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."
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.
But while most Egyptian Muslims are Sunni, like the brotherhood, they are not as fundamentalist as it is. One Coptic Orthodox businessman based in Cairo told CT that he was surprised that Christians' property was not targeted during the growing protests. "I thought that the first thing to be attacked [by protestors] would be the churches," he said.
"It wasn't like that. In the neighborhood of my parents, there are many mosques and churches. No single mosque has announced anything against us Christians. Very soon, a big change will happen. Egypt has been like someone sleeping. Now, wake up! Do something better."
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.
Terence Ascott, CEO of SAT-7, said, "Our prayer is that the current unrest will eventually result in positive change leading to greater justice, security, and political openness in the country—for all Egyptians."
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.
Chronic Poverty, Idle Youth
The 40 percent of Egyptians who live below the poverty line are a key factor in driving discontent, especially among undereducated, jobless youth.
In November, for example, many young people participated in riots in Umraniyyah, a Cairo suburb, when government authorities tried to stop Christians from transforming a large service building into a church. Umraniyyah, a poverty-stricken quarter, was built illegally on fertile land in Cairo that was supposed to remain agricultural. Dozens of narrow streets are lined with buildings six or more floors high.
Millions of urban Egyptians live this way. In these neighborhoods, idle and jobless youth spend hours in Internet cafes or watching satellite television broadcasts. They are drawn to radical websites, both Muslim and Christian. One youth calls himself "Coptic man" and frequents anti-Muslim chat rooms. Several hardcore anti-Muslim sites provoke Muslim critics, which in turn incites Muslim comments on anti-Christian sites. "We are using the chat rooms to vent our anger," said "Coptic man."
"Coptic man" reads Al-Katiba al-Tibiya, a fringe publication that is distributed in many churches but does not represent the stance of the Coptic Church. Al-Katiba al-Tibiya first appeared in Egypt in 2004 and is notorious for its inflammatory language. Muslims have similar publications.
The Christian youth who resisted government efforts to stop the building of their church in Umraniyyah also blocked the nearby ring road. They hurled Molotov cocktails at security personnel. The police responded with tear gas and live ammunition. Two Christians were killed, dozens wounded, and scores arrested, resulting in a strong pulse of Christian anger.
Christian Villages in Jeopardy
Outside poor, urban areas, the problems for rural Christians are just as worrisome. A century ago, 80 percent of all Egyptian Christians lived in rural Upper Egypt. Today the figure stands at 40 percent, at best.
In January 2010, the plight of Upper Egypt's remaining Christians gained worldwide attention when gunmen shot and killed six Christians and a Muslim guard at a Nag Hammadi church on Orthodox Christmas. One year later, the State Security Court issued a death sentence for Muhammad Ahmed Hassanein after his conviction for first-degree murder and terror-related charges. Two more suspects are awaiting verdicts.
Regardless of the verdicts, suspicions linger. Many wonder whether the Nag Hammadi killing was an act of religious persecution of Christians, or, rather, the result of violations of Upper Egypt's tribal culture, in which blood feuds are notorious.
In October 2009, a young Christian man from the nearby village of Farshut had sex with a Muslim girl. Muslims claim that it was rape and that the bloodbath outside the Nag Hammadi church was an act of revenge that got out of hand. Many Christians, however, argue that the sex was consensual and that the killings resulted from a deep hatred of Christians.
Father Isidorus from Farshut told CT, "In the past, the elders of the town, Muslim and Christian, would have met. They would have decided together on a punishment, probably expulsion of the young man from town. But ever since Muslims established a Muslim training institute in Farshut, newcomers have come who do not follow the traditional patterns of seeking solutions."
Orthodox Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hammadi places the blame for the violence on rumors, such as that Christians hide weapons in monasteries and churches. Father Yo'annis of Maghagha in Upper Egypt acknowledges that many Upper Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, carry arms, but he explicitly denies that weapons are stored in church buildings. "The church prohibits this," he said.
Additional recent controversies reinforce the popular belief that some church leaders live above the law.
Attempts at religious conversion are well-known examples. In 2004, an Orthodox woman, Wafaa Constantine, said she wished to convert to Islam and went into hiding after the church rejected her petition to divorce her husband, a priest. But state security officers found her and detained her for four days in a house owned by the church. In the end, Constantine said she wanted to remain Christian.
For Muslims, the four-day detention indicated that Constantine was pressured by the church. After her statement, she disappeared to a monastery. Muslims were furious. They blamed the government for handing over to the church an adult woman who had clearly stated she wanted to convert to Islam.
Last August, another woman, Kamelia Shehata, also married to a priest, allegedly wanted to convert to Islam to obtain a divorce. She too disappeared. Following the disappearance,local media highlighted a claim of Orthodox Bishop Bishoy, made in an interview, that Muslims are "guests" in Egypt. (There is a popular Christian belief that only Christians belong in Egypt.)
Pope Shenouda publicly rejected Bishoy's comments. But Egyptian government officials have repeatedly expressed in private their frustrations that the Orthodox Church has become "a state within a state" that flouts the law.
The construction of mosques and churches is another persistent sore spot. In Nag Hammadi, Father Isidorus explains that most of his monastery was built up over the past 30 years by constructing new buildings around 19th-century-era buildings. Many Christians do this to get around highly restrictive state limits on stand-alone new buildings.
But near the entrance of the monastery stands a mosque with a minaret that is taller than the tower of the church. In el-Tur, Sinai, a mosque has been built to rival in size the new church, which had been larger than the area's existing mosques. In Aswan, a cathedral dominates the skyline of the city, where only a few hundred Christians remain. This kind of rivalry among Egypt's Christians and Muslims causes both the state and the church to look weak.
Regardless of how events unfold over the coming weeks and months, unresolved conflicts between Christians and Muslims are working against the kind of democratic change sought by reformers.
After the protests began, the Evangelical Fellowship of Egypt activated its nationwide prayer network, saying their prayers are for "wisdom for all leaders in Egypt—both for the present government and for the future leadership of the country.
"For safety of the young people in Tahrir Square—some of them are Christian, some of them are Muslim. Muslims and Christians are united in their common concern for the welfare of the nation."
Cornelis Hulsman is editor in chief of Arab-West Report. Dale Gavlak is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Additional reporting by Trevor Persaud. Christianity Today has received a grant from John Stott Ministries that supports reporting on international events.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today reported earlier on how Egyptian Christians are joining calls for reform.
CT also has a special section on Egypt.
Bob Kubinec argues that Egypt's Christians will be safer if the Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egypt's government than they were under Mubarak.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more