CAIRO (AFP) – The Islamist sect blamed for attacks on Coptic churches in Cairo had already been accused of stoking religious strife since the uprising that ousted the former regime which had kept them in check for decades.
Salafists were mostly apolitical prior to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February, but they have since begun forming political parties and raising their public profile.
Salafi leaders have denied involvement in mob attacks on Cairo churches on Saturday, although their followers were among the Muslims who tried to storm a church they said was holding a Muslim convert against her will.
“Salafists played a positive role,” said Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a Salafi cleric.
He said news had spread that the woman was detained in a building adjacent to the church after she got hold of a cellphone and called her Muslim husband.
“The Salafists persuaded people to go with the police to the church to negotiate her release. But they were fired upon. They did not come armed,” he said.
He blamed “thugs” for the violence.
The incident was just the latest in a series of events that worried the Coptic Church enough to convene a synod on the Salafists’ newfound assertiveness.
Salafists regularly stage protests demanding the Coptic Church release the wives of two priests the Islamists say converted to Islam, and Salafists were prominent in mass demonstrations in the country’s south against the appointment last month of a Coptic governor.
Last week, hundreds of Salafists also protested outside Cairo’s American embassy at the death of Osama bin Laden.
Many Muslims also fear the rise of the fundamentalists while secular groups still try to organise themselves into parties to enter parliamentary elections in September.
The Salafi sect, which is dominant in Saudi Arabia, believes most modern Muslims follow a corrupted version of Islam that should be abandoned in favour of the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, the Salaf.
Mubarak’s government saw them as competition to the government-run Al-Azhar, whose theological teachings the Salafists deprecate, and as possibly violent extremists.
Mubarak’s regime published leaflets denouncing Salafi practices, such as the face veil for women, and rounded up Salafists after militant attacks including a suicide bombing that killed 20 people near a church in January.
Yet security services were accused of usually tolerating the fundamentalists because most of their leaders preached an apolitical Islam compared with the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, which was banned before Mubarak’s ouster.
Although the group’s ideology has inspired such militants as bin Laden, many Salafi clerics proscribe rebellions against Muslim rulers and shy away from democratic politics, which they view as a Western innovation.
But Egypt’s Salafists are now forming political parties, and they say Christians and other Muslims have nothing to fear from them.
“We do not want to impose our views on anyone. We do not want to turn society into a battlefield,” Shahat said.
Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamists with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the Salafi movement’s involvement in public life could help temper its ideology.
“It can be positive. Participating in debate and society will be educational,” he said.
Rashwan cited a scandal in March when a Salafi cleric described the referendum on constitutional amendments, which he supported, as “the battle of the ballot boxes,” using the word “ghazwa”, which connotes battles waged by the Prophet Mohammed.
“He was forced to deny he meant it. He said he was just joking,” Rashwan said. “That was the result of public opinion. It shows some Salafists take society and public opinion into consideration.