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In New Egypt, Christians Face Old Discrimination

A Coptic priest speaks to a crowd of thousands of mourners in Moqattem, in the eastern outskirts of Cairo, Thursday at a memorial service for victims of the week of clashes that have left 13 people dead in Egypt.
Steve Inskeep
A Coptic priest speaks to a crowd of thousands of mourners in Moqattem, in the eastern outskirts of Cairo, Thursday at a memorial service for victims of the week of clashes that have left 13 people dead in Egypt.

Christians and others in Egypt are marching Friday to a burned-out church in a village called Soul.

The torching of that church recently was part of a series of incidents that started with a romance and turned deadly. The story says a lot about Egypt in this uncertain time.

The Rev. Apollo Isaac says a Christian boy in the village outside Cairo was caught with a Muslim girl.

"The village culture forbids that kind of relationship to happen," he said.

Village elders decided last week that the Muslim girl should be killed. Her father refused. Soon, he was killed, and the conflict escalated. Muslims blamed the Christians for the tragedy and burned down Apollo's church in Soul.

For the past week, Christians have been waving crosses and shouting at a continuous protest in the center of Cairo. Their story has meshed with the wider anxiety over Egypt's future.

Activist Fady Philip has shouted himself hoarse.

"This is basically for the church, but it's including all of the Christians' requests for everything," he said. "It starts with the church, but it doesn't end with the church."

Historically, Christians have faced discrimination in Egypt. The Christian minority joined the protest against President Hosni Mubarak, but when Mubarak left, and the army proposed changing the constitution, nobody touched the article declaring Islam to be the religion of the state.

Christians often feel like second-class citizens, though many Muslims do support them now, like the one who showed up at the protest, declaring the two religions "friends." A leading Muslim scholar also denounced the church burning, and the army promised to rebuild the church. Yet tensions increased.

People from a largely Christian neighborhood staged a demonstration. Muslims confronted them. Soldiers appeared, and someone opened fire.

It was one of several clashes around the city that killed at least 13 people and wounded 140 this week.

A memorial service was held Thursday for many of the Christian dead. A Coptic priest spoke to a crowd of thousands, including the families of many victims.

"The pains of this life," he told the families, "are nothing compared to the glorious state we will be in in the afterlife."

The priest was speaking in a room that symbolizes Egypt's Christian minority. It was vast -– and it was underground.

It's a hillside cave that has been turned into a meeting hall, with relief sculptures of saints carved on the walls. At the entrance to that cave, NPR spoke with a crowd of people who illustrate the dilemma of Christians in Egypt.

When asked if they are concerned that the new government may not respect their rights, a black-clad priest named Abraham Femy said he will rely on God to look after him. Muslims are their brothers, he said.

Femy added that during Tuesday's violence, he restrained a Christian who tried to take revenge on a Muslim.

But others in the crowd grew angry, saying they were attacked on Tuesday night.

"The army kill us! The army kill us!" one man said. "Believe me! The army kill us!"

Christians in the crowd suspect that soldiers actually were the ones who opened fire on them. They gave NPR bullets that one man claimed were discarded after they jammed in a soldier's gun.

Another Christian, Magdi, was philosophical. Egyptians are just beginning to figure out how to relate to one another in a freer time, he said.

"We are all ignorant when it comes to politics. For the last 40 or 50 years, we were just trying to find money to get bread and food," Magdi said. "So when it comes to politics, the country is still a newborn."

Egyptians are putting that newborn freedom to the test Friday. Protesters are marching to the burned church in the village where it all started. They are calling it a Friday of National Union.

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

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.