Fears and worries murmur like prayers beneath the hammered crosses of the Church of the Virgin Mary.
“The whole country will collapse,” says Shenouda Nasri.
“I’m trying to get my family out,” says Samir Ramsis.
“This is the Islamists’ time,” says George Saied.
A caretaker sweeps the stones, a woman slips into a pew. But these days Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians are finding little serenity. Islamist political candidates, including puritanical Salafis, are dominating parliamentary elections. Sectarianism is intensifying and the patriotic veneer that unified Egyptians in overthrowing longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak is threatened by ultraconservative Muslim clerics whose divisive voices had been suppressed by the state for decades.
“Our goal is to achieve an Islamic caliphate with Islamic sharia rules,” Mohamed Zoghbi, a hard-line Salafi preacher, said this year on TV. “If Egypt becomes a caliphate, then the Middle East and Arab countries will follow our path. All Muslim youth should strive and die to build this caliphate even over their own bodies.”
Copts are now anxiously watching a theological and political battle sharpen between Muslim parties that are expected to win at least 60% of parliamentary seats after the final round of elections in January. The struggle between the Salafis and the more moderate and popular Muslim Brotherhood will define an emerging political Islam and how deeply religion will be ingrained in public life.
That unresolved question is one of the most contentious in Islam. It has been energized as uprisings across the region have upended despots, leaving fertile ground for untested political voices that would have been unimaginable just months ago. It is a seminal moment for an Arab world that appears, at least for now, determined to reinvent failed secular governments through what clerics regard as the purifying prism of Islam.
“The Islamists have been unleashed,” says Nasri, a pharmacist hoping to follow the lead of tens of thousands of Copts who have left Egypt this year. “You’re talking about no rights for women. No rights for Coptic Christians. They’ll make us more of a minority. It’ll be like living centuries ago.”
Coptic Christians make up 10% of Egypt’s population of 82 million. They have coexisted in relative peace with Muslims for centuries, but even before the overthrow of Mubarak, they endured increasing deadly attacks on churches, including a bombing in Alexandria and incidents of arson in Cairo and other cities.
Copts have felt further isolated as radical screeds have echoed from mosques since Mubarak’s rule was brought down by a popular rebellion in February that included secularists, Islamists and communists.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members were jailed under the former president. But as the “Arab Spring” burgeoned early this year, the once-outlawed Brotherhood, which for decades built a network of social and religious programs, quickly became the nation’s most potent political force. It has attempted to calm secular Egyptians and the West by emphasizing democracy and civil rights as it moves to gradually expand Islam throughout the government while addressing the country’s economic turmoil, poverty and neglected institutions.
But the Salafis, who had been apolitical for decades, are demanding an immediate debate on religion and saying the new constitution must be interchangeable with the Koran. Relying on satellite TV and money from the Persian Gulf, the resurgent fundamentalists epitomize Egypt’s startling political upheaval. They show little concern for compromise or diplomatic sound bites. One of their groups, Gamaa al Islamiya, renounced violence long ago but its candidates are a link to the coarse sectarian voices that led to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and terrorist attacks.
Wagdi Ghoneim, a popular ultraconservative Muslim preacher, fled Egypt’s police state years ago. He has lived in the United States and the gulf, transmitting audio and televised speeches that resonate in Cairo’s slums and outlying villages. He couldn’t be more clear on where he stands.
“There’s nothing called democracy. Democracy is built on the basis of infidelity,” he says. “The Crusader Christians are a minority and we can never equate a minority’s rights with the majority’s.... How can they ask for the same rights as ours?”
Such rhetoric alarms Copts such as Ramsis, seated on a bench in the church courtyard, the Nile shining like a mirror beyond the marsh grass. Copts believe that Mary and the baby Jesus fled here to escape King Herod’s soldiers. Ramsis, a math teacher with two children, is now contemplating his own possible flight from his native land.
“I was born in Cairo,” he says. “But as a Christian I no longer feel like a whole citizen. I just want to go someplace where I can be respected.”
He straightens his blue and yellow tie, brushes the sleeves of his pressed shirt. He fears that Salafis will forbid the building of churches and impose more Islamic education in schools.
“Everyone is afraid, not just Copts,” he says. “People working in tourism, banking, antiquities. No one knows what the Islamists will do. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to calm things. They’re talking about tolerance. But we still have to be afraid. They have little political experience.”
Nasri, the pharmacist, sits nearby. The bad economy cost him his job and he’s scouring want ads and wondering how he can raise the money to move to the United States. The cross of his faith is tattooed on his hand and arm; he folds away the newspaper and watches the Nile. It does not soothe.
“I never used to think about the differences between a Copt and a Muslim,” he says. “But the Islamists are telling people that we are not the same. It’s all changed. Before, if you were on a bus … the police would stop it and pull off the bearded men. Now, everyone has a beard. I’m scared that even moderate Islamists will be influenced by these Salafis.”
Car parts salesman Saied is less fretful. He prefers the long view, quoting parables and looking for omens as he seeks to decipher the changing fortunes of history. He believes the Arab world, despite being reshaped by revolt, will not forsake its Christians.
He also knows that the ruling military council, which took over after Mubarak’s downfall and will stay in power until a president is elected in June, opposes the ultraconservatives’ agenda. It has vowed to oversee the drafting of the constitution, to ensure it is not weighted too heavily toward Islamic law.
The Islamists will be “rejected in the coming years,” he says. “It’s a problem of political ignorance. Egypt has been in a coma for 60 years. None of our presidents since 1952 left office through elections. Now we’re having one, and Muslims think they’re doing God’s will by voting for Islamists.”
The Muslim call to prayer rises from the minaret across the street from the church.
“The Islamists will try everything to put more Islamic law into the constitution. But the moderate nature of Egyptians will not accept this for long.
“Look,” he says, holding up a newspaper headline, “the Islamists are already fighting among themselves. Neither accepts the other.”
The sunny courtyard grows crowded. A few tourists price rosaries and icons in the gift shop.
“A lot of Copts have left the country. This is a weakness,” Saied says. “I lived abroad once as a young man, working odd jobs in Europe. I missed my people, my family.
“This is my land. I know Copts don’t have full rights. I’ll never choose to leave here again. But we don’t want to change the tyrant Mubarak with a tyrant Islamic leader.”
He speaks of a Bible that floated down the Nile and washed up near the church decades ago. He tells of apparitions of the Virgin and how Jesus was carried along these banks to safety.
“In tough times,” he says, “we wait for a sign to comfort us.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.