President Anwar Sadat's explosive crackdown against Egypt's Coptic Christians comes as the culmination of an increasingly antagonistic relationship between Mr. Sadat and the Coptic patriarch, Shenouda III.
Not only has the spiritual leader of Egypt's largest minority exercised politics, Mr. Sadat said in a recent speech, but "he wanted to become a political leader," too. The President holds Patriarch Shenouda responsible for inciting sectarian feelings that escalated over the last nine years into open fighting between Muslims and Copts.
Mr. Sadat made it clear he will tolerate no more "muscle flexing," and he will not allow any religious institution or grouping to indulge in politics. (Patriarch Shenouda has retired to a monastery where he has been advised to remain -- out of the public eye.)
Soon after he became patriarch 10 years ago, Shenoudah III set to fight them flourishing Muslim activists who had burnt a church and attacked Copts. His first move was to organize a march led by 100 monks to dramatize his protest.
He then proceeded to demand a fairer share of high civil service posts for members of the Coptic community, relaxation of conditions previously set for the construction of churches, and the reversal of government policies he viewed as discriminatory. He also openly contested preliminary results of a population census carried out five years ago showing that Copts accounted for a less than 7 percent of Egypt's population. The final results of the census were never published, leaving open the question of the number of copts. (Some estimates show they represent between 12 and 20 percent of the Egyptian population.)
The relation between the President and the patriarch soured rapidly over the last two years, church insiders say. Not only has the patriarch not called on Mr. Sadat since, but he sent the President's envoy home when he came to present his greetings last Easter. Patriarch Shenouda also boycotted all official ceremonies where, as a symbol of national unity, he was seated beside the rector of al Azhar, the most authoritative Muslim official in Egypt.
The main reason for the patriarch's opposition was the amendment of an article in the Egyptian Constitution making Sharia (Islamic religious law) the source of leggislation. Despite government assurances that personal status and inheritance laws for non-Muslims would remain intact, many Copts expressed their dismay with the change, and their reaction culminated in a four-day protest fast called by the patriarch.
Although the amendment was not immediately implemented, and there is still no sign that it is imminent, hard-line Copts believe the latest measures were taken in anticipation of a radical step in that direction.