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Ultraconservative Muslims press sharia dictates in Egypt

- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CAIRO | Members of an ultraconservative Muslim sect clashed with villagers south of Cairo over demands that a liquor store and coffee shops be closed, officials said Tuesday, a sign of the increasing assertiveness of the fundamentalist Salafi movement.

One villager was killed and eight others were injured in the armed clashes, which erupted late Monday in the village of Kasr el-Bassil in Fayoum province, a security official said.

The fighting broke out after Salafi followers ordered the owner to close the liquor store and coffee shops as they try to forcibly impose their strict interpretation of Islam by banning the drinking of alcohol.

Salafis were tolerated as a religious group under ex-President Hosni Mubarak to counter Mr. Mubarak's top foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Salafis have gained power as they rise to play a more political role as followers now ponder the nomination of a presidential candidate, following the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of the former regime.

That has alarmed many of the secular and liberal forces in Egypt because of the group's extremist discourse and imposition of Islamic sharia law.

Dozens of Salafis also staged a protest Tuesday in Cairo, accusing a church of abducting Camilla Shehata, a Coptic Christian priest's wife who some believe converted to Islam and is being held against her will.

Salafis also have accused the police of collaborating with the church by handing Mrs. Shehata over to church authorities to reconvert her. The woman's whereabouts are currently unknown.

Such protests were held almost weekly by the Salafis over the summer as they accused the Coptic Church of conspiring to "Christianize" Egypt, but they largely stopped after a suicide bombing on New Year's Day outside a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria killed 21 people.

Protesters held signs reading "peaceful, nonviolent" to defuse fresh rumors that the movement planned a massive rally on Tuesday aimed at supporting moves to force all Egyptian women to wear a veil and punish those who don't adhere by burning their faces with acid.

The rumors spread on Christian websites, and the Salafi movement quickly issued denials.

Despite the denials, one Coptic church in the southern province of Assuit evacuated some 340 female students from their university dormitories to hostels affiliated to the church and monasteries.

Though Salafis in Egypt reject violence, their doctrine is only a few shades away from that of groups such as al Qaeda. Both adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam that supposedly is a purer form of Islam said to have been practiced by Islam's Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

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