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Egypt Christians say intolerance grows, close ranks
CAIRO (Reuters) - Minarets and church towers mingle on Cairo's skyline, but tensions mar Egypt's record of religious coexistence and a perception of growing intolerance is leading some Christians to shun their Muslim compatriots.
Amira Helmy, from a middle-class area of the capital, was brought up by a Muslim neighbour after her mother died and attended a state school alongside Muslim children.
"Most of my friends were Muslims. We used to go on outings together and some would call to me from below my house so we could walk to school," recalls Helmy with a smile.
Now a housewife in her 40s, she sends her daughter Christine and son Kirollos to a private Christian school and forbids them from mingling with Muslim children to protect them from insults.
"I do this out of fear for my child. Not because she's a girl. Kirollos is also prohibited from going out with Muslims."
Helmy said she had stopped speaking to most of her Muslim neighbours after one of them called her housekeeper the daughter of a 'blue bone', a pejorative name for Coptic Christians.
Around a tenth of Egypt's 78 million people are Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts -- descendents of Christian communities that founded monasticism in the early centuries after Jesus.
Christians are found in all social strata, from rubbish collectors living in old Cairo graveyards to top businessmen, doctors and government ministers, although Copts say they are under-represented in the security forces and public office.
Official rhetoric after independence in 1952 called for religious unity around the national cause, shown in the slogan "The Crescent and The Cross" often chanted at patriotic events.
"We did not hear of this 'Muslim-Christian' labelling until 15 or 20 years ago when religious slogans arose for political reasons," said Helmy's husband Salah Shafiq, a gold worker.
Christian and Muslim clerics stress sectarian harmony, but communal tensions can erupt into criminality and violence, usually sparked by land disputes or cross-faith relationships.
Such spats could multiply if the state ignores Christian grievances on issues such as an Islam-focused school curriculum and laws making it easier to build mosques than churches.
Some Egyptians blame sectarian intolerance on the media for sensationalising trivial incidents involving religion.
In July, when a 26-year-old Christian from Upper Egypt fled her priest husband, an image of her veiled like a Muslim woman appeared on the Internet, prompting a fevered media debate over whether she had converted to Islam.
Last month, Pope Shenouda, head of Egypt's Orthodox Church, said on television he regretted any hurt to Muslims over remarks by a Coptic archbishop that some took as an attack on the Koran.
The killing of six Christians in southern Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve in January may have fuelled fears of religious strife. The persecution of Iraqi Christians by Muslim militants after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq also provoked unease here.
Yet deaths from religious violence in Egypt remain extremely rare. Most Egyptian Christians say their biggest concerns are discrimination and occasional teasing and insults from Muslim neighbours, especially in poorer neighbourhoods.
"In the streets, I do feel discrimination when a Christian walks by and then a Muslim person says 'May God forgive me' (for the sin I see before me)," said Helmy's daughter Christine.
Shafiq blamed what he called growing Muslim intolerance on economic hardship that prompts its victims to seek a scapegoat. Despite an economic growth rate of near 6 percent, many Egyptians complain the benefits are not trickling down.
"So far, moderate Muslims seem to be the majority but may God protect us because economic conditions are worsening and the fundamentalists are offering people money to join them."
(Reporting by Sarah Mikhail; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Alistair Lyon)
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