(Reuters) - Violent clashes in Cairo that killed at least 25 people have fueled Coptic Christian fears that the Egyptian state that used to shield religious minorities from radical Islamists can now no longer do so.
The clashes, in which Christians say they were fired on and charged down by armored vehicles, highlighted an irony of the Arab Spring that the region’s dictatorships may have been better guardians of minorities than budding democracies.
That bitter realization first hit Christian minorities in Iraq, where the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 ended their privileged status and led to a wave of Islamist attacks that triggered a mass exodus of Christians from the country.
Many frightened Christians in Syria support embattled President Bashar al-Assad out of fear that toppling his secularist regime would lead to similar pressure there from the Islamists Assad’s minority Alawite regime has combated.
Although Egypt’s Copts have complained of attacks from Salafist and other strict Islamist groups since President Hosni Mubarak was chased from power in February, Christians say the deeper problem is the collapse of the state.
“The real problem is not mainly the Salafists or the fundamentalist Islamists ... we know they are attacking Copts and churches all the time,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of a Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.
“The problem is the severe reluctance of the cabinet and the authorities to enforce the rule of law and protect the Copts.”
Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Catholic priest who heads the Center for Arab Christian Documentation and Research in Beirut, said:
“The Christians are demanding the protection of the state, but the state hardly exists ... The army has no solution and the Christians no longer have any patience.”
The Copts are native Egyptian Christians, descendants of the Christians who dominated the country until Muslims conquered it in 642. They make up about 10 percent of the 80 million population and are split into the majority Coptic Orthodox and a small group of Catholic Copts linked to Rome.
The largest Christian minority in the Middle East, the Copts speak Arabic and only use Coptic, an extinct Egyptian language, in their liturgy.
Copts have long complained of discrimination, such as barriers to building churches or judges favoring Muslims when conflicts came to courts, but felt Mubarak mostly protected them because he also opposed the Islamists.
They lost that faith in him when a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day. Many Copts openly joined Muslims in the Tahrir Square protests that toppled the president.
But the rush of interfaith harmony was short-lived and the rise since then of violent Salafist groups and the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood political movement has made their fate even more precarious.
In March, many Copts voted against proposed amendments to the constitution because they feared hasty elections to follow could pave the way for Islamists to rise to power.
The amendments won and voting in Egypt’s first parliamentary poll since Mubarak fell is due to start on November 28.
“If things don’t change for the better, we’ll return to what we had before, maybe even worse,” Catholic Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib told Reuters at a conference on Christians and the Arab Spring in June.
In the Cairo protest, Coptic patience seems to have snapped because the government has continued to claim it would protect the minority but clearly failed to do so.
Sidhom pointed out that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf told Coptic demonstrators four months ago at the Cairo television building -- the scene of some of Sunday’s worst violence -- that he would soon issue a document guaranteeing an end to discrimination concerning construction of churches.
“Nothing in that regard has been done,” he said. Sharaf had also assured Christians he would take action in the case of 46 churches unfairly closed down by security forces under Mubarak.
“He formed a committee to study each and every case and nothing has happened,” Sidhom said.
“The cabinet and authorities are leaving things to get out of control and they are directly responsible for the situation that took place yesterday.”
Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information blamed the power vacuum at the top for the unprecedented violence of the army’s reaction to the Coptic protests.
“In their subconscious, they know there is a lot of impunity, so they will not be held accountable,” he said.
Reporting By Tom Heneghan in Paris and Edmund Blair in Cairo Editing by Maria Golovnina