CAIRO — With Egyptian phone and Internet service sporadic since the start of the popular uprising last week, it has been difficult to gauge the situation of Egyptian Christians.
Those who have managed to communicate with the outside world say they are both hopeful that the mass protests will lead to a better, more democratic Egypt — and fearful that Islamists will gain at least partial control of the government.
Though Church leaders have reportedly advised their flocks to steer clear of the mass demonstrations taking place in Cairo and the port city of Alexandria to the north, news reports have shown Christians, crosses dangling from their necks, demonstrating side by side with Muslims.
Christians comprise roughly 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million. The vast majority are Orthodox Copts, who have lived in the land for almost two millennia, but there is also a 250,000-strong Catholic Copt community dating back to the 17th century, when some Copts heeded the call of Catholic missionaries.
There are also small communities of Armenian and Maronite Catholics, as well as Protestants.
The country’s Christians suffer intolerance, discrimination and hatred. Their places of worship are attacked, and they are the object of sectarian violence, Father Justo Lacunza Balda, the former rector of Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, told Catholic News Service.
Many Christians have been murdered in terror attacks by radical Muslims. The most recent occurred New Year’s Day, when a car bomb killed 21 people and injured 80 as they were leaving a New Year’s Mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria.
The attack spurred an angry response from Copts, who clashed with police and attacked a mosque.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton told The Daily Caller, a political journalism website, that the Christian minority could be endangered if President Hosni Mubarak is forced to resign.
While the demonstrators are clamoring for Western-style democracy and equality, Bolton said, the greater likelihood is [that] a radical, tightly-knit organization like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the chaos and seize power.
It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability will follow Mubarak’s fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood, Bolton said.
‘We Share the Same Situation’
In a phone interview with the Register from his office in Cairo, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, said Christians are hoping for the best.
“At the moment, we share the same situation as the entire population. We hope that everything will be peaceful,” Cardinal Naguib said.
Since the start of the uprising, the patriarch said, Egyptians have pulled together to enact change.
“What is really wonderful is the solidarity,” he said. “Every night, Christians and Muslims spend the nights together helping the armed forces keep order.”
Cardinal Naguib said that, until now, the demonstrations have been directed solely toward the government and not the country’s Christian minority.
“We know, first and foremost, that it is God who protects us, but that in daily life, we do. Fortunately, there have been no attacks against any place of worship, Christian or Muslim, nothing aimed at destroying the churches or the mosques. We hope it will always be like this,” the cardinal said.
The patriarch said that, like all Egyptian schools, his community’s 170 schools have been closed since the uprising to ensure the safety of teachers and parents.
“The majority of businesses and offices are not operating, so the parents are at home too,” Cardinal Naguib said.
Despite the turmoil, church services are going on as usual, the patriarch added.
“Mass was celebrated in all our churches on Sunday. Fewer people than usual came, but there were enough,” he said, explaining that the security services have asked nonessential personnel to travel as little as possible. People also preferred to stay close to home because the government has limited phone and Internet access and communicating can be difficult.
Asked what Christians outside Egypt can do to help their Egyptian brethren, Cardinal Naguib responded, “Pray for the peace in Egypt and all other countries where there are difficulties.”
The Muslim Brotherhood
The patriarch also urged Christians to take their news from reliable sources. He said that some media outlets have contributed to the tensions.
Miral Eid, an Orthodox Copt who works in a travel agency in Cairo, agreed that the Christian community has not suffered any ill effects from the uprising.
“I did not participate in the demonstrations, as I have two young children,” she said. “I would have loved to take part in the peaceful demonstrations that took place on Tuesday and Friday.”
Eid said that Copts in Egypt want the changes that have been called upon in the demonstrations: “Everyone was chanting out for the same thing.”
The young mother confirmed that Christians are extremely fearful that the Muslim Brotherhood will gain strength, because it would be a disaster not only to Christians, but to Egypt as a whole.
“I love my country, and I want to see it excel in the right direction,” she said. “The Muslim Brotherhood, with all due respect, has a set agenda that I see will bring Egypt backwards hundreds of years.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.