Whither Egypt?

Mubarak has resigned. Now what? What do the historic events of February 2011 mean for the Christian community of Egypt?

CAIRO — Egyptian Christians and their friends abroad are anxiously waiting to see whether the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime will benefit them or harm them.

Comprising roughly 10% of Egypt’s 84 million citizens, many Christians — the community includes an estimated 250,000 Catholic Copts — actively took part in the demonstrations that ultimately led to the ouster of the longtime Egyptian leader.

Now that Mubarak is gone, it remains to be seen what kind of government will be formed in the coming months, and whether, as some predict, Islamic political parties will play a larger role in the future.

Christian leaders in Egypt say they are both hopeful and anxious about their communities’ future.

“I am both, but I would say the predominant feeling is one of hope,” Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the papal nuncio to Egypt, said in an interview from Cairo. Archbishop Fitzgerald said there has been “great solidarity” between Christians and Muslims since the beginning of the demonstrations. “I hope this will continue in the ‘New Egypt.’ Of course, a certain amount of uncertainty remains.”

While all Egyptians are facing uncertainty at a time when the military is running the country prior to yet-to-be scheduled national elections, minorities are potentially more vulnerable, analysts say.

As recently as New Year’s Day, when a bomb killed several worshippers leaving a Coptic church, Christians have been the target of terror attacks and have been abducted and interrogated by people reported to be members of Egypt’s brutal security services.  

“From conversations we’ve had with co-workers and associates, we know the churches are rejoicing in this opportunity for a ‘New Egypt.’ They are, however, realistic,” said Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, a nondenominational organization that serves persecuted Christians around the world.

Christians, Moeller said, “may be called upon to walk in ways of faith they might not have walked before,” referring to pressure they may experience from the Muslim majority.

Moeller quoted from a Pew Foundation survey which found that 84% of Egyptians surveyed support the public execution of Muslims who convert to another faith.

“These are the underlying attitudes toward converts to Christianity, and it is sobering for us,” Moeller said.  “Democracy is in the hands of people who have different ideas of what constitutes religious liberty than those of us in the West.”

Much to Offer

Sameh Maurice, pastor of the Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo, expressed hope that the revolution will put an end to the kidnappings and beatings carried out against members of Egypt’s 600,000-strong evangelical community by the country’s internal security forces.  

“We Christians, and especially evangelicals, have been treated harshly by the secret police. Some of us have been kidnapped, and Muslim converts to Christianity have been badly beaten by the secret police,” Maurice said.

The huge Kasr El Dobara church, which can seat 7,000 people, has not been targeted, the pastor said, noting that it is located right on the square where Cairo’s demonstrators congregated for 18 days.

“It is protected,” Maurice noted.

Maurice said he is “very happy” that the revolution took place — and called it “a great step for real freedom of speech, for real democracy and, I hope, for religious freedom.”

Church members, he said, “celebrated the victory as a kind of liberation.”

Speaking from Rome, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor of Oriental Christian Theology and Islamic Studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, was also guardedly optimistic about the future of Egypt’s Christians.

Father Samir, a Cairo native, urged Egypt’s Christians not to separate themselves from mainstream society due to fears of violence and discrimination.

“I think we’ve become a closed group to defend ourselves,” he said, referring to recent terror attacks. He advised community members “to join other people without looking at who is a Christian and who is a Muslim.”

Egypt, said Father Samir, is in desperate need of reform, and Christians have as much of a right and obligation to bring about these reforms as other citizens: “About 40% of the people live in poverty, and the level of education in the country is very, very low.”

Christians, whose excellent schools attract Muslim as well as Christian students, “can be leaders in this effort,” Maurice said.

But first, Father Samir said, Christians need to enter all facets of mainstream Egyptian life.

“Because of the [terror] attacks, we have created a sort of ghetto,” he said. “I understand, but we have a lot to give our country. We need to take an even more active role in society.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.

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