CAIRO: It started with a Christian woman who wanted a divorce to marry her Muslim lover. With divorce strictly banned by Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church, she found no other way but to convert to Islam.
And so began a chain of events that led to an explosion of sectarian violence in Cairo that left 15 people dead, a church in flames and a nation even more uncertain of its path after overthrowing an authoritarian ruler of 30 years.
For many Egyptians, last weekend’s bloodshed was a depressing reminder that their revolution — which initially infused the country with an unprecedented democratic spirit — is under threat from Egypt’s deep social ills and religious strife.
At the same time, the episode pushed Egypt’s transitional military rulers and civilian government to take the first steps in decades toward addressing some of the root causes of the discord, including long-held grievances of the Christian minority.
A closer look at the woman at the center of the story, however, suggests that will be a long journey yet.
Twenty-five-year-old Abeer Fakhri was only seeking to escape an abusive marriage and marry her Muslim partner, a relative said in an interview in recent days.
Late last year, the couple fled from their home village deep in southern Egypt to a northern Nile Delta city. In similar cases, women have been killed by their own families for having an affair with a man from another religion.
Her family located her and handed her over to Church officials, she said in an Internet interview aired in the past week, and her Muslim partner responded by rallying Islamic hardliners in the Cairo district of Imbaba and claiming that his Muslim-convert wife was imprisoned in a local church.
The result was disastrous.
In video recorded by individuals during last Saturday and Sunday’s mayhem and posted on YouTube, bearded Muslim hardliners known as Salafis and hired thugs wielding swords are seen storming Imbaba’s Virgin Mary Church, destroying pews, smashing windows and tearing religious pictures. One fact-finding mission said that the attackers slaughtered the church’s Christian guard and set his body on fire before burning the whole church.
A short distance away, the mob tried to storm the Mar Mina Church but were held back by Christians who formed a human shield around the church and fought for hours.
Instead, the attackers set fire to two six-floor buildings and damaged several shops while exchanging gunfire and firebombs with Christians. Dozens of armored vehicles and hundreds of soldiers flooded the district, but the fighting raged for hours.
Fifteen people were killed and more than 200 were injured.
Once a hotbed of Islamic militancy, Imbaba is a mix of middle- and lower-class neighborhoods occupied by government employees, seasonal workers and unemployed youth who live in garbage-filled slums.
Barefoot children chase stray dogs in unpaved alleys that wind among gloomy warrens of red brick houses. Christian migrants from southern Egypt compose a big part of the district and clearly identify themselves with crosses drawn on the exteriors of their houses.
In this neighborhood, talk of a Muslim woman being abducted in a church and forced to return to Christianity was like pouring oil on fire.
Fakhri, in a video clip posted on the website of an Islamic group, recalled how she pleaded to her Muslim partner, Yassin Thabet, over the phone for help and gave him her location. Thabet, a minibus driver, knew that to get her out of the church, he would need help from powerful Islamist hard-liners.
She said in a phone conversation with a TV network that the church didn’t hurt her, "but only talked to me about why I am leaving my religion after the 25 years I remained a Christian."
In Imbaba, she was taken by the church to live in "a room with no windows."
"I couldn’t get out. They always lock the doors and I stay in," she said.
After leaving her Christian husband, Fakhri wed Thabet in an informal marriage recognized by Islam but not by Christianity. She was detained in the past week for questioning over allegations of polygamy.
In her home village, Fakhri’s cousin, Eid Hanna, said that she has been married since 2008 and that her Christian husband repeatedly beat her up. "She rarely stayed at her husband’s place and most of the time she was at her parents’ house."
Hanna, a 41-year-old baker, said that a priest tried to mend relations between the two but it didn’t work.
Conservative Egyptian families — both Christian and Muslim — perceive conversion as a social stigma. It is also religiously prohibited.
Father Abanoub Tharwat, deputy bishop in the southern city of Assiut, said he deals with dozens of cases of women converting to Islam. Most of the cases are driven by "women fed up with their husbands and who want divorces or women who had extramarital relations and want to cover it up."
He said the church does not go after the women to force them to return to Christianity, but added that the church interferes when the motive for conversion is not purely religious.
Islamic extremists view church intervention as "abductions" of Muslims and they accuse the church of torturing them and keeping them in underground cells.
In the aftermath of the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, the Christian minority has been demanding a better position in society. At the same time, Muslim hardliners who have risen to prominence are using anti-Christian rhetoric to boost their campaign to bring about an Islamic state in Egypt.
"We feel that there is a big plan plotted by the Islamic extremists to take the country backwards," Father Tharwat said. "If things remain as they are, Christians here are ready for martyrdom."
Some observers say that behind the attack on Imbaba’s Christians are groups that seek to undermine the revolution: a combination of Mubarak loyalists, members of his disbanded National Democratic Party and hardline clerics with ties to the former state security apparatus.
Military officials, quoted in daily papers, shared that view, blaming ruling party remnants, but without naming anyone.
Under Mubarak, authorities had tried to brush sectarian violence under the rug, forcing feuding Muslim and Christian clans into grudging agreements while failing to address the root causes of the violence or arrest perpetrators.
The scale of the violence in Imbaba led the country’s military rulers to act.
More than 200 people — Muslims and Christians — were arrested and sent for trial before military tribunals.
At least two public fact-finding missions have been launched to pin down details of how the violence happened.
And the military and transitional civilian government moved to address some of the policies that Christians say relegate them to second-class status in Egypt. Among them are restrictions on where Christians can build churches, in place even though they make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million. Most of them are Copts.
On Wednesday, the government formed a National Justice Committee that has 30 days to draw up a law for the building of places of worship with the same rules for Muslims and Christians. The committee will also look into reopening nearly 50 churches shut down under Mubarak’s rule for reasons seen by Christians as discriminatory.
The government also promised a law banning sectarian incitement and protests in front of mosques or churches and the committee will look into handling all issues relating to conversions.
Christian activist-lawyer Amir Ramzy called the moves "a happy surprise" for Christians.
"These demands have been there forever and no government felt the urge to meet them. In 30 days, we will have what we have been asking for 30 years," he said. "These were the seeds of sectarian tensions and this is the right way to uproot them."