Egyptian Christians, who have long complained of discrimination, say they fear that an anti-Islam film produced by Copts in the United States will lead to further persecution at home.
Egypt’s churches were among the first to condemn the low-budget Internet film that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as immoral and which sparked violent and often deadly protests throughout the world.
On Sept. 11, demonstrators breached the wall of the U.S. embassy in Cairo in protests that served as a catalyst for clashes between youths and police in the centre of the city.
The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the highest authority of the Coptic patriarchate, issued a statement slamming the film’s release as a “malicious plan aimed at defaming religions and causing divisions among the Egyptian people.”
But the condemnations did little to stop hardline Islamists blaming Egypt’s Christian community. One preacher, Sheikh Abu Islam, called for burning the Bible during demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy.
“Egyptian Christians’ fears have increased because of violent reactions by some extremist Islamists,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a Christian former MP and member of the National Council for Human Rights.
“We were afraid that the reaction would be mainly against the Christians,” she said.
Innocence of Muslims was apparently produced by a Coptic Christian film-maker and has triggered violent protests around the world.
“Those behind the film are a small group of Copts in the diaspora. The issue should not be linked to Egypt’s Copts at all,” she said.
Last week, the public prosecutor ordered the trial of seven Egyptian Copts living in North America over their alleged role in the film.
They are accused of “insulting the Islamic religion, insulting the Prophet and inciting sectarian strife.”
“I’m upset about the film and of course Muslims have a right to protest against it,” said Christine Ashraf, a Coptic employee at a marketing firm in Cairo.
But “linking it to us and to the Bible also upset me and could inflame sectarianism, particularly among the uneducated,” she said.
Ms. Ashraf, a regular church-goer, believes the film aimed “to create sectarianism in Egypt.”
Ramy Kamel, a Coptic activist and member of the Maspero Youth Union, a group defending Coptic rights that was created after the 2011 uprising, said he was concerned by the violence of some protests against the film and feared this anger would turn towards Christians.
“The film was a pretext for attacking Christians, just like Sheikh Abu Islam did,” Mr. Kamel said. “Coptic fears will rise as long as the state keeps silent about violations against us.”
The aftermath of the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak and saw Islamists take power was marked by repeated sectarian clashes.
A recent fight between a Muslim and a Christian in the town of Dahshur south of Cairo, for example, resulted in the eviction of several Christian families from their homes. They were allowed back 10 days later when police intervened.
But tensions have risen again with the controversy surrounding the film.
“Some people in the town tried to protest against the film but the security forces stopped them,” Father Takla Abdel Sayyed of the Dahshur church told AFP.
“The Copts of the diaspora think they are doing this for us, but the truth is that we are paying the price without having anything to do with it,” he said.
Egypt’s Christians make up between 6 and 10 per cent of the country’s 82 million people, and have long complained of discrimination and marginalization.
Press reports say many Copts have emigrated or are looking to leave the country since Islamists came to power in the parliamentary and presidential elections.
President Mohamed Morsi ran for office on the Muslim Brotherhood ticket, the country’s largest and most organised political group.
A six-year sentence given to a Copt for mocking the Prophet Mohammed and insulting the president on a social networking site has further fuelled Christian fears.
On Thursday, the Maspero Youth Union accused the Egyptian judiciary of double standards when it comes to defaming religion.
“The law is only applied when it comes to Copts …increasing their feeling of alienation in their own country,” the group said.
This view was echoed by Sameh Saad, a member of the Coptic Coalition for Egypt.
“There are only cases involving defamation of Islam. All those who defame Islam are held accountable and punished, but those who defame Christianity aren’t,” he said, saying this increased fears among the Coptic community.
But there are some who believe things will improve, such as Coptic former MP Gamal Assaad.
“I think the Muslim Brotherhood will be more responsible when it comes to resolving problems for the Copts,” Mr. Assaad said.