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Christians in Egypt tread carefully after hope turns to fear following Arab Spring

A little more than a year ago, as the Arab Spring swept through North Africa, people in the region began experiencing a taste of freedom.

That was certainly true in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, where Egyptian Muslims and Christians celebrated the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for more than 30 years.

But for Christians in Egypt, the elation didn’t last long. “I thought that after the revolution we would get all our rights back, but that wasn’t true,” said pharmacist Michael Eid, 28, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, as he sat in the courtyard of a church in a bustling part of downtown Cairo.

“Christians are still considered second-class citizens in Egypt.”

Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Arab World, about 10 percent of the nation’s 85 million people. And most Egyptian Christians are Coptic Orthodox. But the Christian community is a minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and its relations with Muslims remain strained, even after the Arab Spring.

While you see churches in many places around Cairo, there is almost always a minaret right in front of the church or right around the corner. The great majority of women you see on the street are wearing the headscarf -- something that has increased in recent decades. If a woman does not wear it, it’s a sign she’s probably a Christian or a moderate Muslim; in either case, she is in the minority.

Christianity has a long history in Egypt, dating back to the Apostle St. Mark, who is believed to have brought the Gospel to Alexandria in the 1st century.

“Egyptian Christians have history in mind, and it’s a history full of hardship, suffering and even bloodshed,” says Bishop Mouneer H. Anis, the Anglican Bishop in Cairo.

Anis, who presides over a small but thriving Anglican community, said that every time he goes to Alexandria, he feels the witness of St. Mark and other Christian martyrs. “Without the blood of the early Christians, we would not be Christians today,” he said.

Christian suffering in Egypt is not just the stuff of history books. More than two dozen Christians died during a demonstration at Maspero, in downtown Egypt, just last year, many of them run over by Army trucks. Anis recalled that he went to the funeral of the Maspero victims and saw how people were mourning as each coffin was brought out of the church. But he said they also clapped, and “You don’t clap except for a hero.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, which Mubarak had kept under tight control, has now won more than 40 percent of the seats in Parliament, and the more radical Salafists have won 25 percent; together, the groups have an absolute majority.

The rest of Parliament consists mostly of moderate Muslims and their Christian allies.

What does that mean for Christians? The answer is not yet clear, though they hope the Muslim Brotherhood will allow for some protection of minorities when a new constitution is written.

Anis said the Muslim Brotherhood might learn from Hamas in the Gaza Strip and not follow its example of radical Islam, which has ostracized it. He said the Muslim Brotherhood will get recognition from the international community if it protects minorities and emphasizes high standards of education for young people.

Poverty and illiteracy are two of the biggest problems in Egypt, and they both play a role in fostering religious conflict.

“This is the greatest sin of Hosni Mubarak,” said Father Antoine Rafic Greiche, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt. “He kept the people illiterate for 30 years.”

Anis admitted that life for Christians is getting more difficult now, with more churches being burned and demolished. “That never happened under Mubarak -- although it was not easy under Mubarak,” he said.

And yet, even under Mubarak, there were some serious incidents, with Christians being thrown in prison or even killed for religious reasons.

“The truth is that if a Muslim kills a Christian, nothing ever happens,” complained Adel Abd El Malek Ghali, a doctor who helps out at the Salam Center, a hospital, school and home for seniors on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Salam Center, run by the Daughters of St. Mary, an order of Coptic Orthodox nuns, is located very close to a Cairo dump. Most of the city’s garbage collectors are Christians.

The center is an oasis in the middle of an extremely poor neighborhood; some 19 nuns cater to both Christians and Muslims in an impoverished but peaceful setting.

Sister Maria, the head of the convent, who, like all of the nuns, proudly wears her habit, acknowledged that recent developments in Muslim-Christian relations have scared her.

“Things all looked good during the revolution, but now you’re seeing a lot of attacks on Christians,” she said. “It’s a bit worrisome.”

But Ghali displayed a joyful disposition as he gave a tour of the classrooms and clinics at the Salam Center, and he stressed that “despite everything,” Christians should be calm. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be persecution,” he said, “but we shouldn’t be afraid.”

On the surface, relations between Muslims and Christians can look pretty good in Egypt. You see a flourishing school for girls of all faiths, for example, in the Heliopolis section of Cairo. It’s run by Catholic nuns.

But according to Father Rafic Greiche, the parish priest next door, one of the nuns was attacked not long ago while returning home after a class at the university.

He said two men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled the habit off the nun’s head and demanded she say, “Muhammad is the Prophet.” Then they cut her face with a razor. The men took her bag, but it was discarded near the convent a few days later with everything still inside, a message that this was not a robbery.

“As a priest I should not be scared, but we are a little scared,” Greiche said.

The Christian population in Egypt may be small, but it’s determined. People don’t try to hide their faith; in fact, many men and women have crosses tattooed on their wrists.

“Humanly speaking, we don’t have a great future,” said Catholic Coptic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina. “But there have been worse times for Christians in Egypt, and Christians are still here. This could be a moment of purification.”

Aziz Mina recalled that the uprising in Egypt initially made him quite optimistic about the future of the country, but that didn’t last long.

“We Christians have not gained a thing,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s going to end.”

He said whenever a church gets burned or destroyed, the army helps repair it, but that no culprit is ever found.

“We’re ready to pay for the church to be repaired, but we want the guilty parties found and tried,” he said.

Aziz Mina referred to a recent incident in which six Christian families were forced out of a village after reports of an illicit relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim girl.

“Where’s the law?” the bishop asked. “If today they kick us out of a village, eventually they’ll kick us out of the country.”

Christians in Egypt hope that the Arab Spring will lead to a springtime for both Muslims and Christians, allowing them to live in peace and mutual respect.

But there is no guarantee that will happen in Egypt, and some feel it probably won’t.

“As an Egyptian Christian, I feel that hardship and suffering are part of the package,” Anis said.

“If you are a Christian, there will be a price to pay.”