Coptic Christians and Mubarak

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Tens of thousands of protesters continue take to Egypt's streets to demand a new government.

Their calls have been heeded by politicians and expat groups in cities across the world.

30-year dictator Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently bowed in part to demands and said he won't run for office in September, but demands for his immediate ouster haven't slowed.

At a small congregation of Coptic Christians near Fort Lauderdale, FL, members of an ancient Orthodox branch of Christianity have fasted this week to ask for the opposite: a slow, gradual transition that keeps the Christian-friendly Mubarak on top for as long as possible and keeps potentially unfriendly Islamists away.

Nadia Guirguis left Egypt 15 years ago for the same reasons her countrymen are taking to the streets today: she wanted a chance at better jobs, more freedoms and a better life.
Reluctant supporters

But as violent demonstrations rage in her homeland, the Coptic Christian has become a reluctant supporter of the widely-disliked Mubarak. She said the secular leader has pursued Islamist extremists during his reign and has been a friendly to Christians.

"You know, he was okay, not perfect, he was okay," Guirguis said. "But you know, now we say he was better than – You don't know what's going on after, it's a mirage for us. If you take my opinion, I wish we could let him stay forever until he died because we are very scared of these Muslim fanatic people."

That fear of fanaticism is the main reason that Coptic Christians make up a disproportionate amount of the nearly quarter million Egyptians now in the US.

In Egypt, Copts are routinely denied jobs. In recent years, they have been shot at during religious ceremonies.

This New Year's Day, extremists bombed a church in Alexandria, killing dozens.

Guirguis is part of a congregation of about 200 Copts in the Miami suburbs who have been meeting twice a day this week to pray for peace and the safety of Mubarak.

"Kýrie, eléison, kýrie, eléison, Lord have mercy, oh Lord," they sang at a recent service, reciting an ancient Greek prayer.

Guirguis and many of her fellow church goers fear that Islamists could take over the Egyptian government and that could be disastrous for the country's 8 million Copts.

"I believe the Islamists were behind the terrors that have happened and it's changing it from a peaceful protest into a riot," said Rev. Timotheus Soliman, who has led St. John the Baptist for a decade. "And that's what we're afraid of is that it will be turned into another Iran. And the world does not need another Iran at the moment."

Copts haven't been completely absent from rallies in Egypt calling for regime change, but the church's leadership in Egypt and abroad has avoided criticizing the president.
Pope Shenouda III supports Mubarak

In Egypt, the church's head, Pope Shenouda III, gave his support to Mubarak in an interview with state television this week.

The protests that erupted late last month began with a secular and peaceful tone, but quickly have become defined by violent clashes between anti and pro-government forces.

The Muslim Brotherhood has become one of the public faces of the opposition and is expected to play a role in a new government.

The political and religiously conservative group has long wanted to turn Egypt into an Islamic state and, though it long ago denounced violence, the Copts and other religious minorities fear its Islamic bent could fuel persecution against minorities.

Safwat Eskandar readily admits that Copts and Egyptians as a whole have suffered under Mubarak. And he says even if Islamists don't run Egypt, other alternatives look just as bad if Mubarak steps down.

"If he let go at this point, it's going to be like disaster for Egypt because there is no control, no power, no government," Eskandar said. "So we pray that if it works out to stay six months or even less."

The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in A.D. 42 in Alexandria, Egypt.

And at St. John, as he does every week, Eskandar prayed that this ancient church would survive another 2,000 years.

"My Coptic church / The church of the Lord / Ancient and strong," Eskandar sang with the congregation. "I wish her long life / My Coptic church / Her faith is orthodox / Forever strong /
Egypt is for Christ."