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Egypt’s Christians After Mubarak

They were protesting a church attack when the Tahrir Square demonstrations began. Political change likely won’t undo deep tensions with Muslims.

ICC Note:

“If Egypt will become a secular country, that really respects the rights of citizenship, there is a potential for the church to grow. But also there is a potential for the church to relax, like what happened in the West. If Egypt becomes an Islamic state—for example, like Iran—I think there will be difficulties, suffering. The church may become less in number, but I’m sure it will continue to be a faithful remnant.”

By Cornelis Hulsman

2/11/2011 Egypt (Christianity Today) – There is much to make Christians in Egypt anxious about their relationship with Muslims. On January 1, a suicide bomb killed 23 people at an Alexandria church, and today’s resignation of President Hosni Mubarak signals changes that may make Christians’ presence more precarious. It’s no wonder that the country’s Christian minority is praying for peace more fervently than ever.

The demonstrations demanding Mubarak’s resignation, which began after the January collapse of Tunisia’s authoritarian government, were a rare instance of the country’s Muslims and Christians uniting in common cause. Many pastors and church leaders had urged Egyptian Christians, traditionally known as Copts, not to participate in the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“The things that are happening now are against God’s will,” Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III, 88, said on national television in early February. But many Copts joined the protests anyway, and even stood guard when Muslims paused for prayer.

As the protests began, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Markos told Christianity Today that he walked out on his neighborhood’s streets and was soon surrounded by friendly protestors. Markos said, “We are all one. There are no tensions between Muslims and Christians at all in this uprising.”

The bishop’s statement highlighted the unity between Muslims and Christians over democratic reform. But the underlying issues of religious conversion, intermarriage, and new religious buildings will continue to fuel deep tensions. At a recent congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said, “In Egypt, for the past two years, we’ve seen a dramatic upsurge in attacks against Copts.”

Big Change

Many Christian leaders believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political group banned in Egypt, will grow in political power with Mubarak’s ouster. The brotherhood maintains strong support among some Egyptians. Religious-freedom analysts believe the leaders of the brotherhood, famous for the slogan “Islam is the solution,” could very well usher in repression of all minority religious groups. Christians are Egypt’s largest minority, representing 6 to 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people. About 90 percent of all Christians in Egypt are Orthodox.

Egypt hosts a small but influential population of Protestants and evangelicals (more than 250,000), mostly located in Cairo and other major cities. Most are either Presbyterian, Methodist, or Anglican, and many congregations are linked to the Evangelical Fellowship of Egypt. In addition to churches, dozens of ministries and agencies maintain sizable operations in Egypt. SAT-7, the Arabic-language Christian satellite broadcast channel, has 65 employees at its offices in Cairo.

Egypt’s government after Mubarak is certain to be both a blessing and a challenge, said Bishop Mouneer H. Anis, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt (who also oversees Anglicans throughout the Middle East, including Iran). “If Egypt will become a secular country, that really respects the rights of citizenship, there is a potential for the church to grow. But also there is a potential for the church to relax, like what happened in the West. If Egypt becomes an Islamic state—for example, like Iran—I think there will be difficulties, suffering. The church may become less in number, but I’m sure it will continue to be a faithful remnant.”

Compassion and Denial

For Christians, the national protests come amid continued mourning over the New Year’s Day terrorist attack on the Alexandria church.

Coptic Christians’ grief over the attack was assuaged by unexpected public acts of compassion by individual Muslims. On Orthodox Christmas (January 6), Afaf Badran, a well-known architect and devout Muslim woman, wrote in an online Arab-West Report commentary, “I have just returned from the Holy Virgin Church [in Cairo], where my daughter and I have volunteered to stand as human shieldsat its gate, and attend part of the ceremonies to give support to our Christian friends. We were first looked at cautiously as exotic attendees, but later greeted warmly and with appreciation.”

Dina El-Bawab, a veiled Muslim student, took part in a larger effort among Muslims to offer condolences. “At my university, the student association organized a day of mourning in which we all wore black. They collected donations for the victims in the hospital and their families,” she said.

These responses, however, cannot by themselves reconcile religious tensions in the country. While the governor of Alexandria said the perpetrators were from outside Egypt, Egyptian Christians were not convinced.

The government often blames outsiders because it believes admitting the presence of sectarian tension will only spark more violence. The same strategy was used in the wake of the January 12 attack by a police officer against Christians traveling on a train, killing one and injuring five. “Most of us believe it is something internal, not from anywhere outside,” one woman told Compass Direct News while standing outside the Alexandria church.

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