Divide Deepens Among Egypt’s Christians and Muslims

Religious battles are all too common in the Middle East. Some might assume that Lebanon is home to the largest Christian community in the Middle East - but they would be wrong.

It's Egypt, where Christianity was introduced in the 1st century when The Apostle Mark arrived.

The divide between Egypt's Coptic Christian community and the Muslim majority is deepening across Egypt as social constructs begin to create separations in an increasingly Sunni Muslim-dominated society.

Since the Coptic Pope Shenouda III began installing programs to increase the role the Church played in people's everyday lives, tensions seem to be on the rise. Some say Coptics are isolated within their communities. Shenouda, whose papacy is 36 years old, is now 85.

Ninety percent of Egypt's citizens are Muslims. If Coptics want to build a church, they must seek presidential approval whereas Muslims can build mosques without any prior approval.

Like in other Arab nations, there was a time (for centuries in fact) when Muslims and Christians lived peacefully together. But according to members of both communities, Christians are slowly disengaging from mainstream society causing both suspicion and disappointment on both sides.

Just from watching an old Egyptian movie, it is clear how much more tolerant the nation was a few decades ago, both socially and with regards to religion.

Over the past four decades Islamist values and politics has grown more prominent in the country and the ratio of Christians to Muslims continues to widen.

Just two weeks ago hundreds of Egyptian Muslims attacked Coptic Christian property when they received word that a woman and her 10-month old baby had gone missing. The villagers accused her Christian family of abducting her only to find that she had been visiting relatives in Cairo.

Adel Imam, one of Egypt's most famous actors, recently offered an 8 minute report on Al-Arabiya Television calling on Egyptians to pledge to stand united.

"We have made films against terrorism, corruption, and other things that harm the country. Only one thing we still have to create and this is the most necessary thing; namely, our national unity. I hope that after watching the film, Christians and Muslim will leave the movie house and embrace and kiss one another."

He urged that Egyptians stand against the strict religious rhetoric, calling on the government and legislators to enact a law on national unity, strongly punishing those who undermine it.

""I have made a work of art. That is what I can do. I have declared war against the extremists through art. I declared art against them. I have declared war, using art, against those who foment differences between us, Christians and Muslims."

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About Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin grew up in California, Kuwait, Egypt and Austria. He has most recently worked as a news producer for The New York Times and as a web producer for the PBS international documentary series, Wide Angle. His work has been featured in Frontline/World online, TimeOut, Washington Week and other blogs. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he know teaches a new media skills class. In 2008 Ahmed won a Webby award for a multimedia project called Defining Middle Ground: The Next Generation of Muslim New Yorkers. It can be seen here: www.definingmiddleground.com His portfolio website can be seen at: www.ahmedeldin.com His family is originally from Palestine

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