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Participants in Egypt's recent protests stunned observers in many ways. One major surprise came when the world witnessed protesters of different faiths cooperating with one another in a way Egypt has rarely seen before.

"When Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Evangelicals protected them from anyone who would want to interfere," said Len Rodgers, executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. "And then, during a Coptic Orthodox Mass in Tahrir, the Muslims protected the Coptic Orthodox. This is, I would say, unprecedented. It's a very unusual and, I would say, optimistic possibility for the future."

It is unique enough for Muslims and Christians to guarantee one another the chance to pray and worship unmolested, but for many years evangelical Christians and Coptic Orthodox believers also have had a hard time coming together on much of anything.

The first major Protestant presence in Egypt arrived with a group of Presbyterian missionaries in the 1850s, according to Kenneth Bailey, a lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies who lived in the Middle East for 40 years. It wasn't long, Bailey says, before Coptic leaders grew to regard them as rivals.

"The Coptic Orthodox claim the Apostle Mark was the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church," says Rodgers. "The Coptic Evangelicals … appeared to be competition to the ancient church."

There's also a cultural aspect: "The Coptic people feel they are the original Egyptians," Rodgers says, and the Orthodox Church feels themselves protectors of the Coptic heritage—"and [are] not all that willing to share it with the newcomers."

"There was a great deal of persecution of Protestants in that period," Bailey says, comparing evangelical-Orthodox ...

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February 2011

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