Poor Christian farmers in Egypt are protesting mass culling of pigs. It's unfair, our pigs are healthy, killing them means destroying our livelihood, they say.
Egypt is essentially a Muslim nation, but there is still a large Coptic Christian minority. Wednesday they sought to†block the streets on the outskirts of Cairo as Health Ministry workers arrived to carry out the government's order on pig slaughter.
"Our pigs are healthy. They are our capital and they have no diseases," said Adel Ishak, who feeds his pigs from the rubbish he collects in Manshiet Nasser, northeast of Cairo. It is the slum-dwelling ''Zebaleen'' rubbish collectors like Ishak who protested vehemently the government move.
If the pigs were all to die, how to dispose of the huge waste churned out every day by the Egyptians was another question posed by the protesters.
They stoned the vehicles that ferried in the cullers, but of course all in vain.
Egypt has chosen to slaughter up to 400,000 pigs in response to the swine flu crisis. The Arab world's most populous nation has been been badly hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus in recent years. Possibly the pig cull is a knee-jerk reaction, a UN official has already criticized the decision as a mistake.
Providing a lurid angle to the story is the fact that Muslims consider pigs as unclean, and hence the decision could be seen as an assault on the very survival of Christians.
"We remind Hosni Mubarak that we are all Egyptians. Where does he want us to go?" added 46-year-old Gergis Faris, another pig farmer. "We are uneducated people, just living day by day and trying to make a living, and now if our pigs are taken from us without compensation, how are we supposed to live?"
The decison to cull the pigs was announced by Hatem al-Gabali, the Health Minister, after a meeting with President Mubarak, reported Philippe Naughton for Times Online.
"It has been ordered to immediately begin the slaughter of all herds of pigs in Egypt," he told reporters.
Mr al-Gabali said slaughterhouses were to begin the culling process immediately at the fastest rate possible. Further precautionary measures such as the launch of an awareness campaign and increasing production of protective masks would also be taken, he said.
Magdy Rady, a Cabinet spokesman, put the number of pigs that could be culled at between 300,000 and 400,000. "If you see the conditions of the swine farms in Egypt, they are not healthy at all. They are hazards in themselves, even without the swine flu. That's why people are really getting afraid," he told the Reuters news agency, even before the decision was taken.
Officials said that the farmers would be offered compensation of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (£120) per pig but there seemed to be little confidence that the money would ever materialise.
Egypt has not had any confirmed cases of swine flu yet but government experts fear a pandemic flu strain could spread quickly through the country because most of its roughly 80 million people live in the densely packed Nile Valley, many in crowded slums in and around Cairo.
The World Health Organisation has repeatedly said, however, that the newly mutated H1N1 virus is not found in pigs - although the animals can be the vessels for the ''genetic reassortment'' that produces new strains - and that pork meat is safe to eat.
Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary office with the UN Food and Agriculture Officer in Rome, said the Egyptian order was ''a real mistake''.
''There is no reason to do that. It's not a swine influenza, it's a human influenza," he said.†