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 relations of that time with the atmosphere between Protestants and Catholics in the 1600s. But evangelical success, he says, had its impact on the way the Orthodox went about their faith.
"About a quarter of a million people became Protestants," Bailey says. "Very gradually, the Orthodox Church began to incorporate into their life various aspects of Protestant life. For example, there was no preaching in the Mass. Finally, under pressure, the [Orthodox] started preaching. Sunday schools start across the street, they have to start Sunday schools."
The Coptic Church also began to place greater emphasis on Scripture. Rodgers describes the current Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, as a Bible scholar who leads weekly Bible studies to a full house at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.
Everyone agrees relations have improved in recent years. Rodgers suggests that intermarriage between believers of different groups has played a major part in thawing some of the tension. Also, he says, a lot of the points of contention revolved around "fine points of theology" that "as they are studied and dialogued [about] in a peaceful venue, I guess they find that they're not as thorny as they thought."
"I think as time goes by there's more understanding that the two parties have a lot more in common than they have differences," Rodgers said.
These days, evangelical and Coptic leaders visit and bless one another's major events, Rodgers says. Pope Shenouda has relationships with the leaders of various evangelical groups.
"The will to exclusivity is dying, and things are gradually getting better," Bailey said. He compares the status of Coptic Evangelicals to the place of Protestants in a Catholic nation. "The Protestant Church in Italy … they're very small, they know that they are definitely about third-class citizenship in the Christian arenas of life. The Roman Catholics dominate everything. Some priests accept them, and many do not. It's a very mixed bag. Exactly the same thing could be said about evangelicals in Egypt."