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The Middle East has traditionally been important for the world economy. The Middle East situation today has an impact on all aspects of life in America and much of the world.

Only by understanding the motivations of the various factions in the Middle East can we hope to understand how to promote peace and national security for Middle Eastern nations, Europe, and the United States.

Feb 2, 2010

The Nagi Hammadi Religious Divide

Recently, the American Congressional Committee on Religious Freedom was in Egypt to investigate the Nagi Hammadi shooting. Seven Copts were shot as they walked out of their church on their Christmas Eve, January 7.

Egypt has recently experienced clashes between Muslims and Copts. The Copts constitute between 10 and 11% of the 80 million Egyptians.

The government’s response to such conflicts has always been that it was due to personal disputes, but it never maintained that the flare up is due to religious divide.

As an anthropologist who has done extensive research in Egypt since the 1960s, and who has frequently visited the country since then, I noticed that religious conflict between the Coptic minority and the Muslim majority was not significant, especially during the 1960s. However, the picture began to change gradually after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser and at the beginning of the Sadat’s regime.

Intellectuals, secular political party members, and supporters of Nasser’s regime criticized Sadat’s policy in general. He subsequently turned to the right and sought the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups. He lifted the pressure imposed on those groups by the previous regime. A few years later, that same group assassinated him. Since the assassination of Sadat, religious conflict has increased in Egypt.

A second reason for the religious conflict between Copts and Muslims in Egypt is due to the influence the Saudi Wahabi religious group had on Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia. Some of them became fanatic Muslims and upon their return to Egypt they imposed their belief on other Muslim Egyptians.
The financial assistant of the Saudi government to Egypt has also played a primordial role in promoting the Wahabi belief among the poverty stricken people in the land. According to the UN Report, 45% of the population in Egypt is living below the poverty line. Unemployment is 15% and people compete to find a job. This creates frictions between the minority and the majority of the people and even between the members of the same faith, Muslims.

Such religious conflicts are universal and prevail whenever ignorance, illiteracy and poverty are rampant.
Moreover, the educational system in Egypt is also at fault. The curricula lack information about citizenship and honest historical presentation of minorities.

Some religious leaders, on both sides, are to blame due to their ignorance and lack of true understanding or interpretation of religion.

The government in Egypt has not yet removed the laws that discriminate against Copts. For instance, if Muslims have the right to build mosques, Copts should have the same privilege and allowed to build churches.

Foreign interference plays a significant role in creating religious conflicts. Such disturbances in Egypt can be used as a pretext for interference in the internal affairs of the country. Indeed the religious conflict in Egypt has been manipulated by a small group of Egyptian American Copts aided by some Israelis and by some Zionist American groups. They have recently been active and have influenced the American Congress to send a committee to investigate the recent shooting in Nagi Hammadi.

Pope Shenoudah of Egypt, a nationalist and wise man, has refused to meet with the Committee members and said, “What happened in Nagi Hammadi is an internal matter and should be considered as such.”
A statement such as the one issued by the Pope might ease some of the conflicts between Copts and Muslims. Now it remains to be seen if the Egyptian government stops acting in a cavalier manner when it comes to religious conflict, and take a firm stand to resolve such conflict.

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