Coptic Christians Feared Attacks After Anti-Islam Film

Sep 20, 2012
Originally published on September 20, 2012 6:04 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For days, protestors angry over an anti-Muslim film made in the United States clashed with police outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Beyond those demonstrations, observers also feared the video would cause problems for Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. That's because a man associated with its production is a Coptic Christian based in California.

And on Tuesday, Egyptian authorities issued arrest warrants for seven Copts believed to be living outside Egypt on charges linked to the video. But Merrit Kennedy reports that Egypt's Coptic Christians have yet to feel a broader backlash against them.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: The Coptic Church was swift in decrying the now infamous amateur video, which portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer and a fraud.

NAGIB GABRAIL: Yes, yes. We have a very, very strong position against this film.

KENNEDY: Nagib Gabrail(ph) is the lawyer for the church. He says that the church opposes insulting any religion. The film is the work of a small group, he says, who do not represent Copts in Egypt or abroad.

The Coptic community here, about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people, has historically been marginalized from politics and high-level jobs. There have also been cases of inter-religious violence, including several recent church burnings. Twenty-seven Copts were killed by the army at a protest last year.

MOHAMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: President Mohamed Morsi has not placed Coptic rights issues high on his political agenda. But when he spoke about the violence around the U.S. embassy, he opened his remarks by emphasizing that Christians and Muslims are equal citizens of Egypt.

Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, says that there were some worrying signs of anger towards Copts during demonstrations last week.

HEBA MORAYEF: A lot of the anger was targeted against Copts in exile, without people necessarily realizing the implications that would have for Copts in Egypt.

KENNEDY: Despite fears by observers, as demonstrations against American embassies spread worldwide, the reaction against Copts within Egypt has been limited so far. But one case against a man from a Coptic background is raising concerns. Twenty-seven-year-old Albir Saber(ph) reportedly posted the anti-Muslim video on his Facebook page, angering area residents. Saber is a computer programmer who identifies himself on Facebook as an atheist.

KARIMA MASI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: His mother, Karima Masi(ph), says she called the police for protection, as an angry mob gathered outside their home and tried to break down their door.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

KENNEDY: But instead of protecting the building, the police arrested her son. The video posted on YouTube shows police roughly dragging Albir through a crowd of chanting, cheering young men. His lawyer, Ahmed Azat(ph), says that area residents, not the police, filed the charges against Albir for posting this video and other videos criticizing religion that Albir made himself. Now, Karima is afraid to return to her home.

Azat believes that Albir was targeted because of his religious background.

AHMED AZAT: (Through Translator) Because we've seen throughout the past period, in the wake of the infamous video, that a large number of Islamic religious TV channels began incitement against Christians generally.

KENNEDY: He says that Albir has suffered a neck wound inflicted by other prisoners.

Again, Heba Morayef.

MORAYEF: It's a case which was not initiated by a top-down political decision, but rather was a sort of a citizen-motivated case. And that is actually much more scary for me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KENNEDY: But so far, this is an isolated incident. At a church in the middle class neighborhood of Shugra(ph), the congregation is attending Sunday Mass. Mazi Khamil Khamel(ph), a shopkeeper, says he's not worried about the impact of the film on the Coptic community in Egypt.

MAZI KHAMIL KHAMEL: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He says he believes Muslims in Egypt understand that Copts do not agree with the film and have no hand in it.

For NPR news, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.