Muslims Burn Christian Homes in Egypt over Romance Rumor

Muslims burned at least ten Christian homes in Southern Egypt over a rumor that a young Coptic Christian man and a Muslim girl were in a romantic relationship, said officials Tuesday.

Authorities have arrested several people suspected of being involved in the torching of Christian homes in Qena province that began overnight Sunday. They have also taken into custody the Christian man and Muslim girl that are at the center of the controversy for investigation. Locals caught the two together at night in the village cemetery, security officials told The Associated Press.

In Egypt, historically Christians and Muslims have generally lived peacefully side by side. They have lived integrated in neighborhoods and attended the same schools. But in recent years, there has been increasing division between the two communities. An increasing number of Christians are moving into all-Christian neighborhoods and attending schools run by the church.

The separation is a reaction to the increasing persecution against Christians by Muslim extremist groups. In January, a group of gunmen in several cars opened fire on Christians exiting a church in the Southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi on Christmas Eve (Coptic Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in January). The drive-by shooting incident left six people dead and another nine injured. Among those reportedly killed were a young man and his fiancé and a 14-year-old boy

Local sources say the gunmen wanted to kill Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese, who had publicly defended Coptic Christians after a Muslim riot last November.

Previously, a riot took place in November 2009 due to the allegation that a Christian young man had raped a young Muslim girl. Coptic Christians, however, asserted that the story was fabricated in order for Muslims to justify their attack.

The riot reportedly left 65 shops destroyed and caused over $1 million in damage. In the town of Farshoot alone, about 80 percent of Coptic businesses were destroyed.

Besides dramatic events such as the November 2009 riots, Coptic Christians report general inequalities when it comes to education, economic opportunities, and government positions.

The Apostle Mark founded the Coptic Church in the 1st century when he brought Christianity to Egypt. Then Muslims brought Islam to Egypt in the 7th century. After several centuries of conversion, Egypt now has a Muslim majority. Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt's population while Muslims make up the remaining portion.