JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) The dirty looks and shouted slurs started in 1993 after Muslims living here helped plan the bombing that damaged the World Trade Center just across the Hudson River. They intensified after Sept. 11, 2001, when Muslim hijackers destroyed the twin towers.
Now a third wave of anti-Muslim sentiment is washing over New Jersey’s second-largest city, sparked this time by reports that the murders of an Egyptian Christian man, his wife and two young daughters might have been carried out by Muslims angered by messages the man posted in an Internet chat room.
The strife is particularly distressing in light of efforts the area’s Muslim community made to reach out to other faiths and strengthen ties after the 9/11 attacks. Imams visited churches and synagogues. Joint prayer breakfasts and open houses were held. Muslim merchants visited the homes of their Christian and Jewish counterparts, and strongly denounced the attacks.
“We’ve been working for three years on getting Christians together with Muslims,” said Mohamed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union. “Now much of that progress is gone. It is definitely going to be set back.”
The bodies of Hossam Armanious, a 47-year-old Coptic Christian, his 37-year-old wife, Amal Garas, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were discovered Jan. 14 in the family’s home. They had been bound and gagged, and each was stabbed repeatedly in the neck and head. No arrests have been made.
Although prosecutors have stressed that robbery remains a possible motive in the case, many in this city’s sizable Egyptian population believe the killings were religiously motivated.
That feeling is all too familiar for people like Ahmed Shedeed, director of the Islamic Center of Jersey City.
“We Muslims living in America are getting sick of this crap,” he said. “Why should we have to apologize for or make a defense of something we had nothing to do with? There is no proof at all that Muslims had anything to do with this, yet we are taking the blame again. Is Islam on trial, or is a killer on trial?”
After the killings, Muslims tried anew to mend fences, but the results were mixed, at best. Several attended the family’s funeral, but a New York cleric was escorted out of the church hall as a precaution after a heckler shouted at him. Mourners engaged in several scuffles before and after the funeral, including one in which about 35 people pushed, shoved and traded punches in the street while others yelled anti-Islam slogans.
A few days later, Muslim leaders called a news conference to try to calm religious tensions, but Coptic leaders who were invited did not attend, citing a religious holiday, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrating Jesus’ baptism. A similar interfaith event planned for this Sunday, which had been in the works for months, was postponed because of the snowstorm heading for the area.
The killings have spread fear among Coptic Christians far beyond Jersey City. Relatives of the Armanious family in Egypt blamed the killings on violence and weak interpersonal relationships in American society. Members of the St. Abraam’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Woodbury, N.Y., said the killings appeared to be “a religiously motivated hate crime against Coptic Christians.”
“A lot of families are feeling the fear and terror that comes along with something like this,” said Maged Riad, a church member. “They got them in their home in the middle of the night. People want to know they can be safe in their own homes.”
Many Coptics complain of discrimination in Egypt, where violence between the two communities has flared sporadically in recent years. Coptic Christians comprise less than 6 percent of Egypt’s population. The church is part of the family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches of Syria, Ethiopia and Armenia. Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics split in 1054 over the authority of the pope.
At St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church in Jersey City, where the Armanious family was active, the Rev. David Bebawy urged restraint and said he was troubled by the heated rhetoric that followed the slayings.
“We are waiting to see what the result of the investigation is,” he said. “It’s too early to blame anyone.”
Suzanne Loutfy, a Muslim leader of the Egyptian-American Group, asked people not to blame Islam if the killers are found to be Muslim.
“People are so willing to condemn an entire religion,” she said. “That’s what the big problem is. People commit crimes; religions don’t. I hope we can be intelligent enough to separate those two.”