A police officer guarded a church in Nag Hammadi. (Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)(Note as of 5/9/2011: This post is well over year old, and things have changed mightily in Egypt. Two updates are below.)

Although Egypt is a majority-Muslim nation, it has a significant Christian minority, which has been there for about as long as there have been Christians … Christians have been in Alexandria since the middle of the 1st century CE, and many early Christian document discoveries have been made in Egypt. Arguably the dominant Christian church of Egypt, known as the Coptic Orthodox Church, has a more continuous and older pedigree than the church of Rome. Even after the Muslim conquest of Egypt which took place c. 640 CE, Christianity has maintained a presence there. Depending upon whom you ask, between 10 and 20% of Egypt is Christian.

There has, of course, been trouble between religious groups in Egypt, through its history. Christians themselves were known to have committed some violence of their own (e.g. their butchering of Hypatia of Alexandria, the destruction of the Serapeum in the same city, etc.). It’s no surprise that some of that violence crops up in Egypt now and again.

Except that … if you listen to the Egyptian government anyway … it doesn’t happen, even when it does. The New York Times reports on this strange paradox (WebCite cached article):

A few weeks ago, on the day that Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve, a Muslim gunman opened fire on worshipers as they walked out of church, killing 7, wounding 10 and leading to the worst sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt in years. In the days that followed, there were riots and clashes. Stores were wrecked. Homes were burned.

The government responded by sending in heavily armed police officers, banning the news media and insisting that the Jan. 6 attack was retaliation for a rape.

“There are initial indications connecting this incident to the consequences of accusing a young Christian man of raping a Muslim girl in one of the governorate’s villages,” the Interior Ministry said after the attack.

That’s right. This may have been religious violence, but it wasn’t religious violence. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, knowwhatImean?) The Egyptian government has tried to cover up the real story:

The one thing the government would not do was admit the obvious: Egypt had experienced one of the most serious outbreaks of sectarian violence in years. Instead, it said talk of sectarian conflict amounted to sedition.

But the evidence, provided in newspapers, was irrefutable: 14 Muslims arrested, 28 Christians arrested, Christian shops burned, Muslim houses burned.

“We are now facing a sectarian society and street,” wrote Amr el-Shoubky, a political analyst and columnist, in an article under the headline “The New Sectarianism: The Alienation of Christians,” which appeared in the daily newspaper Al Masry al-Youm.

Despite the fact that pretty much everyone knows what really happened, the government still will not change its tune:

“The crime of Nag Hammadi is just an individual crime with no religious motives, just like the crime of raping the girl,” Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the Parliament speaker, said in Al Ahram, a state-owned newspaper.

Egypt’s society may look homogeneous on the outside, but as the Times explains, it is — in reality — anything but homogeneous:

In daily life secular divisions can be subtle. People work together, study together, but then go their separate ways. The neighborhoods are integrated, but private lives are segregated. Tension grows as young men talk about cellphone videos showing Muslim girls with Christian boys, or as Christian parents complain that their children are forced to study the Koran in public schools.

The group outside the warehouse slowly acknowledged that there was little mingling in Nag Hammadi. “We are separated,” said Essam Atef, 32, a Christian who manages the pharmaceutical business. “If there is a wedding, you offer congratulations, and if there is someone sick, you might visit, but we are both on our own here.”

All the men agreed.

What the government of Egypt is doing, then, is just what Egyptian society does, itself, which is to “keep up appearances.” Society pays lip-service to the notion that Muslims and Christians get along well, but in truth, they’re segregated. In the same way, the government tries to make it seem as though there is no sectarian or religious strife, when in fact, it is most assuredly there.

Update 1: The situation in Egypt has changed markedly since February of 2010 when I first posted this. The government was not able to stifle reporting on the New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, and the uprising which is going on as I type this has triggered changes in the Mubarak regime. See this update post for more on the changes in Egypt.

Update 2: The uprising ended with the resignation of Mubarak, but religious violence continues to erupt in Egypt. Here’s another post on the matter.

Photo credit: New York Times / Shawn Baldwin.

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