For six weeks, Egypt has been sitting on top of a sectarian volcano. Protesters, men and women, have been exiting mosques following prayers almost every single Friday since the beginning of September to demand the ‘release’ of Camillia Shehata, a Coptic priest’s wife who they believe has converted to Islam and is now incarcerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The demonstrators hold aloft pictures of a woman, said to be Camillia, wearing a niqab (full face veil). They raise slogans against the head of al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Sunni mosque-university and Egypt’s premier Islamic institution, for his quiet about the case. Most significantly, they openly accuse Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic flock, of keeping Muslim women in Christian custody against their will and accordingly demand that he be removed as head of the Church.
Given the great sensitivity of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt, it is remarkable that the authorities have allowed the protests to build and to spread. On September 3, demonstrations took place near the giant al-Fath mosque in downtown Cairo. The ensuing week, after the ‘Id al-Fitr prayers that mark the close of Ramadan, protests occurred at the ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As mosque in Old Cairo, calling upon President Husni Mubarak to ‘recover’ Camillia from Church custody.