Rattling old cars and exhaust-belching buses honk at darting three-wheeled “tuc-tuc” taxis.
On a narrow dirt street, four police officers guard brick pillars rising from the mud.
This was going to be a Coptic Christian community center — until ultra-Islamist Salafis seized it and declared it a Muslim mosque, according to Emad El Erian, a spokesman for a Coptic rights organization.
“They threatened to burn some of the Coptic houses in the neighborhood,” he said.
Salafis occupied the site every night until a prosecutor ruled that the land belonged to the Copts and ordered a police guard, local residents say.
“It’s as if (they) are challenging the police, the government and the general prosecutor, and that they want to drag the Coptic Christians into sectarian violence, a season of blood,” El Erian said.
Last week’s incident was the latest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority — but not the week’s only one: A veiled woman sheared a Christian girl’s hair in Cairo’s subway.
Such attacks — like crime in general — have risen in number and intensity since last year’s ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Christian churches, homes and shops have been looted or torched; Christians have been forced to flee some villages.
The situation seems to contradict President Obama’s assertion in the Oct. 22 presidential debate that Egyptian officials must “take responsibility for protecting religious minorities, and we have put significant pressure on them to make sure they’re doing that.”
President Mohamed Morsy, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, insists Egypt is open to Muslims and Christians. Yet many Christians, who make up 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, believe the Islamist government is not protecting them.
“Nothing has been done to reform or achieve equality among Egyptians,” said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani, a Christian newspaper. He dismisses Morsy’s commitment as “superficial.”
The post-Mubarak rise of the Salafis, who are akin to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-religious Wahhabis, frightens Christians and less-fanatical Muslims.
On Friday, thousands of Salafis marched here to demand “implementation of the Shariah,” or Islamic law. The mostly bearded crowd waved green Saudi flags and the black banners of al-Qaida and other jihadi groups.
One veiled Salafi woman carried a sign congratulating Obama on his re-election as president. Other posters demanded freedom for Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian “Blind Sheikh” who is in a U.S. prison for his role in the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.
‘A dangerous, slippery slope’
Sherif Rushdy, chief judge of a Cairo appeals court, describes Copts as “a ship in the middle of a sandy hurricane.” Many are trying to leave the country, he said.
Eighteen months ago, a fight erupted between a Muslim and a Christian in Abu Qorqas, a village in Upper Egypt. Muslims then rampaged for days, looting and burning 36 Christian homes and shops.
Rushdy’s brother Ala’a owned a restaurant that was torched and a small cafeteria that was ransacked. Soldiers guarded Ala’a’s home from a mob shouting, “God is great!”
Twenty people were arrested: 12 Christians, including Rushdy’s brother, and eight Muslims.
“They investigated him and accused him of owning machine guns, but they didn’t find any,” Rushdy said. “They accused him of attempted murder.”
At a trial nine months later, an Egyptian general called the charges nonsensical, Rushdy said. Yet Ala’a and the other Christians were convicted and given life sentences; the eight Muslims were acquitted.
“We were shocked,” Rushdy recalled. “We had brought his clothes (to the courtroom) because we thought he was coming home with us.”
He continues to file legal appeals but said that only a presidential pardon will free his brother.
“We are on a dangerous, slippery slope,” he said. “The extremists have a principle: Whoever is not with us is against us.”
He dismisses the possibility of any help from the Obama administration: “They didn’t do anything for their own ambassador, who was killed in Libya. What will they do for us?”
‘A problem concerning Copts’
For Christians, the situation is “really delicate, mainly because of the rise of political Islam,” according to Dr. Hanna Grace, a member of the National Council of Human Rights and a former parliamentarian.
“(The) Islamist political parties know there is a problem concerning Copts,” he said. “At the same time, they have a problem with their base.”
Islamists have long denied the persecution of Christians by pointing to their relative wealth, Grace said. Now some Muslims, especially in poorer areas, use the rising discord to steal from wealthier Christians and business rivals, he said.
“The political parties cannot control their people because they are raising the banner of the superiority of Islam,” he said, while the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is trying to be “more radical … more Islamic” than its supposed allies, the Salafis.
Theresa Samir, a journalist and Coptic activist, warns that rising Islamist power threatens everyone.
“Christians will face more oppression because they are a minority,” Samir said.
But if a national constitution being drafted by Islamists results in Shariah rule over all Egyptians or more oppression of religious minorities, women and the press, “it will be a tragedy for Copts as part of the bigger repression of society,” she said.