* Christians alarmed at growing sectarian strife
* Say government is soft touch on Islamists
* Blame government for culture of discrimination
* Some say alarm at inter-faith violence is overdone
By Sami Aboudi
CAIRO, May 27 (Reuters) - Last January, Nazih Moussa Gerges locked up his downtown Cairo law office and joined hundreds of thousands of fellow Egyptians to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down.
The 33-year-old Christian lawyer was back on the streets this month to press military rulers who took over after Mubarak stepped down to end a spate of sectarian attacks that have killed at least 28 people and left many afraid.
Those who camped out in Tahrir Square side by side with Muslims to call for national renewal now fear their struggle is being hijacked by ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists with no one to stop them.
“We did not risk our lives to bring Mubarak down in order to have him replaced by Salafists,” Gerges said. “We want an Egypt that will be an example of democracy and freedom for the whole world.”
Sectarian tensions are not new to Egypt, where Christians make up around 10 percent of the population of 80 million. But the frequency and intensity of clashes have increased since Mubarak’s overthrow.
Many blame a broader weakening of law and order that began as the protests against Mubarak gathered pace and police deserted the streets. Authorities are trying to rebuild security forces to deal with increased lawlessness following mass jail breakouts.
Egypt’s military rulers have vowed to punish those behind sectarian clashes, banned demonstrations outside places of worship and promised to give Christians equal rights. But Christians say no one has been tried yet for the burning of a church in Helwan, south of Cairo, in March or for violence in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on May 7 that left 15 people dead. At least 13 died in clashes after the Helwan incident.
The army has said 190 people will face trial over the Imbaba clashes, which began when a group of Salafists demanded to look inside a church where they suspected a female convert to Islam was being held against her will.
When Christians gathered to worship in the eastern Cairo district of Ain Shams last week, they said Salafists and other local Muslims blocked access to the church and pelted them with cinder blocks.
The Christians said they had to abandon their attempt after security forces arrested eight of them.
“The General has said he will strike with an iron fist. Where is the iron fist?” said Marcelino Youssef, a spokesman for a Christian youth group that has been leading protests against sectarian attacks. He was referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads Egypt’s ruling military council.
For some Egyptians, including Christians, alarm over the recent inter-faith violence may be overdone. They say revolutions are often accompanied by a spike in violence that can carry sectarian undertones.
“If there are events which could lead to clashes every now and then, this may happen,” said Milad Hanna, a prominent Christian thinker. “They (Muslims) are normal people, not angels.”
Some blame leaders of Egypt’s Coptic church for cultivating fear of Muslims, in turn stoking sectarian tension by making the Christian community more defensive.
“The Church has promoted a fear of Muslims, arguing that the Egyptian people lack awareness and that democracy will not work in our context,” Muslim political scientist Amr Shobaki wrote in a column in newspaper al-Masry al-Youm on May 14.
The sectarian clashes have prompted many Christians to vent pent-up grievances at perceived discrimination since the 1970s.
Gerges recalls bitterly the time when he applied to join the prosecutor’s office in southern Cairo soon after graduating from Ain Shams University with distinction.
He said he was told by the recruiting official that his qualifications made him the ideal candidate.
“Then he looked at my family name and shook his head.”
For Gerges, the message was clear: a Muslim gets priority over a Christian when it comes to government jobs.
Egyptian Christians say discrimination against them starts in school.
“Coptic history has been removed” from textbooks, said Imbaba priest Sarabamon Abdo Rizeq. “How is a Muslim going to love me if he doesn’t know anything about my Christianity?”
At a sit-in outside state TV headquarters by the Nile in central Cairo, protesters posted a list of what they called “The Copts’ Demands”.
They included giving Christians equal access to government jobs, recognising Egypt’s Coptic history by making it part of the school curriculum, and easing restrictions on the construction of churches.
Christians complain that under laws inherited from Ottoman rule, Copts are required to obtain special permits from the head of state to build or repair a church.
“Our demands are actually basic rights,” said Malak Maher, 33, one of the protesters. “We want equality.” (Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaki; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Mark Trevelyan)