|Coptic Priests Lead Maspero March (Ahram Online)|
These most recent demonstrations were provoked by an event in the town of Marinab, near the town and ancient Temple of Edfu in Aswan Governorate, in which Muslims and Copts clashed and a building described as Saint George's Church by the Copts was burned. If my phrasing in that sentence seems labored, it's because there are conflicting claims: the Christians say they have documents proving the building had been a licensed church for 80 years; government officials claim it was a "Christian guest house" on which a dome and cross was added, infuriating Islamists who claimed it was being turned into a church since there was no church in the town; and some reports say the guest house was next to Saint George's (Mar Girgis) Church. Whether it was a church, a guest house, or something else again, it shouldn't have been burned down, but in the sometimes curious calculus of the Middle East, some people think this kind of hair-splitting justifies or at least mitigates the motives, but that has a blamethe-victim-too feel to it. See reports here and here.
Earlier attacks on churches, both before and since the revolution, have made Copts feel even more vulnerable, especially as Islamist groups feel more and more willing to agitate. Just last week, in the Middle Egyptian town of Bani Mazar in Minya Governorate, a Coptic schoolgirl was barred from her high school for refusing to wear hijab, though Egyptian law does not require it. (In France or until recently Turkey, of course, she could have been excluded for wearing it,nwhich I find equally unacceptable.) She's been allowed back in on a technicality, but Copts are seeing this as a further sign of Islamist strength and growing "Islamization" of Copts.
All of this has led to threats by Coptic activists, including threats to boycott the forthcoming elections, though Pope Shenouda III and the Coptic hierarchy (who supported Mubarak to the bitter end) continue to support the current regime.
The Copts have long faced a dilemma: if they are too confrontational with the regime, they can face serious consequences (in 1981 Anwar Sadat deposed Pope Shenouda and sent him into monastic exile); but they can also suffer when Diaspora Copts in the US and Europe and Australia (the main Coptic diasporas) agitate in support of them.
And, while government attitudes toward the Copts wax and wane, the growing influence of Salafi Islam (not the Muslim Brotherhood but more extreme groups) has led to new confrontations. In Upper Egypt, in particular, where the Coptic proportion of the population tends to be higher, and the attractions of radical Islam greater, the clashes have been most severe. Also, complicating any simplistic analysis, they are overlaid with other social rivalries: clan and "tribal" allegiances; ancient family vendettas; resentment of Muslim fellahin of large Coptic landowners past or present; resentment of rural populations of shopkeepers (often Copts) in the village they frequent; and so on. None of this justifies anybody burning a church, nor does it excuse sectarian violence. I simply want to remind readers that Upper Egypt is not Cairo (though some neighborhoods of Cairo are pretty thoroughly from Upper Egypt), and there are older and more complex nuances that go beyond simple religious bigotry.
As the Egyptian revolution progresses (if it does), sectarianism is going to be one of the most threatening challenges it faces. So far, the current leadership is not meeting that challenge, and sectarian tensions are escalating seriously.