The overwhelming majority of the Arab world is Muslim, and so it would seem to reason that the two words on everyone's lips in that region since January -- revolution and democracy -- should hinge on the participatory, popular will of that population. However, a crucial test of the potential gains of the Arab Spring will also rest in the status of the region's non-Muslim minorities. In this sense, the standing of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority since the #25 January Revolution -- some 8-10 million people, roughly 10-12 percent of the country -- warrants the recent global attention that has turned to this community. And so far, the Arab Spring has not been kind to the Copts. During the peak of euphoria in Tahrir Square in early February, many Egyptian Christians set aside their grievances with the Muslim majority, and the latter their discrimination against the former, to unite in toppling Hosni Mubarak. However, the protest banners had barely been re-furled when ultra-conservative Salafi groups, largely an underground movement under Mubarak's repressive security state and strongly influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalism, made their presence felt. A long-forming pattern of anti-Christian violence has since increased across the country, often prompted by intolerant Salafi preachers and perpetrated by local Muslims intent on reminding Copts of their second-class status. For example:
- On March 4, a mob of Muslims in the village of Sol rioted against Copts and their property, angered by controversy over a rumored romance between a local Christian man and Muslim woman. This mob sent Christian residents running to their homes for safety, before it burned the town's main church to the ground (reportedly after looters mistook Coptic-language liturgy for books of black magic). Two Copts were killed in the violence.
- On Sept.30, a Salafi imam incited a group of several thousand Muslims in the village of al-Marinab to march on a local church after Friday prayers. The Christians' offense: they had built a dome on their more than 70-year-old church after receiving all necessary approval from the Aswan governor. After the mob attacked and burned the church with impunity, the governor claimed he had given no such permission and implicitly sanctioned the mob's actions.
- This last incident led to horrific violence on Oct. 9, when the Egyptian military brutally suppressed a demonstration of mostly Coptic protestors in the Maspero district of Cairo, killing 27. Unbelievably, the SCAF has denied all responsibility for those events, despite a plethora of video and eyewitness evidence to the contrary, and it has even sought to punish some of the more vocal participants (Christian and Muslim) of the Maspero protest. In this case, the transitional government didn't just overlook an attack on Copts: it perpetrated the violence.
- On Oct. 16, a public school teacher reportedly incited a group of Muslim students in his class to beat to death Ayman Labib, a Coptic classmate, for wearing a cross. As of this writing, police have charged two students with the murder, but the teacher (who reportedly turned to the class after seeing Ayman's cross and asked, "What are we going to do with him?") and others who might have been involved in the incident have so far avoided any serious investigation into their incitement or complicity.