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Survivors: Egypt's Christians Consider Their Country's Future

Jamie Dean | WORLD News Service | Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Survivors: Egypt's Christians Consider Their Country's Future

March 1, 2011

(WNS) -- Every morning for 18 days, Egyptian Sylvia Zaki prayed the words of Psalm 91 like her life depended on it. In many ways, it did.

From her home in downtown Cairo, near the outskirts of Tahrir Square, the 37-year-old evangelical Christian could smell the wafting tear gas and hear the thundering sounds of Egypt’s revolution: chanting crowds, gunfire, tanks, helicopters, and F-16 fighters overhead.

The psalmist’s words resonated: “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day . . . nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

Zaki prayed as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians massed in Cairo and cities across the country for nearly three weeks, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of ironclad rule. A week after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 resignation, Zaki reflected on the experience. “There were times when I feared that I wouldn’t live any kind of normal life again, but I thank God for the blessing of forgetfulness,” she said. “We forget the fear and remember God’s protection, so we can go on.”

Egyptians are grappling with what it means to go on. For now, the country’s military has assumed control, calling for an amended constitution and promising elections in six months. But the rough roadmap has an uncertain destination: What kind of government will Egyptians choose? And will newfound freedoms extend to the most oppressed populations?

Some Egyptian Christians are hopeful for a secular government that would allow greater freedoms after decades of harassment. Others fear the rise of an Islamic government that could make life even harder. But they agree on this: No matter what the future holds, Christians should speak up now.

“Christians have been living in a sort of cocoon for many years,” said Emad Mikhail, president of the evangelical Alexandria School of Theology. “It’s time to come out of the shelter.”

For many Christians, coming out of the shelter began weeks before nationwide protests erupted on Jan. 25. A New Year’s Eve bombing at the Coptic All Saints Church in Alexandria killed 23 churchgoers and wounded at least 70. Grieving Christians filled the streets, protesting the worst attack on Christians in decades and demanding a strong response from a government that often ignored such violence.

A strong response came quickly from an unexpected source: local Muslims. Mikhail, who in addition to his seminary position pastors a small Anglican church in Alexandria, says many moderate Muslims disapproved of the violence against Christians: “It woke up a lot of people who had become silent, or had maybe become fearful to express their opinions, or perhaps had been influenced by some of the fanatical ideas.” The pastor says an unusual solidarity emerged between Christians and Muslims that helped set the stage for what would happen next.

By Monday, Jan. 24, protests were brewing 130 miles south in Cairo. Egyptians emboldened by the Tunisian protests that toppled the country’s president on Jan. 14 began organizing mass demonstrations via Facebook, Twitter, and fliers distributed in neighborhoods. Mikhail met with his church youth group on Monday night: “I assured them change is coming.”

By Tuesday morning, Jan. 25, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. Mikhail says some church members and seminary students joined the demonstrations, but disagreements surfaced that remained throughout the protests: Some church leaders thought Christians should stay away. Mikhail left the decision to each person: “As a church we can’t demonstrate, but as individual members, I can’t tell someone whether to demonstrate or not.”

Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III called on church members to avoid protests, though many Copts demonstrated. Some young Egyptian Christians embraced the movement to oust the entrenched president, but some worried that losing Mubarak might mean gaining an Islamic government.

By Friday, Jan. 28, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Egyptian cities for “The Day of Rage,” and the Muslim Brotherhood—a group that initially remained quiet—called its members to join the protests. Mubarak deployed the military into the streets, and riot police sprayed protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, water, and eventually live ammunition. By nightfall, hundreds were injured and more than a dozen dead across the country.

In Alexandria, Mikhail watched events unfold from home. “It was either television, or praying, or handling phone calls,” he said. “For most of the 18 days, that was our schedule.” Handling calls grew challenging with cell-phone service cut by the government: “We had to scurry to try to find people’s landlines.”

Conditions deteriorated on Saturday, Jan. 30, as embattled police forces fled, leaving citizens vulnerable to preying bands of looters and thugs. Driving through Alexandria, Mikhail saw car dealerships burned, government buildings in shambles, and citizens directing traffic at intersections.

As night fell, chaos descended. Citizens defended their homes and street corners against armed looters—a frightening reality that would last for days. Mikhail says four Christian families called within a 15-minute period, fearful for their safety. Some heard gunshots outside. Others heard hoodlums downstairs. Mikhail wrote in his journal: “We got on our knees and prayed.”

After a long and dangerous night, Mikhail and fellow church leaders decided conditions were too precarious for Sunday church services. The leaders asked the church’s families to pray in their homes at noon, and to read the same portions of Scripture. The church members fasted, and again prayed in their homes as night fell.

In Cairo, Zaki was praying too. She stayed in her downtown Cairo home for six days, with access blocked to her church off Tahrir Square. The church’s pastor says the evangelical congregation with some 6,000 members held 32 prayer meetings at homes in Cairo neighborhoods during the protests. The pastor visited the square four times, and said other church members went daily.

Life at home was limited: “We lived and breathed the news on TV, the internet when it worked, cell phones, and the newspapers,” Zaki said. “We spent long hours discussing the events, praying, fasting, and talking on the phone.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, protests swelled again: A quarter of a million demonstrators flooded Tahrir Square, demanding Mubarak’s ouster. The president announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection again, but that didn’t satisfy protesters. The next day—eventually dubbed “Black Wednesday”—pro-Mubarak forces attempted to crush the uprising but defiant protesters remained.

Protests continued in Alexandria, but by Sunday, Feb. 6, Mikhail’s congregation held church services again. The pastor says the joyful reunion was also a remarkable moment for a handful of first-time visitors: converts from Islam.

Mikhail says a family of four that had converted from Islam had been unable to attend church in the past because of security concerns. (Police often arrested converts, and sometimes harassed churches that received them.) After fleeing their home in Cairo during the protests, the family found new freedom in the absence of state security, says Mikhail: “They attended church for the first time in their lives that day.”

With the security forces that normally monitored the church gone after the demonstrations, Mikhail says: “We feel a lot more freedom now.”

Protesters’ cry for political freedom reached a fevered pitch on Thursday, Feb. 10, when Mubarak appeared on state television: After the president disappointed widespread expectations that he would resign, Tahrir Square erupted. From her home near the square, Zaki wrote a worried email to friends: “As I write you, I hear their shouts and calls as one man, truly a scary sound. . . . Please pray urgently with us. . . . NO WAR, NO BLOOD, NO CHAOS.”

Less than 24 hours later, in a stunning reversal, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak would step down and the military would take control. Zaki wrote a new email: “Good morning Family from jubilant Cairo.”

Jubilation continued in Egypt for days, as citizens flooded the streets, celebrating Mubarak’s departure. But jubilant celebrations eventually faded into sober conversations about what is next for Egypt.

Many Egyptian Christians are still concerned about the potential rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organized Islamic opposition group with ties to terrorism in other countries. After years of being banned from Egyptian politics, the group announced it would launch an official political party. While most experts don’t expect the group to assert an aggressively Islamic agenda immediately, some worry that it may do so over time.

Others worry about whether a new government will afford greater freedoms to minority groups like Christians. Paul Marshall, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, says that democracy without freedom for all the populations in a society isn’t true freedom: “You can have elections and highly repressive society.”

Mikhail remains hopeful that won’t happen: He thinks better relations between Muslims and Christians—and a secular tone during the demonstrations—could promote a secular government with greater freedoms. But he knows that won’t be easy: “It’s going to require a lot more work, and a lot more miracles to make it a secular state.”

In the meantime, Mikhail says he is encouraging Christians to engage their communities and resist retreating. At a recent forum, Mikhail says a participant asked what guaranteed that Christians would have greater freedoms in a new government. The pastor replied: “By being involved now.” He told the Christians to speak about their faith “boldly and humbly. . . . But also be involved in the rebuilding of society.”