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Egypt's Christians Look Ahead after Religious Violence

  • Elizabeth Arrott

The latest spasm of religious violence in Egypt is raising some concern about the fate of the approximately eight million Christians in the Islamist-led nation.

A few months ago, Cairo's Saint Mark's Cathedral was a place of joy - as Christians welcomed a new Coptic pope.

Now the streets outside the main Coptic Church in Egypt are scattered with rubble, the remains of deadly fighting between those in the church and angry Muslims outside.

This latest bout of religious violence has prompted some Christians to consider the relative calm of the past -- before the revolution and the rise of Islamist politicians.

A Coptic man near the cathedral grounds says this type of thing has never happened before, nor has the country ever reached this state of affairs. It will hurt not only Christians and Muslims, but the nation as a whole. "This is wrong," he says. "We are one people and one country."

Analysts say a tradition of tolerance is eroding as security diminishes, the economy tumbles and conservative strains of Islam gain strength.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of the weekly Watani newspaper, is an advocate for Coptic rights. “This worries very much not only the Christians of Egypt, but also a good percentage of the Muslims of Egypt, whom I describe as moderate Muslims,” he said.

Political analyst Hisham Kassem says many Egyptians are beginning to take a stand. ”There is more frustration with extremism. The people are beginning to see how unnecessary it is, okay, that it does not improve their life in any way. In fact, it takes it to the opposite direction," he noted. "But, right now, there is only one solution in the short term, which is the firm application of the law."

Many feel the government has failed to do just that. Coptic Pope Tawadros criticized President Mohamed Morsi Tuesday for favoring promises over action.

Editor Sidhom says the fear that the government cannot, or will not, protect Christians has prompted some to consider drastic action of their own. “Of course, there are those who express their worries and concerns about tomorrow," Sidhom stated. "And, they do not hide their desire to leave Egypt if they can.”

Hisham Kassem says such thoughts recall the flight of another religious minority, in the 1950s and '60s. “There is a movie played in Cairo cinemas called On the Jews of Egypt, and it’s about the Jews who were forced to leave. And there is that fear now - people just don’t want the day to come when there is a movie called On the Christians of Egypt," he said.

Numbers may be on the Christians' side. In a country with some eight million Christians, analysts say Egypt has no choice but to confront the problem and find a remedy.

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