News / Middle East

Egypt's Christians and Muslims Face Unity and Tensions

Egyptian Coptic priests pray during Christmas mass at Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo (file photo)
Egyptian Coptic priests pray during Christmas mass at Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo (file photo)


As Egyptians shape their political destiny, there are questions about whether the Christian-Muslim unity seen during the popular uprising will hold.  

On this Sunday morning, Christians attend mass in Egypt's Coptic Cairo neighborhood, where they have worshipped since pre-Islamic times.  Egypt's Coptic community is the largest Christian population in the Arab world, as Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 82 million people.  

St. Mark the apostle introduced Christianity to Egypt 2,000 years ago.  And, in this modern time of political uncertainty, Egypt's Christians say they trust in their ancient faith.

Fouad Botros Mikhael is a Coptic Christian.

"I feel God protects us," he said. "We are here now in problems, but we trust in God.  He will be with us and help us."

Christians and Muslims banded together in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the popular uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak.  

At times, they held Qurans and crosses aloft, and some carried banners and chanted, "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian."

An advisor at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Nabil Abdel Fattah, reflects on the unity he saw in the protests.

"I think this is a new spirit," he said. "It is very important.  It is very, very, very important."

A new spirit might be needed, given long-standing complaints of discrimination against Christians.  Earlier this month, Muslims burned down a church in a Cairo suburb, prompting more than 1,000 Christians to protest in the capital.  Sectarian clashes ensued, and seven Copts were killed.  On New Year's Eve, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 people at a church in Alexandria.

Under Mubarak, Christians were often excluded from positions of authority and influence.  They held fewer than two percent of seats in the recently disbanded parliament.  They continue to face restrictions when they want to build or fix churches, and Islamic law remains Egypt's main source of legislation.

American University in Cairo Political Science Professor Samer Soliman foresees greater opportunities ahead for Christians.

"During Mubarak's time, it was very difficult," he said. "I mean here, discrimination coming from the state and from the conservative side of the Muslims.  So I do not expect that it will be more difficult."

A Coptic priest says political reform is important, but not enough.  

He says people continue to be governed by their culture and tend to deal with each other as Muslims or Christians.  That, he says, is not good.    

Christians and Muslims alike in Coptic Cairo on this Sunday morning dismissed talk of religious tensions.  Yasser Maghdi is a tour guide:

"I am Muslim, and I have many friends [who are] Coptic," he said. "You are Christian and they are Muslim.  So, we have to respect each other."    

Fattah, of the Al-Ahram Center, says there is room for greater political inclusivity in the post-Mubarak age.  

"It means new political parties, he said. "It means a new social and political movement.  It means movement for citizenship together - Christians and Muslims."

At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and most organized political opposition group in Egypt.  It was suppressed under the former government, but it fielded candidates as independents.  

Former leaders of the Brotherhood are among the heroes of militant Islam, but the current Egyptian party renounced violence as a political tool in the 1970s.  Analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to gain strength.  

Fattah says concerns the Muslim Brotherhood might dominate politics are overstated.

American University's Soliman notes that there is no such thing as a Coptic or Christian political bloc.  He says he thinks Christians likely will align themselves with liberal political groups.

"We are hoping that in the future, after the end of the marginalization, after the end of the Mubarak regime, that democracy can open the space for many political movements to work," he said.

Egyptians who spoke to VOA, Christian and Muslim alike, said their goal in this post-Mubarak age is to advance a democratic society, not their religion.

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