CAIRO — Families joined hands in prayer Sunday for an evening of healing at a downtown Cairo church after a bloody week that left many Coptic Christians questioning their place in the new Egypt.
Moonlight illuminated huge stained-glass windows as Egyptians called for an end to the church attacks and other anti-Christian violence that's flourished since a popular uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Egypt's Coptic minority, about 10 percent of the population, has weathered attacks from militant Islamists, bands of thugs and, most recently, the military, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's ouster. Thousands of Christians have fled the country, according to Coptic clergy, but many more have stayed, determined to preserve a community that's outlasted many an empire.
Signs posted to the walls of Kasr el Dobara Evangelical Church reminded believers that the path to salvation would be difficult — a message taken to heart by congregants who said they'd never seen such worrying times in their homeland.
"I know God won't let us down," said Abraam Sami, 16, who traveled from the oasis town of Fayoum to volunteer as an usher. "Egypt must be better than this."
Muslim supporters still turn out to protect or show solidarity with Coptic protesters who demand full religious freedoms and citizenship privileges. But those pockets of sympathy may not be enough to secure the Copts in an increasingly hostile Egypt, where a security vacuum and Islamist political gains spell trouble for this ancient population.
Despite turning out in droves to march during the anti-Mubarak uprising, Copts say, their pursuit for a share of the revolution's promised freedoms has met violence, intolerance or apathy. For the past 10 months, Copts have suffered a string of attacks — from the New Year's church bombing that killed 25 people in Alexandria to last week's military crackdown on Christian protesters that left up to 26 dead after fierce clashes in Cairo.
Between those two most lethal episodes were months of sporadic but vicious signs of worsening sectarian unrest: village churches besieged or burned, clashes over the installation of a church bell, a Copt whose ear was cut off by Islamist militants for perceived moral infractions.
In April, the appointment of a Christian governor with ties to the Mubarak regime angered Muslims and Christians alike in the southern province of Qena. But extremists hijacked protests over the man's credentials and turned the issue sectarian, saying no Christian could rule over Muslims.
Hardliners camped out on railroad tracks, shutting down the busy train system for much of the south. The 11-day revolt ended only when the interim authorities withdrew the governor.
Those months of persecution were the backdrop for the eruption last week of Christian anger over yet another dismantling of a church, this time in the southern city of Aswan last month.
"Unfortunately, as the days went by, the government in Cairo failed to take the Copts' demands or pleas for protection seriously," Sherry El-Gergawi wrote this week in the Cairo daily Ahram Online, which published a blow-by-blow account of the church attacks and their galvanizing effect on Coptic protesters.
Thousands of Copts marched Oct. 9 in front of the state television building in Cairo. The mostly peaceful march exploded into riots in which thugs, Egyptian security forces and Christian demonstrators set upon one another with guns, knives, sticks and other weapons. Footage broadcast across the world showed armored military vehicles careering through the streets, crushing anyone in their path.
The military issued a televised apology for the deaths, but justified the army's actions by painting soldiers as traumatized and with no other option but to drive away when faced by a seething, armed crowd.
On Saturday, the military council also issued an order banning all forms of discrimination, with fines of at least $5,000 for intolerance based on "gender, origin, language, religion or beliefs." Government employees found guilty of discrimination face even stiffer penalties, including at least three months in prison, according to an official statement.
Copts say that the military's version of events is absurd and its overtures insincere. They've offered videos and witness testimony to back their account that both thugs and security forces assaulted unarmed demonstrators. They want a full investigation, with compensation and pledges of better protections in the future.
"Can you believe that someone holding a candle and standing with his wife and daughter is coming to fight the army?" said Zakaria Tawfiq, 75, a Copt who said the current religious tensions are the worst he's ever witnessed. "They're doing this to divert attention and stay in power."
Several prominent critics of the military share the view that the generals lack the political will to address the Copts' concerns because prolonged unrest gives them cause to remain in office rather than cede authority to civilian rulers, as promised. The interfaith fighting also deflects from their sluggish performance on benchmarks for a more democratic Egypt, critics note.
Other Copts dismiss such thinking as conspiracy theory and say that this year's persecution isn't new, only expanded because of the collapse of the interior ministry and the emboldening of militants and thugs. The current interim government, they say, is doing what Egyptian governments have done for decades — either ignore Coptic concerns or distort them to rile up the masses.
Copts at the church on Sunday said they'd continue to fight for space in Egypt, no matter the retaliation.
Mary Hanna, 30, said she'd prayed and fasted for three days after the bloody events of last week and finally could feel "the fear and the anger going away." She held tight to her infant son, Steven, swaying and calling out, "hallelujah!" as a choir sang.
"I realize that, no, we can't be weak. Egypt is on the rise and my son has a home here, a future here," Hanna said.
She said she was encouraged that many Muslim supporters had aligned with Christian causes, but said it might take divine intervention for Egypt's military rulers to fulfill their promises to the Copts.
"Maybe prayers, not protests, are the way to get our rights," Hanna said.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011