I had to escape from the shower of stones, tear gas and rubber bullets to save my life," said the bearded Abu Abbas, a 57-year-old Muslim, who refused to identify himself beyond his nickname because of tensions after the rioting.
The violence was triggered by a play put on by Christians deemed offensive to Islam. The play had gone unnoticed when it was first performed at St. George”s two years ago. Though it has not been performed recently, it caught Muslims attention when, according to security officials, Islamic extremists may have been distributing DVDs of it to raise tensions ahead of parliamentary elections next week.
But many feel the cause of the rioting goes far deeper, rooted in the growing enmity between Egypt”s Muslims and Christians.
In Arabic chat rooms on the Internet, exchanges of insults between the two communities are routine. Christian satellite channels broadcast a heavy dose of hatred of Muslims and mockery of Islam is becoming commonplace among Egypt”s Copts.
Meanwhile, small mosques, unmonitored by the government, have mushroomed across Egypt, depicting Christians as "apostates."
The Internet appears to have played a role in the riots on the Friday before last, stoking Muslim anger over the church play, which told the story of a Christian who converted to Islam, then became disillusioned with the religion.
Some Muslim protesters said they had seen clips of the play on an Internet chat site with a message calling on "faithful Muslims" to gather after Friday prayers in front of St. George”s to protest against the play.
Sitting at the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, the cell phone of a Coptic community leader Kamil Sadiq rang constantly as frightened Christians called in to ask what they should do now.
Sadiq said the play was staged once in 2003, after which videos of the production were put away in storage. He suspects a conspiracy behind the distribution of the DVDs.
"This is not arbitrary," Sadiq said. "There are hidden evil fingers holding all the strings and moving people to insanity."
The antagonism has swelled so much that after the riots, President Hosni Mubarak made a rare acknowledgment of the tensions. On Saturday, he told a gathering of Muslim scholars they need to promote "a religious discourse that cuts away intrigues and backbiting among Muslims and Christians — to preserve Egypt”s stability, social fabric and national unity."
"Teach young people that heaven”s law prohibits spilling the blood of the innocent," he said. "Remind them always that religion is between them and God, and our nation is for everyone. Nobody has a monopoly on faith."
Copts are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, making up about 10 percent of Egypt”s nearly 74 million people. They once coexisted peacefully with the country”s Muslim majority.
But divisions have deepened since the 1970s, when Islamic extremist groups gained power and former President Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state”s official religion. Under Mubarak”s regime, Copts have complained of state discrimination depriving them of high posts in the judiciary, universities and police and of their fair share of political power.
Now on the Internet and satellite stations, extremists on both sides spit vitriol at each other, further polarizing the communities.
A Cyprus-based Christian satellite channel, Al-Hayat, has become extremely popular among Egypt”s Copts, with shows regularly denouncing Islam.
The Internet has played a role before in fomenting tensions between the two religious groups. In December last year, word spread through Christian Web sites about a wife of a priest being abducted by Muslims and forced to convert to Islam. That rumor triggered protests by thousands of Christians who clashed with security forces. The allegations were never verified.
Christian-Muslim tensions erupt violently at least once a year, usually over similar forced conversion allegations or Christian attempts to build or renovate churches in heavily populated Muslim areas. In 2000, 23 people, most of them Christians, were killed in the southern village of el-Kusheh in clashes sparked by an argument between a Muslim customer and a Coptic Christian shopkeeper.
But so far, government and religious officials have tended to keep contentious issues quiet and intervene only when the tensions turn violent.