© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Demonstrations Stir Fear Among Egypt's Copts

Before Egyptians launched a revolt against their president last month, the country's Coptic minority was already rioting in the streets.

The Orthodox Christians accused President Hosni Mubarak of not doing enough to protect their community, especially following a suicide bombing at a Coptic church on New Year's Day that killed some two dozen people.

But now that Mubarak and his government are in danger of falling to protesters seeking democratic reforms, many Copts who were against Mubarak are coming to the defense of their embattled leader.

In the northern Egyptian town of Muriat, St. Mena's monastery is packed with mourners who came to memorialize their fellow Copts killed in nearby Alexandria last month.

At a tomb where many of the victims are buried, teenagers describe the attack in song. They sing about how those killed are now in heaven with dozens of Iraqi Catholics, killed late last year during Mass in an al-Qaida-linked attack.

The Rev. Bishouy says the mourners here aren't just sad, but mad. He explains they are angry at their government because it hasn't brought those responsible for the suicide blast to justice.

That comes as little surprise, Bishouy adds, given recent media reports implicating former Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al Adly in attacks on Coptic Christians.

The priest says the ongoing uprising to oust Mubarak could become a way for Copts to achieve more rights in Egyptian society, provided Islamists don't co-opt the revolution.

That view is one shared by many Copts, who account for some 10 percent of Egyptians. They say Mubarak and his Cabinet are being made to answer for past wrongs.

But they also worry that Islamist groups long suppressed by the Egyptian government will gain enough power to turn Egypt into a fundamentalist state — subject to Islamic laws and hostile toward religious minorities like the Copts.

Construction engineer Raymond Fraig says one particular concern is the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"They have Islamic agendas, which will reflect on everything in Egypt," says Fraig. "They will be another Iran, another Hamas, which is not going to be good for Egyptians. We will lose many things, many of our relations with the United States and the European Union. I think it will be a disaster."

Brotherhood leaders deny any such goals. Their group so far has been a lesser player in the ongoing protests and negotiations. The brotherhood has also announced it will not field any presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.

But that isn't easing the Christians' worries. Fraig's friend, locksmith Michael Roushdy William, was wounded when he left the Alexandria church as it blew up.

He holds up an Islamist flier that was being distributed on the city's streets last weekend. It calls for Egypt to become an Islamic Republic.

But William says the uprising has also led to an unprecedented calm between Christians and Muslims here. He says it happened after Egyptian police deserted their posts some two weeks ago, leaving it to residents to form patrols to prevent looting and theft.

"Muslims and Christians are together right now," William says. "There is no idea to protest over the church or the mosque; everybody is protecting himself. And God is protecting his church."

Camillia Lutfi (center) with her 16-year-old twin sons Mario Ramses (left) and Andrew Ramsest, at their home in Alexandria, Egypt, Nov. 11, 2010. Lutfi and her sons have been fighting to keep the two boys Christians after their father converted to Islam.
Holly Pickett / NPR
Camillia Lutfi (center) with her 16-year-old twin sons Mario Ramses (left) and Andrew Ramsest, at their home in Alexandria, Egypt, Nov. 11, 2010. Lutfi and her sons have been fighting to keep the two boys Christians after their father converted to Islam.

William and other Copts predict the calm won't last.

They say that's why it is important not to oust Mubarak before his term ends in September. They admire his strong anti-Islamist stance.

One Copt who is backing Mubarak is Camellia Lutfi. She is embroiled in a lingering battle with the government over her teenage boy's forced conversion to Islam after her husband switched religions.

Lutfi says Mubarak never responded to her written pleas for help.

But she argues Mubarak deserves to be treated with more respect than the protesters are showing him. Lufti says that forcing him out through protests only tarnishes the image of Egypt.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.