On December 20th, six people were injured in clashes that took place in Ard el Lewa area in Cairo. During the incident two Christians houses were set on fire.
The fighting erupted because of a relationship between a Christian girl and a Muslim neighbour.
Ahmed Attallah, an Egyptian writer who studies sectarian clashes, says the same story happens frequently. “Love is behind most of the sectarian clashes but it is hardly mentioned in official papers,” he says.
“The authorities may blame evangelisation, apostasy or even abduction. But they never admit that there are simply love stories behind clashes.”
“We had a five-year romance, but I never even touched her hand,” says Moataz, as he talks about his relationship with fellow university student Sandy.
Asking her hand in marriage posed an even bigger challenge.
“I was very hesitant because all my dreams could have been shattered once I admitted my feeling,” he says. “She was very likely to refuse a relationship with me because it would be against traditions.”
“My family would never accept him because of his religious beliefs, my mother keeps telling me he’s not like us”, says Sandy.
Moataz is an Egyptian Muslim, while Sandy is a Coptic Christian.
Interfaith marriages are increasingly unacceptable in Egypt; couples must be ready to pay a hefty price.
“The hurdles we would encounter would prove too big for our relationship to continue”, says Moataz.
“I know that I have been dreaming an impossible dream.”
“I am not allowed to talk to her anymore, her father threatened to kill me,” he added.
Religion is an incredibly sensitive issue in Egypt, with many Christians and Muslims refusing to accept people leaving their congregation.
Religious leaders often see inter-faith marriage an attempt to recruit members from the other religion.
Defiant Coptic bishops say, “there is no power on earth that could make us violate the teachings of our Lord Christ.”
Fr George Matta, pastor of St George Church at Ezbet Hanna Ayoub in Menya, Upper Egypt, suggests that the culture in the Egyptian countryside does not accept interfaith relationships.
“My advice to young people is that they should choose their life partner from their own religion,” says Fr Matta.
“This is just a piece of advice. We still have a very long way to go before we have open-minded communities like the West,” he says, adding that he believed attitudes should change.
Hind and George’s relationship started in Tahrir Square in the middle of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
But after more than three years together, they feel frustrated. They can’t get married in Egypt because George is a Christian, while Hind is a Muslim woman.
Under Egyptian law, George would have to convert Islam. A Christian woman can marry a Muslim man without having to convert but the opposite is forbidden, according to Shari’a.
The religious status of the children is established by the father’s religion. If the father is Muslim, the kids are Muslims by law; this is one of the reasons why the mother is not forced to change her religion, but, at the same time, she has to accept that her children will be, by law, Muslims.
The couple considered travelling abroad to get married and start a family. But even that would not solve their problem.
“Neither of us can convert and having a civil marriage abroad or in Egypt would not work either because we’d both lose our families and we won’t be able to live in Egypt freely,” says 25-year-old Hind.
“The authorities will never approve our marriage or register our children as Egyptians. We must then live outside Egypt until we die.”
Ahmed Attallah says that interfaith marriage has effectively become prohibited in Egypt.
“When a Christian woman goes to a notary to register a marriage with a Muslim man, the officials tell her that she must have a letter of approval from the Church,” he says.
“The Egyptian Church has consistently refused to approve marriages between different Christian sects, let alone different religions.” he adds.
Sarah, who used to be a Christian, has been married to Nasr, a Muslim, for 20 years.
They live in Boulaq, and they say the public response to relationships such as theirs has become much more violent.
The couple, like many others in their situation, still had to pay a heavy price for their relationship.
Sarah’s family disowned her for marrying a Muslim and converting to Islam. When she ran into her father after the wedding, she remembers that he ignored her and said: “My Sarah is dead”.
“I will always be a disgrace to my family, I hope someday they will find it in their heart to forgive me,” Sarah says , her voice shaking.
Ahmed, who fell in love with Howaida at university, could not bear to make her suffer in the same way, even though she was prepared to convert to Islam.
They split up in 2010.
Ahmed says he feared his relationship with Sandy would put her in danger from her own family.
“I did not want to get her into trouble which could end with her family killing her,” Ahmed says.
He adds: “I’m now married a wonderful, decorous veiled woman and have lovely children, may God save them and her.”
“But for me, I can’t say that I ‘love’ my wife.”
“I still love the Christian woman I used to meet. I will never forget her.”