Cairo (AsiaNews) - A mob of nearly 2,000 radical Muslims, mainly Salafists, set fire to the Church of St Mary and St Abram in the village of Meet Bashar, in Zagazig, Sharqia province (50 kilometres north-east of Cairo). Since Sunday, the area has been the scene of clashes between Muslim extremists and Christians. Calm returned to the area after mediation by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, who convinced the Salafists to leave the village.
The violence was caused by the disappearance of Rania Khalil, a Christian teenager who went missing last Sunday. Her father is a convert to Islam. She was found today and is in police custody. She and her mother will be interrogated by police. Salafists believe she was abducted by Christians to prevent her conversion to Islam.
Since the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt's recent elections, anti-Coptic attacks have increased across the country. The latest occurred on 27 January in the village of Kobry-el-Sharbat (el-Ameriya), near Alexandria, said Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church.
On that occasion, Salafists tried to burn the homes of the village's 62 Coptic families, after some Muslims accused a Christian tailor, Mourad Samy Guirgis, of having "illicit" pictures of a Muslim woman on his mobile phone.
"Muslim radicals use conversions to Christianity from Islam as a pretext to attack and scare the Coptic community so that it will flee," Fr Greiche explained. "This is happening across Egypt."
"In Western media, the prevailing idea is that religious clashes between Christians and Muslims happen only in Upper Egypt and Cairo's slums, where people are ignorant. In fact, when it comes to conversion from one religion to another, there is no distinction between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Upper or Lower Egypt."
In Muslim society, anyone who converts to Christianity becomes an outcast, Fr Greiche said. By contrast, those who speak out against forced conversions to Islam are not protected by the authorities and in most cases are forced to withdraw their accusations under pressures and threats.
Things are bound to get worse, the clergyman believes. "Salafists are Egypt's second largest party. After the election, they hold 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. In the next few months, they could use their political power against Christians."