Around 200 men flooded out of the al-Qa'id Ibrahim mosque into the midday sunlight following the Friday afternoon prayers in Alexandria. They held up banners before the hundreds of black-clad riot police who were there to greet them, and immediately began to chant. "Shenouda is the enemy of God," they yelled, referring to Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, Egypt's largest religious minority. "Shenouda is an infidel ... State security, where is your Islam? Why did you leave the criminals alone?"
Much of the rage expressed by the members of the hard-line Salafi sect of Islam stems from one woman. Not much is known about Camilia Shehata, a priest's wife from Upper Egypt, whose story (or lack thereof) has gripped the Middle East's most populous nation since the summer, sparking waves of angry protests and emotional editorials. Shehata disappeared from her home for several days in July after having reportedly converted to Islam some say in an effort to get a divorce, which is not permitted by the Coptic Church. At first, the Christians protested accusing Muslims of kidnapping a Christian and forcing her to convert. When she re-emerged, it was the Muslims' turn. Many now believe Shehata was forcibly returned to her home and the Coptic Church by state authorities, only to become sequestered against her will within the confines of a monastery.
"We do not know anything except that she was married to a priest and she ran away from that marriage. Everything else is just rumors, and that is the problem," says Amr Khafagy, the editor in chief of the independent al-Shorouq newspaper, which has run four stories and an editorial about Shehata. "The government never said the absolute truth and the church never said the absolute truth. And the media blew these rumors out of proportion."
It's not the first time a Christian has converted to Islam, but conversion has long been a sensitive issue in a state where Copts worry about rising Muslim religiosity and Muslims increasingly see Copts as existing outside the law. It is also one of the first times the state has interfered in an individual's conversion, claims Rafiq Habib, a Coptic intellectual. If they hadn't, he says, this never would have gotten so out of hand. "From the public perspective, it was a sign that the role of the church and the position of the Copts has changed in the last years that they have become allies of the state and allies of the President."
Wafaa Constantine, who was also the wife of a priest, reportedly converted to Islam in 2004 and wound up in a monastery as well. Neither woman has appeared in public since their returns to the church, and the Salafi protests of late have invoked both names. "Today we hold a standoff to free our sister hostages from the church," explained one of the protesters, Atef Wael. "Whenever a sister converts to Islam, they keep her in the church and they torture her to make her appear before the media saying that she is a Christian, not a Muslim." Other protesters outside the mosque on Friday and in recent weeks have displayed pictures of women they allege are Shehata, Constantine and others held captive by the church. Some sobbed as they chanted slogans comparing their struggle to the Crusades.
The recent string of protests is just the latest episode of sectarian strife that has gripped Egypt this year. In September, Muslims protested angrily after the No. 2 official in the Coptic Church, Bishop Bishoy, remarked that "Muslims are only guests" in Egypt, and disputed the validity of certain verses of the Koran that dispute the divine nature of Jesus Christ. In January, the shooting of six Copts and a Muslim in the town of Nag Hammadi sparked sectarian rioting, and the trial of suspects has since been repeatedly adjourned.
Local and international human-rights groups, along with many Copts and Muslims, have complained in recent years of a deepening sectarian rift, which they attribute to rising conservatism on both sides, government discrimination and competition for resources. "I was raised in a neighborhood where my neighbors were Copts. I grew up with them; we never had those problems in the past," says Salah Yusuf Hafez, a Muslim mechanic in Imbaba, a predominantly Muslim slum of Cairo. "What's happening now it has to be in someone's interests. Someone stands to benefit."
Last week, however, it became apparent even to Muslim authorities and opposition groups that the clamor over the converts may have gone too far. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda linked group that took responsibility for the attack last week on a Baghdad church, issued a statement that the attack had been carried out in retaliation for the captive converts in Egypt. It declared all Christians "legitimate targets" because a deadline it set to release the women had expired.
Egypt responded by beefing up security around churches. And Islamic groups running the gamut from the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood to the sheik of al-Azhar, Egypt's highest religious authority, along with Pope Shenouda III, came out with strong condemnatory statements and calls for Egyptian unity.
"I don't think that there is a real danger here in Egypt," says Habib, because al-Qaeda has little to no following in the country. "The only risk is that someone hears the declaration from al-Qaeda and decides to take action by themselves and tries to burn a church."
The problem is that's not out of the question. Egypt is prone to rare but violent attacks on Copts and tourists, and analysts warn that the anger over the missing converts shows that Egypt's sectarian rift continues to demand serious attention.
For Habib, that would mean a church willing to take conciliatory steps like allowing the women to clarify their own stories publicly, and a regime willing to offer Christians more equal rights while staying out of issues like conversion, which he says should be a personal affair. Until then, he says, the fuse will only get shorter: "Both sides have become very sensitive now. For any action now, the reaction will be very large."
In Alexandria on Friday, demonstrators implored state security to heed their religious identity in a battle of Muslims vs. Christians. And after about an hour of protest outside the mosque, the Salafis declared that their fight was far from over. "We don't want strife or demonstrations," one man called through a bullhorn. "But we will not stop the demonstrations until they are released."