Egypt’s minority Christians remain in the eye of the storm of anti-American unrest in Egypt and across the Middle East.
After US authorities identified the key figure behind a crude film that denigrates Islam as a Coptic Christian of Egyptian origin living in Los Angeles, Copts in Egypt were bracing all weekend for sectarian violence to be directed against them.
There were reports of sporadic incidences, but not the wave of violence that was feared.
A 14-minute trailer of a film, titled “Innocence of Muslims,” mocks Islam and insults the Prophet Mohamed as a womanizer, a child molester and a fraud, and has ignited protests around the Muslim world as well as attacks on American and other Western embassies, including one in Libya that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
“It is very tense here for sure. The Copts definitely feel that tension very much,” said Sally Moore, a Copt who also served among the leaders of the Revolutionary Youth Council during the 2011 demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the toppling of the late Hosni Mubarak.
On Friday, Copts gathered in front of the Coptic cathedral in downtown Cairo holding signs that denounced the film. The Coptic Christian Church issued a statement rejecting all “defamation’’ of the Muslim faith and the church hierarchy has vowed that Christians will join their “brotherly Muslims” in protests and sit-ins against the film.
“This is part of a wicked campaign against religions, aimed at causing discord among people, especially Egyptians,” read the statement issued Wednesday by the Sacred Congregation of the Coptic Church.
Among Copts, who represent somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of Egypt’s population of approximately 80 million, there is a growing sense of dread wafting through the air like incense in Christian minority enclaves such as Cairo’s neighborhood of Shubra and small villages on the outskirts of large towns like Minya and Sohag.
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For decades and even centuries, the Christians, who trace their religious tradition back to at least the 4th century in Egypt and are part of an Eastern Orthodox rite, have endured intolerance and spates of violence that sometimes erupts into full-fledged massacres of innocents. Churches have been bombed and sprayed with gunfire throughout the last three decades.
Not surprisingly, that has prompted Copts from Egypt to emigrate to Western countries, particularly America, a steady pattern over at least the last half century that has dramatically picked up a pace according to those studying the issue and church officials.
There is no official census in Egypt that confirms the current size of the population, but the withering impact of this pattern of emigration is said to have diminished the presence of Copts in Egypt considerably.
It’s not been all bad for Copts in Egypt. Many are proud to be Egyptian and many have climbed to positions of power in government and business through the generations. But most Copts, when asked privately, now say they feel uniquely vulnerable as Islamic fundamentalists parties took a majority of seats in the newly elected parliament.
Many Copts joined hands with Muslims in the popular demonstrations that last year toppled the police state of Hosni Mubarak, and they paid a price for their opposition as have so many in Egypt.
In October of 2011, 27 Christians protesting the burning of a church were killed by the Egyptian army as it sought to put down their protest.
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Sally Moore is a successful psychologist by profession and joined the Revolutionary Youth Council to organize and unify different factions in the huge wave of demonstrations in early 2011 that led to the toppling of Mubarak after 30 years of a brutal and tyrannical rule that oppressed all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike.
I got to know Sally through the 18 days of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. We’ve kept in touch and I have seen her in Cairo several times in the last year. From the beginning, she has stood out as someone who believed that Egypt had a chance for a new beginning after Mubarak stepped down, a chance to heal divisions between Muslims and Christians that Mubarak sought to foster.
She and several other members of the council – which included members of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth as well as a mix of secular socialists and moderate liberals -- even drafted a powerful and eloquent document the night that Mubarak resigned which was titled, “The Birth Certificate of a New Nation.”
I reached Sally by phone Sunday to see how she was doing and to hear her views on the recent violence as both a Copt and a supporter of the revolution, and she sounded worried. And she sounded tired.
“The spirit of the revolution is gone. Not only for Christians, but for so many of us. We’re all frustrated and we’re all doing the best we can,” said Moore, who explained that her psychology practice is now focused on helping participants in the uprising who find themselves suffering from trauma and depression in its aftermath.
“But we also have to continue on and we have to work with everyone. We have to work on our own future together and maybe now we have to work even harder than ever,” she said, over a crackling phone line.
GlobalPost's Executive Editor Charles M. Sennott has covered religious extremism in the Middle East for 20 years and is the author of three books, including The Body and The Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace, which was published in 2001 by PublicAffairs.