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Does Rise of Salafi Islam in Egypt Mean End for Christian Copts?

Salafi Islam is rising to take its place in Egyptian society -- to the dismay of the Christian Copt community, which stands in Salafi crosshairs.
By Chana Ya'ar
First Publish: 6/12/2011, 3:20 PM / Last Update: 6/12/2011, 3:44 PM

The uprising in Egypt that toppled the 31-year regime of former President Hosni Mubarak was supposed to create a new kind of government – one that didn't divide one Egyptian from the next.

Those who participated in the Arab Spring revolution boasted at the time of how Muslims and Christian Copts would no longer prey on one another. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, free for the first time in decades to run a candidate in upcoming elections, announced it would open its party to the participation of Christian Copts.

But although the intentions may have been good at the top, the rank and file nevertheless did not follow their leaders.

In the months following, there have been numerous murders visited upon the Coptic Christian community – which comprises some 10 percent of the 83 million Egyptian population – by the country's Muslim majority.

Salafi Muslims, who once restricted themselves to preaching hate against those who are different, today feel free to act on their words in Egypt and have been beating and torturing Christian Copts in Egypt. The Saudi-linked sect, related to the Wahabi-type Islam practiced by recently-assassinated Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, has also been known to burn churches and destroy other property in its zeal to wipe out the minority population.

“We won't leave any Christians in this country,” one Salafi gang told a torture victim they were beating in March who later related his story to the Wall Street Journal. The attackers were never arrested, much less prosecuted in a court of law.

And now the Salafis have decided to coordinate their efforts to exert influence on Egypt's government by working with the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed under Mubarak's regime.

Salafi leader Safwat Hegazy, a Saudi-trained television cleric who began as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told a reporter from the Australia-based NewsCom, “We've found out after the revolution that the Salafis and the Brotherhood have the same concerns.”

U.S. President Barack Obama promised billions of dollars in aid to Egypt in his Middle East policy speech last month, without knowing who would run Egypt's next permanent government – and possibly also without understanding the ramifications behind the present field of candidates.

What will that mean for Israel – and for that matter, for Egyptian Coptic Christians -- numerous analysts, Israeli lawmakers and even U.S. members of Congress are asking, if the next Egyptian government is under Islamist control?