Deplorable sectarian clashes that took place on 7 April at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo following the violence, two days earlier, between Muslims and Christians in the underprivileged area of Al-Khosous in Qalioubiya (north of Cairo), shows once again the rise of sectarianism in Egypt since the popular uprising of January 25, which toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
The attack on St. Mark's Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, marks an unprecedented escalation against a symbol of the Christian community in Egypt. It is the first such incident since this religious complex was inaugurated in 1968.
These tragic incidents have resulted in an exchange of accusations between the government and the papacy. On 8 April, the Assistant to the President for External Affairs and International Cooperation, Essam Al-Haddad, accused Copts of being responsible for the clashes that occurred both in Al-Khosous and in front of the cathedral.
Pope Tawadros II extended his criticism to President Mohamed Morsi, whom he accused of not having kept his promise to protect the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Rejecting the president's decision to reform the ‘National Council for Justice and Equality,’ in charge of promoting the culture of citizenship and the principle of equality between races, religions and genders and of monitoring cases of discrimination, the Coptic pope stressed that the situation needs real work on the ground and not a new committee.
The Council was created by former interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, at the time when the army was in power following the fall of the former regime.
This exchange of accusations, a novelty, where both parties put the responsibility of the incidents on the other, marks a change in tone between the Coptic Church and political powers and may herald a change in the rules governing their future relationship.
So far, both parties avoided any public criticism or accusation of the other. This is no longer the case. Their relations are tense and tinged with suspicion since the accession of Islamists to power.
Sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians are indeed not new and have always existed to some degree in modern times, since the era of the monarchy in the early 20th century. However, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, religious clashes have increased dramatically since 2008.
The rise of an intolerant Islamist discourse, propagated by a number of groups and preachers, has fueled a climate of tension between Muslims and Copts and creates a fertile ground for the rise of such strife.
The rise of Islamist movements, especially the ultraconservative Salafists, and the accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, has reinvigorated intolerant and extremist elements, often men of religion, preachers in mosques and religious satellite channels, which have benefited from the new political context to feed a climate of hatred and hostility against Christians in Egypt.
This reality has in turn reinforced the rise of radicalism and extremism among some Copts. We can see today a growing number of young Copts who advocate the use of force against what they perceive as an Islamist existential threat to their community. The situation is aggravated by a security vacuum that followed the collapse of the police during the uprising of 25 January 2011.
Thus, a small altercation on a banal topic, as happens every day in the Egyptian street, but - important detail - between a Muslim and a Copt, can quickly turn into a sectarian strife, where Muslims and Christians, often driven by unfounded rumours or galvanised by extremists, flock in solidarity to support their co-religionists.
More seriously, those involved in such clashes are rarely prosecuted or punished. In most cases, reconciliation missions, composed mainly of clerics and security officers, are dispatched to areas where the clashes took place to calm things down.
This was the case in Al-Khosous, where some 20 leaders from Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Call (the largest Salafist organisation in Egypt), along with the assistant to the president for societal dialogue, the Salafist Emad Abdel-Ghafour, and the governor of Qalioubiya, Adel Ziyad, held a reconciliation meeting in this impoverished area on 11 April.
These reconciliation missions, while necessary, bring a solution in the short term, until a new explosion of violence in the same place or elsewhere.
They must be supplemented by legal proceedings against those accused of inciting or of involvement in violence against persons because they belong to another religion. Dissuasive penalties are needed in such cases, for purpose of prevention and, beyond, maintaining social cohesion. However, the reality is that such legal actions are rarely taken and when they are they rarely result in penalties.
Political power in Egypt has a responsibility, which is certainly not the only, but the most important, to foster a climate of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Copts, to prevent the misuse of religious feelings and to oppose sectarian strife by all legal means. An Islamist power has a particular responsibility in this area.
With the rise of Islamist parties and the accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Christians, who make about 10 percent of the population, are increasingly worried about their future.
According to some sources, around 100,000 Copts (an unverified figure) have left the country since the popular uprising of January 2011. All did not probably do it for purely religious reasons: we should also take into account the political instability, the deteriorating economic situation and the rising crime prevailing for more than two years.
However, the evolution of the political situation exacerbates the fears of Copts. The latest development: the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights, adopted on 3 April by the Shura Council, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, allows the use of religious slogans in electoral campaigns. This could strengthen sectarianism in society and politics.
Even if the law needs to be revised before its promulgation by the High Constitutional Court, which is likely to reject the provision on the use of religious slogans, the fact that Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafist parties have pushed for the adoption of such a provision reinforces the doubts of Copts about the intentions of Islamists. Hence the need for the political power to reassure, not only by words, but also and especially by actions.