NAG HAMMADI, Egypt — Fear and bitterness linger in this leafy riverside town a week after three Muslim gunmen fired into a crowd of Christians who were leaving church, killing seven people and hurling Egypt into a new chapter of religious strife.
The day after the drive-by shootings Jan. 6 on the eve of the Coptic Christmas, Christians in Nag Hammadi smashed shop windows and torched cars before police stopped the rioting with tear gas and rubber bullets. The outrage of the tiny minority sect reverberated across the world, with the Vatican condemning the violence and protests springing up among Christian Egyptians as far away as California, New York and European capitals.
Now that the dead are buried and three suspects are in custody, what remains is a shattered Christian community that has little faith that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's U.S.-allied administration will protect them.
"Where is the government? The government should come and help my children. Who will protect their future?" asked Suzan Rasim, 27, whose husband was killed in the shooting spree, leaving her the sole provider for their two daughters.
Christians, mainly of the ancient Coptic denomination, compose about 10 percent of Egypt's population of more than 80 million. The Nag Hammadi shootings were the deadliest assault on Copts in a decade, but they followed a steady buildup of religious unrest as Egypt's Christian minority grows increasingly alienated in a country where militant Islam has spread as an antidote to authoritarian rule, poverty and anger over the perception that Mubarak is an American lackey.
"This is a worrisome escalation of sectarian tensions," said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent Egyptian human rights group in Cairo. "We expect it to get much worse before it starts to improve."
Egypt's most prominent Islamic institutions were quick to denounce the shootings as criminal acts, and about 300 activists and politicians held a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court in Cairo last weekend to promote interfaith tolerance and condemn violence against fellow Egyptians.
In Nag Hammadi, despair over the shootings crossed sectarian lines. One Muslim was among the dead: Ayman Hashim, a police officer who, as the top provincial security official explained, died because he tried to stop the attackers. His widow, Wafaa Hosni, wept through interviews with reporters, answering questions only with, "We resort to God; he will avenge us."
The Egyptian Interior Ministry dismissed the shootings as an isolated incident, most likely retaliation for a pending criminal case in the same province in which a Christian man is accused of raping a 12-year-old Muslim girl. Authorities said the Nag Hammadi killings couldn't be linked to a pattern of discrimination or violence against Christians.
Senior Christian leaders said they'd received telephone threats before the attack and had warned local security forces about possible violence on Jan. 6 or 7. Christians said their warnings went unheeded, and that extra forces had left before Mass ended on the night of the shootings.
"This time we even increased the security presence around the church and in the town, as a precaution, because we knew the tension was high ever since the rape incident," said Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Gohar, the top security official in the province.
Gohar said that the lead suspect in the shootings was no religious fanatic but an ex-convict with a rap sheet that included theft and weapons charges. Locals say the suspects are known in town as thugs for hire.
Bahgat, the human rights activist, said that Mubarak's government had failed to address the security and human rights complaints of Copts, with courts showing leniency toward perpetrators of violence against the sect. The Copts' grievances aren't unique in Egypt, where religious figures and dissidents of all stripes face prosecution or intimidation for challenging the status quo.
However, some specific issues related to Copts include problems in the issuing of national ID cards, court battles related to conversions, bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining permits to build churches and a lack of social or educational reforms that would counter intolerance.
Christians are noticeably excluded from sensitive posts in the military or police, and their political involvement is limited to a small number of government posts.
All these concerns were fresh in the minds of Nag Hammadi residents this week, as family after family said they felt besieged and vulnerable. The interviews were conducted during a government-sanctioned trip for a small group of journalists. Security forces still have the area cordoned off and have barred independent reporting.
"We are a shunned group in this country, oppressed and outcast," said Antonius Atef, 29, whose 25-year-old brother, Michael, was left partially blind from a rubber bullet fired by security forces in the aftermath of the shootings. "Of course I don't feel safe here. The police only enter the scene when the rioting starts."
Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese echoed the belief that anxious residents should look for divine protection in the absence of firm actions from the government to guard their lives and interests.
"Safety is in the hands of God," Kirollos said, "and it comes and goes like the waves of the sea."
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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