Three die as Muslims sack church in DVD protest

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The Independent Online

I Once Was Blind But Now I See, performed in 2003 at the Coptic church of St George, told the story of a poor young Copt drawn to militant Islamists, who then try to kill him. Last week the appearance of the play on DVD rekindled the fury of local Muslims, who called it "an insult to Islam".

On Friday night three people were killed and 53 arrested at the culmination of a series of protests outside St George's. Police resorted to sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets to hold back a crowd of several thousand who nevertheless succeeded in breaking the church's windows as well as smashing cars parked nearby.

One man was trampled to death as the crowd was forced back, while two others died early yesterday when the police opened fire. Earlier in the week, protesters stabbed a nun and a man outside the church, though neither was seriously wounded.

The Coptic Church has strongly denied that the play ever targeted Islam, saying it had only attacked religious extremism. "Copts would never tolerate anyone insulting Islam," one bishop was quoted as saying. The authorities have been inclined to agree with this interpretation. The Interior Ministry condemned the protesters as "fanatic elements" who had "escalated a negative reaction to a play".

The ugly scenes of sectarian violence contrasted sharply with the easygoing sensuality and cosmopolitanism portrayed by Lawrence Durrell in his classic work The Alexandria Quartet, only underlining the rise of religious intolerance in Egypt in recent decades. Amid worries that the Muslim majority has been penetrated by ideological hardliners, many minorities, including the Copts, have become increasingly fearful.

The Copts claim direct descent from the Christian community that dominated Egyptian society before - and for some centuries after - the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century. Numbering between 5 and 10 per cent of Egypt's 72 million population, they have endured periodic bouts of persecution at the hands of Islamic militants in recent years, most notably in 1999, when 22 people were killed in the southern village of Kosheh. The tough stance taken by the police in Alexandria reflects the government's concern for the health of the all-important tourist industry, which has suffered severely before from Islamist violence.

Many holiday-makers stayed away from Egypt after the July bombing of the Sharm el Sheikh Red Sea resort, which killed more than 80 people, and after the November 1997 attack on Luxor in which 62 tourists died.