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Slaying of family raises tensions between 2 sects in N.J.

Grisly attack is seen by some as act of revenge

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- They left Egypt for this city across the river from New York in search of prosperity and peace.

But now Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians who flourished side by side for decades find the tensions that divided them in their homeland have followed them.

The slaying of a Coptic family in January have led to eruptions of hostility and mistrust between Muslims and Christians, but also to calls on both sides for calm and for recognition of the long-standing good relations between the two communities.

Law enforcement authorities say they have found no evidence that religion motivated the killings, believing that theft or a vendetta are more likely.

But rumors continue to swirl that the killers were angry Muslims retaliating for anti-Islamic comments allegedly made by Hossam Armanious, 47, in an online chat room.

Armanious, his wife, Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were slain last month in their tiny home in a working-class neighborhood here. Since then, mourners have left candles, flowers, and poems at the house, where yellow police tape bars the door and a neon-orange sign reads ''Homicide Scene."

''It's like 'In Cold Blood,' " one recent curiosity-seeker said as he approached with a camera, alluding to Truman Capote's true-crime tale of a murdered Kansas family.

The victims' bodies were discovered Jan. 14, bound and gagged in separate rooms, with puncture wounds to their throats. Investigators believe they had been dead for several days. Money had been taken -- Armanious's wallet was empty, his pockets turned out -- but other valuables remained.

Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said last week that his office wanted to learn more about the family, who immigrated in 1997, because the crime seemed so vicious and personal.

''It could be a vendetta-type crime, based on something that previously occurred here, or goes back to Egypt," he said. ''We haven't eliminated a sectarian religious motive, but we have no facts at this point that substantiate that theory."

That has not kept religious tensions from roiling. They surfaced on Jan. 16, two days after the bodies were found, when members of the American Coptic Association gathered on the steps of St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church and declared the killings to have been religious executions.

''Stop killing Christians!" yelled Monir Dawoud, the association's acting president.

Within days, another group, the US Copts Association, had posted a statement on its website that said, ''The Armanious family members are modern-day martyrs in Islamic fundamentalists' war on Christianity. . . . Al Qaeda is not only in the Middle East, but in New Jersey."

At the emotionally charged funeral Jan. 17, the presence of local Muslims -- there, they said, in sorrow and solidarity -- led to pushing, shouting, and, finally, police intervention.

''We feel this is something that was very far away from our community," Ahmed Sheded, head of the Islamic Center of Jersey City, said of the killings. ''A real Muslim can't do that."

Ever since, residents of both faiths have struggled to make sense of the grisly deaths and swirl of rumors that have so disrupted Jersey City, where a surge in immigrants that began in the late 1960s has swelled the Egyptian population to 22 percent to 25 percent of the city's total of 240,000.

Muslims and Coptic Christians have always lived here side by side, as fellow Egyptians; the church sits a few blocks from the local mosque.

Karima Boles, 59, who made the sign of the cross as she passed by St. George on Monday, said she loved Jersey City because it reminds her of home.

''I like it because I'm close to the church," she said. ''I don't have to drive. I feel like my country here."

Despite the killings, she is not worried, Boles said. ''Me, I am not scared because I feel God is always watching us."

George Ibrahim, a 38-year-old Copt, said the Armanious family rented videos from his store. ''The big girl, she was very religious," he said. ''The little one, I call her an angel, so sweet."

He said that Copts are persecuted in Egypt, but that he feels comfortable in the United States. ''We don't feel it here," he said. ''In Egypt, we do."

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of Christianity's most ancient branches and was predominant in Egypt until the rise of Islam.

The recent spike in anti-Muslim feeling targets an Islamic community still reeling from reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The city's links to terrorism -- it was home to men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, including Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman -- have led some to call it ''Terror City."

Last week, Osama Hassan, director of the Islamic Center of Jersey City, said his group had a strong relationship with local Copts and that Muslim and Coptic leaders worked together on interfaith issues.

He blamed current tensions on the contention of Dawoud, of the American Coptic Association, that the killings were religious executions. But, Hassan added, those comments fell on fertile soil. ''If this guy is saying something bad about Islam, he is not the only one," Hassan said.

After the murders, several Muslim groups held a news conference to warn against a rush to judgment. Bishop David, who oversees Coptic Churches in the Northeast and uses only one name, made a similar plea.

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