My Take: Why Egypt's Christians are hopeful but nervous
Crosses and Qurans were raised in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this week.
February 10th, 2011
11:05 AM ET

My Take: Why Egypt's Christians are hopeful but nervous

Editor's Note: Ashley Makar is a graduate student at Yale Divinity School and co-editor of Killing the Buddha.

By Ashley Makar, Special to CNN

Photos from Cairo show triumphant hands in the air - some raising up Coptic Christian crosses, others holding up Qurans.

Egyptian Christians and Muslims gathered together this week to pray for those who’ve died in the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Muslims formed a protective circle around Christians as they prayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Monday, just as Christian protesters had done for Muslims during last Friday’s prayers.

As the daughter of a Coptic-American immigrant to the United States, I’m astonished by such sights. In the many summers I’ve spent between Cairo and Alexandria, I’ve never seen Christian prayers in a public square. I’ve never seen a cross anywhere near a Quran.

Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic, a group of orthodox Christians who trace their lineage to St. Mark, the apostle who evangelized Alexandria in the first century. The majority of Egyptians were Coptic by the seventh century, when Arab Muslims brought Islam to Egypt.

Today, Copts constitute around 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt have been contentious, particularly in recent months. On New Year’s Eve, 23 Copts died in a church bombing in Alexandria. On New Year’s Day, Coptic protesters threw stones at a nearby mosque, clashing with local Muslims and riot police.

The Egyptian government blames the Alexandria church bombing on a foreign terrorist group linked to al Qaeda. The government continues to investigate the bombing.

But from Washington to Cairo, Copts are venting doubts about the integrity of the probe. It’s the talk of the Coptic town.

And it's one reason for a new solidarity between Egyptian Christians and Muslims.

Copts can’t trust the government to protect them. Some discern a pattern of Mubarak provoking Muslim-Christian strife to distract Egyptians from government corruption. When militant Islamists become scapegoats for violence, the Mubarak regime gains brownie points from U.S. supporters for helping the fight against terrorism.

At the same time, Copts really do feel vulnerable to Islamist attacks. Coptic churches received threatening letters not long before the Alexandria church bombing. Simply put, Copts don’t know who to trust.

Too often, I’ve seen that feeling of vulnerability morph into anti-Islamic sentiment. I’ve often found myself defending Muslims in conversations with Coptic-Americans.

It’s true that Copts have long been persecuted in Egypt, often at Muslim hands. Some Egyptian Christians have been killed by Muslims in recent years.

But I haven’t seen the Coptic Church do much in the way of reconciliation. I’m grateful for my Coptic heritage, especially for the beautiful litanies - ancient Coptic prayers - that I often recite on my own. But I can’t wholeheartedly be part of a church whose theology is too orthodox to engage in interfaith dialogue.

Many Copts are ambivalent about the uprising against the Mubarak regime. Though the official church remains silent on the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, Copts have participated in large numbers.

Egyptian Christians are excited and afraid: Excited to rally with the secular youth who began the anti-Mubarak demonstrations, largely through Facebook and Twitter. Afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will swoop in and take the reigns.

Excited at the prospect of a democratic Egypt. Afraid that free and fair elections could turn into Islamist rule.

Until this month, Copts have tended to prefer the repressive stability of the Mubarak regime over radical change that may put Islamists in power. As my dad’s Coptic-American friends say, the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that real change is happening in Egypt, that the solidarity between Muslims and Christians, between urban elites and rural farmers, and between computer-savvy youth and illiterate workers - is sustainable.

My dad left Egypt decades ago and settled in Birmingham, Alabama, where he has a small Coptic church community and invites Egyptian friends over for dinner - Christians and Muslims alike.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ashley Makar.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Africa • Egypt • Foreign policy • Interfaith issues • Opinion

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  4. عبد اللة

    اتحدث الان عن المسيحية فى مصر فااقول ان مصر بلد عربية ولاسلام دينها منذ اكثر من1400 عام وان الديانة الاسلامية هى خاتمة الاديان على الارض وان الديانة المسيحية من الديانات المنسوخة وان الاخوان المسيحيين بىمصر يجب ان يعودوا الى رشدهم ويدخلوا فى الاسلام لانهم فى بلد عربى مسلم وديننا اتى بلسان عربى يجب ان نعتز بة وان ندين بة وننبذ ما سواة حتى نقابل ربنا يوم القيامة ونحن على دين الاسلام اما المسحية والكنائس المسيحية فا نها لم توضع الا للغرب اللذين ياتون بشكل مؤقت لاداء بعض الاعمال اوللسياحة المؤقتة -افهموا يا اخوان ياعرب يامصريين يامسلمين هذا مااردت ايصالة لكم وكل شخص دينة لة وسوف يحاسب علية يوم القيامة ويجب التعامل مع الاخرين با النصح والارشادوالمجادلة با اللتى هى احسن كما قال اللة عز وجل فى كتابة العزيز -ادع الى سبيل ربك با الحكمة والموعظة الحسنة وجادلهم با اللتى هى احسن – وبااللة التوفيق00

    May 16, 2011 at 2:19 am |
  5. cking


    March 7, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  6. samy

    Help the Christians in Egypt. currently they're under persecution. Today 3/06/2011 another church was destroyed by Moslem's
    Thousands of Christean in that village escaped their homes. Please help.....

    March 6, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  7. Ray Simard

    A note for the author: the expression you meant is "take the reins," meaning to take control of something, an analogy for taking control of horses, not "take the reigns."

    February 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  8. Muneef

    Al-Isra sura 17:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    And say: My Lord! Cause me to come in with a firm incoming and to go out with a firm outgoing. And give me from Thy presence a sustaining Power. (80) And say: Truth hath come and falsehood hath vanished away. Lo! falsehood is ever bound to vanish. (81) And We reveal of the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy for believers though it increase the evil-doers in naught save ruin. (82) And when We make life pleasant unto man, he turneth away and is averse; and when ill toucheth him he is in despair. (83) Say: Each one doth according to his rule of conduct, and thy Lord is best aware of him whose way is right. (84).

    February 14, 2011 at 6:17 am |
  9. Muneef

    Al-Baqara sura 02:
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Alif. Lam. Mim. (1) This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil). (2) Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them; (3) And who believe in that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter. (4) These depend on guidance from their Lord. These are the successful. (5) As for the Disbelievers, Whether thou warn them or thou warn them not it is all one for them; they believe not. (6) Allah hath sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom. (7).

    February 14, 2011 at 6:07 am |
  10. Chantal

    Egypt is living a new era – A era of joy and harmony and peace to the all nation – A beautiful future is waiting for them – this is my prayer for each one of them.

    February 13, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  11. Dwayne

    I think the solution is in the Qur'an itself which believes in the "True" Torah of Moses and Gospel of Isa (Jesus). True Muslims are faith-bound to believe what can be discerned as authentic Torah and Gospel teaching from the "people of the Book". When you break everything down, a person can't be a fully-faithful, orthodox Muslim without obeying God's Messenger and Prophet, Jesus/Isa's teaching about "loving the neighbor as oneself", a commandment from found in the Torah (Specifically Deut. 6:4-6 and Lev. 19:9-18).

    If Muslims (and Christians, for that matter) would be more consistent on this point, we'd see a lot more possibility for lasting, peaceful change.

    February 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  12. A. Charlan

    How are the Copts supposed to promote interfaith dialogue when the are forced into the slums and the only job they can find is being a garbage man. When are we going to wake up to the fact that Islam and Democracy DO NOT mix? Over 75% of egyptians want Sharia law. There is NO room for the Copts under Sharia law. They will all be forced out or slaughtered. Mubarek is a dirtbag, and America has dirt on its hands for supporting him for so long, but his replacement could and likely will be 10 times worse.

    February 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Patrick

      Is that why the richest family in Egypt (Sawiris) is Coptic? Do you think they live in slums?

      February 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  13. Sharehouse Jakarta

    as an American in Indonesia I wouldn't be surprised to see a cross, a koran, or people praying inside or outside a Mosque or church. That's Jakarta. Not far outside the capital Ahmadiyah Muslims are brutally murdered by mainstream Muslims for being Ahmadiya, as police stand by. I'm told that Sarcozy and Merkel believe that multiculturalism has failed. And Sarcozy won't have anyone praying in the street in an "ostentatious" manner. But I don't understand it. Religion may be mildly unhealthy or dangerous. But so is alcohol. People won't stop being who they are. We can't kill each other.

    February 12, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  14. chris

    I have an Egyptian Christian friend who was given political asylum because she was clearly persecuted and a US judge agreed.

    I am told that the Coptic community, those who are immigrants, are afraid. I don't know what the outcome will be but I can tell you that if my friend, who has been arrested and harrassed in Egypt, is afraid then I have to consider that, instead of what the media tells me.

    February 11, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  15. norma

    This is a thought-provoking article, but why was it listed under "Living and Eatocracy" instead of Political or Opinion sections? Perhaps Copts may be forgiven if they perceive the West as trivializing or ignoring them. In any event, it seems the Egyptians have traded a so-called secular government for a probable military dictatorship, so why all the glee? (Of course, past 'civilian' presidents, including the truly great Nasser and his protege, Anwar Sadat, started out as military officers and later donned expensive tailored suits to market themselves as civilians, yet it was the military that kept them in power; to lose military support was fatal, as Sadat learned.) Living near Egypt and visiting it frequently, I developed a fondness and respect for the Egyptians, whose culture is considered the core Arabic (as differentiated from Islamic) culture throughout the Arab World. Given the Egyptians' history of domination by foreign interests, 'strong men' and corrupt dynastic regimes from the Pharoahs forward, I am not so optimistic as most correspondents that Egypt will achieve a meaningful democracy or republic, but I would be very glad to be proved wrong. Go, Egypt!

    February 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  16. Nabil

    I couln't have said it better myself! I also am a Copt who has lived in the US all my life, finding myself at odds with the voices of those Copts who speak as if all muslims are one and against all Christians. The only long term solution is to engage and understand - not support oppressive governments. The enemy of your enemy is not your friend - True friendship only comes through mutual and genuine communication, engagement and respect.

    February 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  17. tedon

    Except for Israel, Christians are not truly safe in any muslim country.

    February 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Joe

      I think there are tolerant areas in say Turkey, Indonesia etc. The average Muslim and the average Christian or Jew just want to live their lives in peace, working and worshiping in freedom. It's the radicals (even non-religious ones) that mess up the world. Just like with all criminals, one bad person in a thousand can do a lot of damage.

      February 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Lynn

      Except if they are Palestinian Christians.

      February 11, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      tedon..humanity is not safe from any religion... in any part of the world.

      February 12, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • Sherri

      You sure have that right! In most Muslim countries Christian churches are bombed and the people killed. All the time. I don't expect to see much change in Egypt. By the way, Google "takeover of America" + Muslim and see what they have planned for the U.S. And then get the video The Third Jihad and hear them say what they want for U.S. and the world.

      February 15, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  18. john

    I see that Mubarak just resigned. We will see what comes next. I don't think it will be so good in the end. I pray I am wrong.

    February 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  19. Nonimus

    Mubarak resigns, protesters chant, "Egypt is free!"

    Best wishes for all peace-loving Egyptian!

    February 11, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  20. MP

    "But I haven’t seen the Coptic Church do much in the way of reconciliation." If you are a 90 pound freshman in High School, and a 300 pound senior beats you up, do you criticize the freshman for not trying to reconcile? This is a ridiculous statement against a minority group living in a very hostile environment.

    February 11, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Reality

      Two cures for the situation:--

      Saving Muslims and Christians is quite easy!!!

      Muslims believe in the existence of angels.

      A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

      i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam

      And to put a final nail into Christianity:

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      "Heaven is a Spirit state" as per JPII and Aquinas i.e. there can be no bodies. i.e. there was and never will be any physical resurrection/ascension of human bodies."

      And is it not ironical that JPII along with Aquinas are the ones who put finality to the words "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless."

      February 11, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Rob

      In the US, the 300-pound senior was the white majority, beating up on black second-class citizens, and sometimes resorting to bullets and dynamite. Which was most effective at changing the bully, the armed Black Panther movement or nonviolent resistance typified by MLK?

      If you're suggesting that the Copts should just sit tight and resent the Muslim majority, I have trouble seeing how that helps. This turning point in Egyptian history is an opportunity for each side to stop dehumanizing the other — and to live up to the standards of their religions.

      February 11, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • rabidmob

      @Reality: So then these groups, without their morale compasses to guide them decide it's perfectly acceptable to slaughter one another for a crumb of bread. After all, if my actions are not later judged then it's perfectly logical, in fact natural to do whatever it takes to have the biggest advantage possible.

      February 22, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • bob

      No offense, "Reality" of the "Two cures for the situation", but what ARE you on about? You've neither responded to MP, nor made any sense.

      I do understand Copts' retiscence to fully embrace the freedom that Egypt's people have fought for and won. Gaza informed us without question that freedom or democracy doesn't automatically equate to liberalism and everything else that we in the West take for granted. I do have a great deal more faith in the Egyptians, and Christian and Muslim protesters supporting eachother is great encouragement. May God bless Egypt with peace.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.