AOL News has a new home! The Huffington Post.

Click here to visit the new home of AOL News!

Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories
World

What Do Egypt's Christians Think?

Feb 7, 2011 – 7:47 AM
Text Size
Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

Egypt's Coptic Christians are divided over whether to back beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak, whose secular government gave them certain protections but whose iron-fisted rule left them as broke and powerless as their Muslim neighbors.

Many Christians have flung themselves into street protests calling for Mubarak's ouster, saying new freedoms would be worth the risk that Muslim factions might eventually take power and deliver blows to the rights of religious minorities.

For 30 years, Mubarak kept his government mostly secular, banning the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and preventing the nation's majority Muslims from writing their religious values into Egypt's laws. But his authoritarian regime left Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, just as poor and victimized as the rest of Egypt's 80 million people. They have also faced attacks and discrimination under Mubarak's rule, and many of them have begun wondering whether the Egyptian president has benefited them at all.
What Do Egypt's Christians Think?
Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images
Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and a Koran Sunday in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the 13th day of protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

Egypt's Copts are the Middle East's largest Christian community and trace their heritage back to Roman times, when Christianity dominated the region in the fourth through sixth centuries. Egypt is dotted with ancient Christian ruins and monasteries, like those of Saints Anthony and Paul, left over from that era.

Scenes like those in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday -- where Christians and Muslims held hands in joint prayer, and Muslims formed a human chain around a group of Christians holding a open-air service -- might have seemed impossible just a month ago. On New Year's Day, an apparent suicide bomber killed more than 20 worshippers at a Coptic church in Alexandria. The attack was blamed on Muslim extremists suspected of having infiltrated Egypt from abroad, or at least with help from Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere. It left Egypt's Christians in mourning, and skittish about what the attack meant for relations with their Muslim countrymen.

But the street protests seem to have united Egypt's masses, Christian and Muslim alike, in their opposition to Mubarak.

"It's good to see Muslims and Christians in the same place with the same goal," Tamara Scander, a Coptic high school student, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in Tahrir Square. She was with her best friend, a Muslim classmate. "We all want the same thing," she said.

At one point Sunday, a Coptic priest led prayers among the faithful gathered in Tahrir, and Muslims joined in. Addressing Mubarak, the priest called out, "Our churches were attacked when you were in power.

"Now that there are no police in the street and we have revolution, our churches are safe, our people are safe," the priest said, according to The Irish Times.

But as the euphoria of the protests dies down slowly and some semblance of normal life returns to Egypt this week, some Christians are voicing fears about what's next. Egypt's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, held talks with select opposition leaders on Sunday, including representatives of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. Some Christians fear the Brotherhood's influence. In the past, the Brotherhood has said that if it were to rule Egypt, it would impose certain Muslim rules on the country, including one that would require Egypt's president to be a Muslim. That scares some Copts, wary of discrimination.

"We are afraid these people will take the authority of Egypt and damage the rights of women, the rights of Christians," Marianne, a 25-year-old doctor who refused to give her full name, told Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. "I am all for greater democracy, but what if concessions mean the Brotherhood takes over?"

That fear has led some Copts to back Mubarak. The official head of Egypt's Christians, Pope Shenouda III, also backed Mubarak in the early days of the street protests, encouraging his faithful to follow suit in order to "safeguard the security and stability of the country," state TV reported.

And conspiracy theories abound. Even though Egypt's 14-day popular uprising appears to be mostly leaderless -- fueled by angry, unemployed youth rather than organized by special interest groups -- some local Christian leaders see the hand of the Brotherhood secretly at work.

"Though some of the primary opposition leaders in this revolt appear to be modern secular reformers, church leaders believe the main engine fueling and organizing the demonstrators is the Muslim Brotherhood," Issam Bishara, an Egyptian representative of the Pontifical Mission, a Catholic aid group with ties to the Vatican, wrote in a Feb. 3 report to Catholic officials. "They fear that the Brotherhood intends to seize power through future elections, compromising all patriotic and ideological parties participating in the protests."

That Egypt's Christians are joining the protest movement at the same time some of their leaders are still supporting Mubarak shows how divided the country's Christians are. It would be a mistake to think that just because Copts share a common faith they also share the same politics, Maha Azzam, an Egyptian political scientist at London's Chatham House think tank, told AOL News.

"They're a cross section of society, just like Muslims. You have among them an elite that's educated and Westernized, but you also have many in Upper [southern] Egypt that are poor like other Egyptians," Azzam said. "They're a reflection of the society in which they live."

Azzam said most of Egypt's citizens would like to see Mubarak gone, and that's probably true of the country's Christians as well, despite their pope's stance.

"The official position [of Shenouda] doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. What we've seen in Tahrir is a coming together of Muslims and Copts in opposition to the regime, to bring down Mubarak," she said. Azzam credited the Muslim Brotherhood for taking care not to alienate Christians during this time of national upheaval.

Sponsored Links
"The Brotherhood has reiterated time and again that this protest isn't Islamic, it's all Egyptians against the regime. This has done much to calm fears among all sectors, including the Copts," she said. "There's a general consensus across all social divisions that the goal is regime change. Especially after the attack on the church [on New Year], it says a lot about how both Muslims and Copts did not want this attempt at sectarian division."

It's unclear what will happen in the coming days, as Suleiman continues talks with opposition leaders and protesters continue to camp out in Tahrir Square. Some of those demonstrators are from the Coptic Youth Movement, which has complained about being excluded from opposition talks.

"Things are moving so fast, and nobody knows what to expect next -- everything is up in the air," Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub told the website Christian News Today. "Copts are desperate that an Islamic outcome should be avoided." But he added that he believes his fellow believers "all say yes to change."
Filed under: World, Religion, Arab World Unrest
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


2011 AOL Inc. All Rights Reserved.

ON FACEBOOK