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A Bloody Crime in New Jersey Divides Egyptians

By ANDREA ELLIOTT

Published: January 21, 2005

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
An Egyptian in Jersey City, A. Iskander, said that Americans do not distinguish between Christian Egyptians like him and Muslim Egyptians.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Ahab Ghobrial, at left, and Fakher Fahmy, at the El Saraya cafe, which is popular among Muslim and Christian Egyptian immigrants.

JERSEY CITY, Jan. 20 - Muslim and Christian students of Egyptian descent suddenly no longer sit together during lunch at Dickinson High School on Palisade Avenue. At Halal butcher shops and Christian-owned grocery stores, sales clerks speak in equally hushed tones about the unsolved murder last week of a Christian Egyptian family, wary of who may be listening.

And friendships that were once free of religious division are now strained, in ways subtle and blunt, as speculation that four members of the family were killed because of their religion has run rampant, even though there have been no official findings by the authorities.

For years, Mohsen Elesawi, a Muslim Egyptian, shared shisha pipes and games of chess with Christian Egyptians at the Christian-owned El Saraya cafe on Vroom Street. Now, when he walks into the room, he often hears a quiet pause, "like a subject change," he said.

"Now there is no trust between Muslims and Christians and there is a lot of anger," said Mr. Elesawi, 52, a limousine driver who immigrated to Jersey City 21 years ago. "It's changed dramatically."

In the words of Fakher Fahmy, 53, a Christian Egyptian who owns a construction company in Jersey City, Muslims and Christians "spoke as friends" before the murders. "Now everybody is scared of everybody," he said.

For decades, Jersey City has been an experiment in peace between Muslims and Christians from Egypt. At odds in their homeland, the two groups had bonded as immigrants, mingling at the same cafes, schools and taxi stands, glued by one language and national identity. They shared eagerly in forging a new, American life.

But in the week since four family members, including an 8-year-old girl, were found in their home here with their throats slit, a centuries-old rift has come to the surface.

To the outsider, the extent of vitriol and near-paranoia provoked by the slayings seems hard to fathom: the police have yet to make an arrest and believe that robbery was a motive. Still, in the days after the four victims were found bound, gagged and stabbed to death, the scant known facts of the case have been supplanted by a swirl of rumor and innuendo that the victims were the targets of Muslims, leading to scenes of chaos at the funeral, with mourners shoving each other and threatening to beat a sheik who attended.

The murder case, while tragic on its own, has opened a wound and produced an outpouring of emotion that even Egyptian Christians and Muslims struggle to explain. The answer is layered: there are old-world grievances, a largely unspoken anger toward Egyptian Muslims after 9/11, and a newfound immigrant power that has left the Egyptian Christians - a repressed minority in Egypt - unafraid to assert their voice here.

The murder victims - Hossam Armanious, 47, Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8 - were Copts, or members of the Coptic Orthodox church. In Egypt, Muslims are the majority and Copts, who are roughly 10 percent of the population, live with varying degrees of social, political and religious discrimination, according to the United States State Department and human rights groups.

But in Jersey City, which has the largest Coptic Egyptian community in the United States, Copts are estimated to outnumber Muslims, and the balance of power between them is more equal.

Many Copts, along with Muslims, have enjoyed financial success. Fred Ayad, a Copt who left Cairo for Jersey City 35 years ago, rose to become deputy mayor. And Copts from all walks of life, from surgeons to cab drivers, will attest that in America, they have found a new social comfort. They no longer live on the margins of society: they are among the religious majority.

But if anything altered that newfound comfort, and helped stoke the recent friction over the murder case, it was Sept. 11.

Muslims in the United States were not alone in suffering a social backlash. Arabs of other religions have also been subjected to hate crimes, searches at airports, loss of jobs and other problems experienced by Muslims after the attacks. But that shared distress has wrought some hard and painful realities within the Arab community, with non-Muslims wishing to distance themselves from Muslims.


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