Egypt's Coptic Christians Are Choosing Isolation

Brother Sawiris, left, Brother Viner and fellow monks were attacked in May by Arab Bedouins. The monks are reclaiming a 1,700-year-old monastery from the desert.
Brother Sawiris, left, Brother Viner and fellow monks were attacked in May by Arab Bedouins. The monks are reclaiming a 1,700-year-old monastery from the desert. (Ellen Knickmeyer - Twp)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 7, 2008

CAIRO -- Under pressure from fundamentalist forms of Islam and bursts of sectarian violence, the most populous Christian community in the Middle East is seeking safety by turning inward, cutting day-to-day social ties that have bound Muslim to Christian in Egypt for centuries, members of both communities say.

Attacks this summer on monks and shopkeepers belonging to Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, and scattered clashes between Muslims and Christians, have compelled many of Egypt's estimated 6 million to 8 million Copts to isolate themselves in a nation with more than 70 million Muslims.

To a degree, the separation will stand as the legacy of one of the longest-serving leaders in the church's history, Pope Shenouda III, some Copts say. Shenouda has strengthened the church as the center of daily Coptic life, making it a bulwark for Christians, during a papacy that has spanned 36 years. Now 85, Shenouda is facing health problems, including a broken leg last month that was repaired in the United States.

Across much of Egypt, Muslims and Christians note a drawing apart of their communities, especially in the working class.

Many say they mourn the loss.

Others say the separation is for the best.

"It's natural," Ayad Labid Faleh, a Coptic Christian, said in his auto parts store in the Shobra neighborhood of Cairo. In the dim, oil-slicked shop front, Faleh waited for customers, surrounded by boxed hoses and florid icons.

Faleh shrugged as he described his life and the lives of his Christian neighbors, who begin their days smiling at a Christian satellite program in which a Coptic priest needles Muslims for their beliefs. Faleh and his neighbors send their children to church schools, and the children belong to church soccer teams.

Increasingly, Faleh said, they choose to spend their vacations on pilgrimages to holy sites with fellow Copts.

"When we all go together as Christians on those things, we feel like we're one. We're secure, and we're able to relax," he said.

Across the city, in the Muslim neighborhood of Kit-Kat, Alla Abdul Aziz, a clerk dwarfed by stacks of bedsheets, reflected on his childhood awe of a Christian playmate's soccer prowess and the beauty of a Greek Christian neighbor girl.

But while Abdul Aziz, 30, stayed in the neighborhood, he said his Christian childhood friends have all disappeared. He can no longer think of a single Christian living in the area, he said.

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