WASHINGTON – What started off as a typical press conference turned into a heated exchange Monday when two Egyptian American Muslims challenged statements made by the Coptic Christian speakers.
At the press event, the Coptic panel, which included representatives from Voice of the Copts, National American Coptic Assembly, and Young People, decried Eyptian President Hosni Mubarak over the grave human rights situation in the predominantly Muslim country and denounced his visit to the United States. Two Muslims who joined the audience, however, took offense to some of the comments.
Both sides criticized the Mubarak administration as corrupt and said they wanted greater respect for religious freedom in Egypt. But arguments began when one of the speakers linked sharia, or Islamic law, to the kidnapping of Coptic girls in Egypt.
As tempers flared, the Christian panelists and the Muslim audience members shouted at each other as non-involved attendees sat stunned by the fiery and loud (not to mention not entirely in English) verbal exchange.
The Muslim-Christian tension as seen at the press conference reflects the complicated political and social climate in Egypt.
During the event, the two sides mostly argued over sharia which is part of Egypt's legal system. One of the Egyptian Muslims, Ibrahim Hussein, was offended that the Christians had criticized sharia and requested the panel to direct their attack against Mubarak and not sharia.
In response, Ashraf Famelah, president of Voice of the Copts, said that he organized Monday's press conference not to attack Islam or sharia, but to call for human rights, including the rights of Coptic Christians, in Egypt.
"We are talking about human rights," said Famelah, an architect by profession who studied and lived in Italy for many years.
"You cannot come to me and tell me that you respect human rights when you have the second amendment in your constitution saying sharia law," he argued firmly but with his emotions restrained, unlike other panelists.
Hussein, who spoke as an individual, and his fellow Egyptian Muslim Dr. Amin Mahmoud, the mid-Atlantic chapter coordinator of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, informed the Coptic speakers that they were going to hold their own press conference next door the following hour to denounce President Mubarak's visit and to advocate for human rights and democracy in Egypt.
They emphasized that their coalition, which accuses the U.S. of supporting "friendly dictators" such as Mubarak, includes Copts and Muslims alike. The two Muslims wanted to invite the Coptic Christians at the event to join their effort to oppose the Egyptian president, who has ruled the country for 28 years.
But the Coptic members firmly resisted the invitation because the Muslim men refused to talk about changing the country's sharia law.
In Egypt, Christians live under extremely unjust laws in which they are treated as second class citizens. Up until a few years ago, Christians were not allowed to construct or fix churches unless they received a permit from the president. Even something as small as fixing the church's faulty faucet or remodeling the bathroom would require presidential approval. The power to approve such requests was recently granted to governors, but the Coptic community has seen little improvement.
No such approval is needed for the construction or fixing of mosques in Egypt.
There has also been a rise in reports about the abduction of young Christian girls and their forced marriages to Islamic men in Egypt. The families of the kidnapped girls have filed reports with the police, but Coptic groups say security forces have ignored their requests for investigation or have even harassed the families to keep them quiet.
During the press event on Monday, Hussein said he didn't hear of any kidnappings of Coptic girls when he was living in Egypt. Also, Amin Mahmoud noted that his childhood best friend in Egypt was Christian.
But that memory of peace and friendship has become just that - a memory.
A Washington Post story that ran last year noted the growing divide between the Christian and Muslim communities in Egypt in recent years. Muslims and Christians once lived side-by-side with few conflicts, and establishing lifelong friendships.
Now, the story highlighted, Christians and Muslims live in separate neighborhoods and send their children to separate religious schools.
"We used to eat together, play together," said Abdul Aziz, an Egyptian Muslim, who fondly recalled memories of Christian childhood friends, to the Post. "Honestly, I don't understand how it has come to this."
The Coptic Christian population in Egypt consists of an estimated six to eight million and is the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Coptic Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population.
President Mubarak met with President Obama on Tuesday.