WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- Violence has erupted in recent weeks between Christians and Muslims in various parts of Egypt, bringing to the forefront an age-old problem in a country considered a leading U.S. ally in the Middle East and where a more moderate -- and tolerant -- form of Islam is practiced.
Still, to say that Egypt's Christian Copts -- 16 million in a country of 81.7 million -- have coexisted peacefully with the Muslim majority may be stretching the truth. While the two communities have largely gotten along over the years, there have been periodic clashes, some of them violent, some of them leaving many dead and wounded.
Ever since the Muslims became the majority in Egypt around the middle of the first century, Egypt's Christians and followers of St. Mark the apostle and evangelist, known as Copts, found themselves relegated to the position of second-class citizens. Their situation began to improve in the early 19th century under the stability and tolerance brought to the country under the dynasty of Mohammad Ali.
At that time Egypt's Christians were no longer regarded as a unit, and by 1855 the Jizya tax -- a poll tax that early Islamic rulers demanded from their non-Muslim subjects -- was lifted. A few years later Christians started to serve in the Egyptian army.
However, it wasn't until the 1919 revolution in Egypt that an Egyptian identity started to emerge, with both Christians and Muslims identifying themselves as Egyptians.
Yet, despite Egypt's generally more moderate approach to religion when compared with other Muslim countries -- such as Saudi Arabia, for example -- strife between the country's Muslim and Christian communities will periodically make the headlines.
Ahmad al-Aswani, an Egyptian writer, posted on June 7 an essay on the liberal Web site Aafaq.org, in which he sheds light on a series of escalating attacks on members of the Copts community.
"What is happening to our Coptic brothers ... is no longer a matter of sporadic incidents," writes al-Aswani. "It is open season on Egypt's Copts," said the Egyptian writer in a dispatch translated from Arabic by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
"It is no longer a matter of sporadic incidents," said al-Aswani. Indeed, there has been a cascade of such incidents. Among them:
May 28: Four Coptic Christians -- a jeweler and three of his employees -- were shot dead by masked men in their shop in the Zeitoun district of Cairo. The next day, two men armed with machine guns robbed a Coptic jeweler in Alexandria of 150,000 Egyptian pounds.
May 31: Men armed with automatic weapons attacked the Abu-Fana monastery in the Minya governorate, more than 130 miles south of Cairo. Four monks were wounded, and another three were kidnapped, beaten, threatened with death for refusing to convert to Islam, and later released. In January armed men had attacked the monastery and destroyed eight cells inhabited by solitary monks, beating one, and also destroyed Bibles and religious objects.
And following a Friday sermon worshipers were incited to set fire to Christian homes in a village "on the pretext that these 'infidels' seek to turn one such home into a church that will pollute the pure village" -- the allegations that sparked the incident were later proven untrue.
The Egyptian writer sees this as "an attempt to terrorize the Copts ... and force them ... to either emigrate ... or convert."
Religion-based violence is on the increase in the Middle East: In Iraq, Sunni Muslims have been fighting with the country's Shiites in what everyone, with the exception of the Bush administration, sees as a civil war.
In Lebanon, Shiites have engaged in sectarian clashes with Sunni Muslims.
And in the Palestinian territories, as in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Afghanistan, radical Islam has been at war with more moderate schools of thought.
In turning a blind eye to some of these "incidents" targeting Egypt's Copts, the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak may think they are appeasing the more radical elements within their society. In truth, they are not. In turning away from religion-based violence, Egypt has inadvertently set down ground rules for more such attacks.
The danger, as always in such situations, is that even the best-laid plans have a tendency to go wrong. The controlled fires, lit under the careful eye of Egypt's intelligence services, can very easily burn out of control.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, and it's a recognized right in many of the countries around the world today, though for freedom of religion to be universally accepted there is still a long way to go.
Ironically, in the 21st century far too many people continue to be killed, arrested, tortured or simply discriminated against based purely on their religious affiliation.
Freedom of religion includes the right of an individual to practice, preach and proselytize without fear of persecution or retribution. That remains hardly the case in dozens of countries around the world. If it's not the state clamping down on religions it considers alien to its own culture, the job of discriminating against and harassing religious minorities is relegated to vigilante groups, who sometimes operate with a discreet nod of approval from the government.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)