Egypt riots raise worries over Islamic hard-liners

By Lee Keath

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A churchman looks from the scene as Egyptian Christians carry a coffin of one of the victims, of Saturday night clashes with Muslims in the streets of Imbaba western Cairo, during a funeral ceremony at Giza church Sunday, May 8, 2011. Muslim mobs set two Cairo churches on fire overnight during sectarian clashes that left 12 dead and more than 200 injured.

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

CAIRO — Deadly Muslim-Christian riots that left 12 dead and a Cairo church a burned-out husk have magnified worries in Egypt over Islamic ultraconservatives who have grown more assertive since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's military rulers are stumbling over how to deal with them, reluctant to crack down and spark a backlash.

The clashes in the working-class district of Imbaba were rooted in a personal dispute. A Christian woman had an affair with a Muslim man. And when she disappeared, the man spread rumors that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner in a local church because she converted to Islam, security officials said Monday.

That brought out a mob of Muslims, led by members of the hardline movement known as Salafis, who attacked the church late Saturday. The assault prompted clashes with neighborhood Christians that spiraled into an hours-long melee, with gunfire and a church set ablaze. Seven Christians and six Muslims were killed and more than 200 people were injured.

The escalation of a household drama into a national crisis reflected the stormy politics shaking Egypt at a fragile time, with the ruling military trying to navigate a transition to democracy following the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak. The former president's authoritarian rule kept an uneasy lid on sectarian tensions, but they have now been given a freer rein since his ouster.

Most worrying for Christians and many Muslims is the increasing boldness of the Salafi movement.

Salafism is a hard-line movement preaching a strict version of Islamic Shariah law, shunning anything they see as an "innovation" in the religion. Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi ideology, with its staunch segregation of the sexes, is a version of Salafism — as is the jihadi, or "holy war" ideology of al-Qaida, though most of Egypt's Salafis insist they don't advocate violence.

For years, Mubarak's regime cultivated the spread of the Salafi movement because its followers generally stayed out of politics, making them a counterbalance to the less radical Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's top political rival.

Now with Mubarak out of power, Salafis have rushed into politics, organizing to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections and demanding a say in shaping Egypt's future.

In one sign of Salafis' growing confidence, one prominent preacher, Hafez Salama, on Friday publicly praised Osama bin Laden after he was killed by U.S. troops in Pakistan, calling him "a hero." The same day, a few hundred Salafis marched through Cairo condemning the killing.

Under Mubarak's rule, Egypt's Salafis avoided any public show of sympathy with al-Qaida's leader, a red line for a regime that was wary of any sign of the terror group's spread.

Salafis and Christians have traded blame for Saturday's violence, with Salafis insisting that they only wanted to free the "imprisoned" woman and claiming Christians started the shooting.

But for the past year, Salafis have been stoking rhetoric against Egypt's mostly Coptic Christians as a way to rally their base.

In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.

Salafi clerics have drummed up outrage over several Christian women who converted to Islam in order to get divorces from their husbands and were then reportedly imprisoned by Church officials. Divorce is strictly forbidden in Egypt's Coptic Christian Church, and leaving the faith is one of the few ways for a woman to get out of a marriage.

In mosques and on satellite TV stations, Salafis have accused Christians of trying to break what they call Egypt's "Muslim character" and storing weapons in churches and monasteries.

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