One of the most fascinating assignments I had while covering the Vatican was traveling to Egypt a few weeks before Pope John Paul II to do some reporting on what the pope would find: How were Muslim-Christian relations? How were relations among Christians? What was the society like?
Memories of the trip came flooding back recently after the deadly attack on a Christian church on New Year’s Eve and in the days of unrest that gripped the country afterward. According to most reports, the bombing after Mass at the Coptic Orthodox Saints Church in east Alexandria killed 25 people and wounded about 80 more. It was described as the deadliest attack “in recent memory.”
In February 2000, when I was in Egypt, Christians and Muslims were still talking about a deadly outbreak of violence just six weeks earlier in Kosheh, 250 miles south of Cairo. Some reports said some 20 Christians were massacred by their Muslim neighbors. Another report put the number of dead Christians at 46 and counted seven Muslim deaths. Others said two Muslims were killed.
Muslims blamed the village’s Coptic Orthodox priest for provoking the violence. State prosecutors have charged the priest with attempted murder, conspiracy, leading a mob attack and damaging property.
“It’s just terrible,” a sheik at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the main center of Islamic learning worldwide, told me. “The village priest led the killings, machine-gun in hand.”
But outraged Christians insisted that such accusations were fabricated.
The accused priest “wasn’t even there at the time of the killings,” said one Coptic Orthodox priest in Cairo.
As I recall, not much ever came of Kosheh. The government let the unrest die away and everybody, Christian and Muslim, went back to their lives as before — sharing a culture, ethnicity and many religious traits, but occasionally eyeing each other warily and with mistrust.
There were a few odd moments on the journey, at least from my Western perspective. The first, in a village more than 100 miles south of Cairo, was seeing Muslim women coming for a blessing from an Orthodox priest at a shrine to the Holy Family. The second was in an Orthodox monastery in Cairo, where Christian men, shoes removed, prayed kneeling before the sanctuary with their foreheads touching their prayer rugs.
As I was trying to put it all together to write my reports, I was given an insight by Father Christiaan van Nispen, a Jesuit professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at Cairo’s Coptic Catholic seminary.
“In Egypt,” he said, “people are not afraid of paradoxes.”
This latest attack seems more pointed — part of a “strategy of violence that targets Christians,” as Pope Benedict XVI called it. Let’s pray it doesn’t signal the start of more.