Even in Egypt, a secular country, converts draw the government's wrath. The religion minister defended the legality of the death penalty for converts -- although Egypt doesn't even have such a law -- with the argument that renunciation of Islam amounts to high treason. Such sentiments drove Mohammed Hegazy, 27, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church, into hiding two years ago. He was the first convert in Egypt to try to have his new religion entered officially onto his state-issued identity card. When he was refused, he went public. Numerous clerics called for his death in response.
Copts make up the largest Christian community in the Arab world and around 8 million Egyptians belong to the Coptic Church. They're barred from high government positions, diplomatic service and the military, as well as from many state benefits. Universities have quotas for Coptic students considerably lower than their actual percentage within the population.
Building new churches isn't allowed, and the old ones are falling into disrepair thanks to a lack both of money and authorization to renovate. When girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted, the police don't intervene. Thousands of pigs were also slaughtered under the pretense of confining swine flu. Naturally all were owned by Christians.
Six Copts were massacred on Jan. 6 -- when Coptic celebrate Christmas Eve -- in Nag Hammadi, a small city 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Valley of the Kings. Predictably, the speaker of the People's Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, called it an "individual criminal act." When he added that the perpetrators wanted to revenge the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, it almost sounded like an excuse. The government seems ready to admit to crime in Egypt, but not to religious tension. Whenever clashes between religious groups occur, the government finds very secular causes behind them, such as arguments over land, revenge for crimes or personal disputes.
Nag Hammadi, with 30,000 residents, is a dusty trading town on the Nile. Even before the murders, it was a place where Christians and Muslims mistrusted one another. The two groups work together and have houses near each other, but they live, marry and die separately. Superstition is widespread and the Muslims, for example, fear they could catch the "Christian virus" by eating together with a Copt. It comes as no surprise that these murders occurred in Nag Hammadi, nor that they were followed by the country's worst religious riots in years. Christian shops and Muslim houses were set on fire, and 28 Christians and 14 Muslims were arrested.
Nag Hammadi is now sealed off, with armed security forces in black uniforms guarding roads in and out of the city. They make sure no residents leave the city and no journalists enter it.
Three presumed perpetrators have since been arrested. All of them have prior criminal records. One admitted to the crime, but then recanted, saying he had been coerced by the intelligence service. The government seems to want the affair to disappear as quickly as possible. The alleged murderers will likely be set free again as soon as the furor has blown over.
But there are also a few small indications that the situation of embattled Christians in Islamic countries could improve -- depending on the extent that nationalism and the radicalization of political Islam subsides again.