Neighbors / Copts and Robbers

In the Israeli memory, the town of Nag Hammadi is connected to a bold operation by the air force and paratroop commandos, who blew up the Nag Hammadi dam and the Qena Bridge in 1968.

With Operations Shock 1 and Shock 2 Israel cut off electricity to the southern provinces of Egypt and sent a wave through the top Egyptian leadership, which was surprised by the action deep in Egyptian territory.

In Nag Hammadi, about 700 kilometers south of Cairo, six Christians and a Muslim policemen were shot and killed by armed Muslims who opened fire on worshippers as they emerged from prayers on Christmas, which falls on January 7 on the Coptic calendar.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry hastened to open an investigation. It found almost immediately that the motive was criminal, not religious, and attributed it to revenge for the rape of a Muslim girl by young Christian men.

However, this theory is not calming the Coptic community in Egypt, which numbers about 10 million citizens. Many are convinced that this was yet another violent manifestation of the tension between Christians and Muslims in that country.

Nag Hammadi is a mixed city. About 35 percent of its denizens are Christian. Along broad Hosni Mubarak Street, mosques and churches stand side by side and the peals of bells mingle with the muezzins' calls to prayer.

The Qena governorate, to which the city belongs, is headed by Magdy Ayoub, the only Christian among the 29 provincial governors in Egypt. The Christians, however, hate him and see his behavior as the cause of the tensions in the area.

According to some letters and responses Christians have sent to the Coptic Internet sites, they would have preferred the previous governor, Adel Labib. "[Labib] devoted one day a week to speaking with citizens, as compared to Ayoub, who shuts himself up in his office and doesn't look after the citizens," one read.

"Ayoub just wants to please the Muslims," wrote another. "He is building mosques for them and is preventing the building of churches for his Christian brethren."

As the Christians see it, building churches is one of the tests of an Egyptian president with regard to equality between Christians and Muslims in the country. The head of the Coptic Church, Patriarch Shenouda III, once told a newspaper that in the 1970s president Anwar Sadat promised him he would build 50 churches, but instead the president exiled the patriarch to a distant province. President Mubarak pardoned him and returned him to his permanent seat in Cairo.

As compared to Sadat, who saw himself as "the Muslim president of a Muslim state," and thus fanned religious flames in the country, Mubarak at least makes an effort to display goodwill.

In 2003 he made the Coptic New Year an official holiday, his son Gamal Mubarak puts in an appearance at Christmas services and Egyptian cabinet ministers are required to take part in Christian holiday observances.

In 2002, the head of Al Azhar University, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, ordered that the term "Crusader war" not be used to describe the war in Iraq because "this expression has racist contexts against Islam and Christianity." He suggested replacing the term "Crusade" with "European" war.

Mubarak's change in approach is also pragmatic. Heavy American pressure aimed at refining civil rights policy in Egypt led to prolonged tension between Washington and Cairo. Last year, however, U.S. President Barack Obama declared a policy of "reaching out" to Islam. Moreover, Mubarak wants to turn over a new leaf and bequeath to his son Gamal a sound relationship with the United States, so he has gone to great lengths to evince a fair attitude towards the Christians.

However, Mubarak's fine statements and those of other Egyptian leaders regarding rights for Christians are being scuttled by bureaucracy. There is deep-seated discrimination with regards to appointments in government ministries, distribution of scholarships to students and advancement of lecturers at universities.

The building of new churches is in the hands of the governors and there is no longer a need to receive a permit from the central government. But when a permit is given, obstacles to its implementation pile up.

In a number of cases Muslim citizens have obtained stop work orders because of land ownership disputes and before a court hands down a ruling a mosque is built on the land. Thus, even if ultimately the court rules in the Christians' favor, it is no longer possible to implement it because it is forbidden to tear down a mosque.

There are no elected Christian representatives in the Egyptian parliament. The five Copt MPs were appointed by the president as part of a quota of appointments under his authority.

"What Muslim would give his vote to a Christian?" asked a lecture at the American University in Cairo in a conversation with Haaretz. "Christians vote for Muslims, but not vice versa."

Children of mixed couples are registered as Muslim even if they receive a Christian education at home. Mixed marriages, incidentally, can only be performed outside out Egypt, because both the Muslim establishment and the Christian establishment refuse to affirm such unions.

Egyptian representatives point to collaboration between the Jewish lobby and the Coptic lobby in the United States and blame them for the previous administration's policy towards Mubarak. However, none of this has succeeded in dispelling the tremendous tension inside Egypt.

Nag Hammadi is just another instance. The fear is always that the next incident will be far worse.