CAIRO (Nov. 13) -- The case of two Egyptian women who fled their priest husbands and supposedly converted to Islam before being forcibly returned to the Coptic Church has gripped the media and fanned the flames of sectarian tension in the Arab world's most populous country.
Now, the domestic story appears to have spiraled into a regional flash point. Deadly bombings targeted Christians across Baghdad on Wednesday, killing five and injuring 20. The attacks came a little over a week after the killing of dozens of Christians in an assault on a church in Baghdad.
An al-Qaida affiliate organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were retribution for the "imprisonment" of Muslims in Egypt. The group issued a warning to Egypt's Christian population, threatening to target the community and churches unless the women were released, turning the spotlight once again on the festering Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt.
Whether or not the two women are really being detained against their will is as elusive as the facts surrounding their disappearance. What is known is that both Coptic women fled their husbands and were returned to the church by state security forces. Camilia Shehata was missing for days in July, while Wafaa Constantine took off in 2004. The Coptic Church denies either converted; both are in monasteries.
Neither woman has spoken to the press, setting off rounds of fervent speculation on TV talk shows that struck a nerve with both religious sects in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Demonstrations against the Coptic Church continue to rock the northern port city of Alexandria, a stronghold of Islamist groups.
"While the relations between Muslims and Copts have been steadily deteriorating since the 1970s, rhetorically, this is a very serious low point," Adel Iskandar, a media professor at Georgetown University in Washington, wrote in an e-mail to AOL News. "Both the national and independent press have been fanning the flames of tension between Copts and Muslims. Given the recent killings in Iraq, which were motivated by incidents in Egypt, I believe we are already at the boiling point. It is already costing Christian lives in other countries."
Iskandar and others see the media as the primary instigator in establishing the story as yet another fault line of tension between the two religions. "In an attempt to sell copies at a time when profits are falling and increasing curbs, they have turned to sensationalism," Iskandar said. "... Rather than discuss it as a domestic matter, which it principally is, they painted it as a contest between religious communities, a scandal about conversion, abduction and apostasy. And they kept the story alive long after it became irrelevant."
Deep in the narrow alleyways of the cliff-side slum where Egyptian Coptic Christians have carved out a livelihood recycling Cairo's trash, residents, who are vehement that Shehata never converted, are quick to say sectarian tensions in Egypt have escalated. As the putrid smell of waste wafts through streets plastered with Christian insignia, there is anxiety about the future.
"It's worrying; maybe it could happen here," says Waleed Sobi, a trash collector in Manshiyet Nasser. "It's going to be harder. The coming days will be more difficult."
After the Iraqi militant group's threats, the Egyptian government and civil groups rallied to protect the Christian community. Security was heightened around churches across Egypt, where Christians account for 5 to 10 percent of a population of 80 million. The government has also shut down multiple satellite stations for religious incitement.
Manshiyet is a major site for Coptic pilgrims and one of the areas seeing an increased security presence. As a police car plies through a narrow alley in the slum, Shehata, a plastics recycling business owner who did not want to give his full name, nods in satisfaction. "Before this incident, we never saw police here," he says.
Christians from across the country travel to pay homage at the Saint Samaan church, carved into the cliffs. Many here say the number of Christians coming for the traditional Thursday prayer meeting has dwindled. "They are afraid of the threats, the attacks in Iraq," says Gergias Wagib, a trash collector.
Shehata, like many others, agrees the recent spike in tensions is merely a symptom of ongoing disintegration of communal relations in Egypt. "Since 2000, it has been degenerating in a noticeable way," he says. "Every year brings its own surprise; every situation seems to outdo the past. Here we not only fear for ourselves, but for people everywhere."
This past year has seen multiple flash points of tension. In January, a drive-by shooting killed six Copts leaving Christmas Mass in Nag Hammadi. The trial of the Muslim suspects has been repeatedly delayed, drawing ire from the Coptic community.
In September, a senior Coptic bishop called Muslims in Egypt "guests," rankling Muslims. Additional comments he made about the Koran set off rounds of protests. The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda, later apologized for the remarks.
In recent weeks in Alexandria, groups of protesters have hurtled accusations at the Coptic Church and Shenouda, accusing him of covering up the women's alleged conversion and demanding their release to media scrutiny.
But it is the day-to-day rift and lack of trust between the two groups that may be most dangerous to Egypt's future. "If a community gets further and further separated into different entities, that is not healthy," says Dutch sociologist Kees Hulsman, editor of Arab West Report, which chronicles sectarian tensions in Egypt.
Although there remain some positive examples of Muslim-Christian cooperation in Egypt, Hulsman has seen the gulf between the two communities widen over time -- a worrisome harbinger.
Mohammad Samir, a young Muslim taxi driver, is on the other side of the chasm. He struggles to explain what he understands of Christians: "I saw a video on a cell phone -- a woman converted to Islam and a group of men beat her, smashed her head with a stone. That doesn't happen to Muslim men who convert to Christianity. ... It's an ugly and scary thing when a Muslim person is killed. I can't explain how I feel. Why do they do this? I don't know."