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Mirette Bahgat

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Coptic Christians in Egypt: Standing at the Crossroads

Posted: 05/06/11 11:59 AM ET

On the morning of January, 28th, 2011 -- the morning of the "Friday of Anger" protests in Egypt -- I was attending Friday mass at the Coptic Orthodox church next to home. I still remember vividly how people at church on that day were praying and pleading due to fear and anxiety over the unstable situation in Egypt. I waited anxiously for the priest to send a clear message through his sermon. I wanted him to tell the people how they should react to what's happening in Egypt now and what role they should play. Instead, he pointed out the role that Christians should not play. In a light tone that doesn't match the seriousness of the topic, he said:

"We Christians have nothing to do with what is happening in the streets these days, ok? Don't tell me we're going to the streets and protesting. I urge every family to take its son and daughter and go directly home, make a nice breakfast and switch on the TV; at least, this is what I'm going to do."

The priest's comment was followed by soft laughter from the audience. I felt outraged.

While walking back from church, I kept thinking over and over about the subtle message underlying the priest's words to Christians, "Do nothing, be passive, and just watch!" In fact, I thought about this very same topic the other day when two of my fellow Egyptians and I reflected on our role in the revolution in Egypt during a panel here in Washington, DC. The group included one Christian (myself), and two Muslims. Yet, when we talk about the challenges we face, it is not as Christian or Muslim, but as Egyptians. Egypt has had a long and complex history when it comes to these two religions, but I believe and I hope that most young Egyptians are starting to realize that we must address these issues in a unified way if we are going to succeed.

Unfortunately, this has not been consistently the case. For years and years, many of the Christians in Egypt have been taking a passive stand on what is happening on the national level. Many, if not the majority, have been confining themselves to an isolated Christian community -- a ghetto. Part of this isolation can be attributed to the special nature of the Coptic Orthodox church institutions in Egypt, which act more like a comprehensive community centre than just a prayer house. Inside the Coptic Church institution, Coptic Christians are raised. In the process, they develop life-long family and friends, learn about God, others and themselves, and practice their social and spiritual life to the full. Even when most Christians choose to do community service, they do it through the church. Another reason for this isolation is the fact that many Coptic Christians in Egypt don't feel comfortable dealing with Muslims and going into deep relationships with them. They prefer to keep those relationships to a minimum, confining them to college or work settings.

It is ironic to think of the fact that even though many Christians had Muslim friends during college years, worked with Muslim colleagues, and exchanged felicitations with Muslims during big events and religious occasions; they usually had the underlying perception that they would never have a sincere and meaningful relationship with a Muslim. It was a relationship built on distrust, which made many Christians interpret any of the negative actions taken by Muslims as purely religious discrimination. I wouldn't argue that there isn't religious discrimination in Egypt against Christians by some Muslims. I would assertively claim that there is also a subtle discrimination in Egypt against Muslims by some Christians. How many Christian business owners prefer to hire Christian workers instead of Muslims claiming that Christians are more trustworthy or claiming that if they didn't hire Christians, who else would?

On January 28th, most of the Coptic Christians in Egypt preferred not to participate in what's happening in their country. They went to churches, prayed to God and then went home to watch their fellow citizens fighting and getting killed to liberate their country. However, gradually the scene started to change. As days passed and protests moved forward, many Christians realized how they have always been an inseparable part of this country, and that much of the oppression and persecution that fell on them was from the corrupt government and not from their fellow Muslim citizens. Specifically, many Christians believe that the ex-Minister of Interior was directly involved in the New Year's Eve church bombings in Alexandria.

Gradually, waves of Christians started flowing to El-Tahrir square and other parts across Egypt to take part in the glorious moments in Egyptian history, and to claim their rights as Egyptian citizens. Who can forget this grand moment when Muslim protesters were praying in El-Tahrir square amid the protests, while Christian protesters surrounded them to protect them from the brutal police attacks? It was a moment where the protesters transcended all the differences among them and remembered what unites them: a quest for freedom.

Now, during the most critical period in Egypt's life, when Egyptian citizens are working hard to ensure Egypt's safe transition to democracy, one asks the question: Where will Coptic Christians be during this period? Are they going back to their isolation? Or, will they realize that if they don't become active members in their country, they might lose their voice and their place in their country as a new day dawns. I continue to believe that it will be the latter, because months ago, many of us wondered if change was ever possible, and now, Egyptians of all walks of lives and religions are starting to believe that anything is possible.