In Egypt, young Muslims protected the celebration of Coptic Orthodox services in Tarhir Square during the great protest which brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. Now, Salafist radicals and other like-minded Muslims are attacking churches, using the constantly repeated rumor that Christian women who want to convert to Islam are being held as captives. This has struck even in Cairo, resulting in the burning of one of the biggest and old churches.
In rural districts, church-burnings are usually watched by the police, who then usually arrest the Copts, not Muslim perpetrators – that is an old tactic to keep the Christians repressed. The Cairo burning was not followed by that at least. But that it even happened in the capital bothers Westerners and disturbed the secular Muslims who led the revolt. This is not their goal.
Temporary conversions to Islam happen frequently in Egypt, because of family problems, usually because the Coptic Church does not recognize divorce. But the Christians consider it a temporary step, sometimes no longer than a few days, to get paperwork processed by the bureaucracy. Then they confess their apostasy and go back to worship. But Salafists and other Saudi-influenced types do not allow anyone to leave Islam: the penalty is death. So women who pull off these temporary conversions now cause a double problem: their lives are at stake, and their quick reversion to Christianity results in Muslim rumors that they were pressured or held captive.
What I find sad is that never have any of these women said “Yes, I want to stay Muslim” but every time the rumor starts, out comes the gasoline – for churches, not cars. This time around, mobile phone cameras caught vivid pictures of men sloshing gasoline in the church, setting the fires, carrying weapons to club Copts who tried to save icons and sacred vessels. Maybe the new temporary regime will prosecute these Muslims? If so, the Arab Spring will produce a dramatic new result: Muslim accountability for crimes against the minority, and a degree of protection – at long last – for that same minority!.