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Egypt's Coptic Christians Are Choosing Isolation
Violent Clashes With Majority Muslims and an Increase in Separate Institutions Help Sever Centuries-Old Ties

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.

"We used to eat together, play together," he said. "Honestly, I don't understand how it has come to this."

But it was the Christians who pulled away, Abdul Aziz insisted. "They didn't used to sit to one side like this. They used to mingle. Now their lives are all centered around the church," he said.

"I get the feeling they don't want me to be part of their life. I get the feeling they are being told to be like this," he said. "And it makes me defensive."

The Apostle Mark founded the Coptic Church in the 1st century, bringing Christianity to Egypt. Theological disputes split the Coptic faith from the West in the 5th century. Muslims brought their faith to Egypt in the 7th century, and the 14 centuries of conversions to Islam that followed have made Copts a minority here.

To many, the first 50 years of the last century were a high-water mark of religious tolerance. Youssef Sidhom, editor of a Cairo newspaper read mainly by Copts, pointed to a photograph showing his father and other Christians alongside young Muslim friends in a Boy Scout troop.

The photo is a relic of a vanishing time, Sidhom said. Back then, Egypt and much of the rest of the Middle East was vibrant with varying cultures; clattering, clashing tongues; and traditions of ancient communities of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Tensions between the Arab world, Israel and the West all but swept away the region's Jewish communities outside Israel by the 1960s.

Since the 1970s, the growth of Islamist politics and the flow of laborers back and forth from the Arab Gulf, where they absorb that region's stringent form of Islam, have increased the influence of fundamentalist Islam and made life more difficult for Christians.

War has devastated Christian communities in countries such as Iraq, where the number of Christians has shrunk from 1 million in 2000 to an estimated 400,000, according to a widely used estimate by Christian organizations. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the proportion of Christians has fallen from 90 percent in the 1950s to an estimated 50 percent or less.

About one Egyptian in seven in the 1950s was Coptic, but that has shrunk to one in 10 by some estimates, although the Egyptian government publishes no census numbers on the sensitive issue.

Violence between Muslims and Christians flares every few years. In the most dramatic confrontation this summer, settled Arab Bedouins on May 31 attacked monks who have been reclaiming the 1,700-year-old monastery of Abu Fana from the desert in southern Egypt.

Monks say the attackers fired on them with AK-47 assault rifles and captured some among them to torture. Attackers broke the legs of one monk by pounding them between two rocks. One Muslim man was killed.

A few days earlier, gunmen in Cairo killed four Copts at a jewelry store but left without taking anything. Strife over liaisons between Christian and Muslim men and women led to recent clashes between the communities in Egypt's countryside.

Egypt's government invariably denies that sectarian tension lies behind the violence. It blamed the violence at the Abu Fana monastery on a land dispute.

Abu Fana's monks deny that.

"Is it a land dispute when they kidnap monks and torture them?" Brother Michael, 34, asked from a hospital bed in Cairo, where he cradled an arm hit by shrapnel in the attack.

"Is it a land dispute when they tell you to spit on the cross, when they try to make you say the words to convert to Islam?" asked Brother Viner, 30, sitting on Brother Michael's bed. He wore a neck brace because of the beating he received in the attack.

When he was a boy, Brother Viner said, he and his neighbors played together without paying attention to who was Muslim and who was Christian.

But recently, he said, his niece came home from her first day at school with tales of Muslim and Christian first-graders refusing to share desks with children of the other faith.

Part of the separation stems from a policy by Pope Shenouda, who rose to prominence in the church by promoting Coptic Sunday schools. The church in Shenouda's time has built its institutions, so that Copts can count on the church for schooling, sports and socializing, as well as religion, said Sidhom, the newspaper editor.

"That has been the biggest change . . . the withdrawing," Sidhom said.

Many Copts think Egypt makes them second-class citizens -- requiring presidential approval, for instance, for construction of any church. Copts say state security services have little interest in protecting Christians.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement has helped squeeze Copts out of competition in politics and trade unions, increasing the importance of Shenouda's role as intermediary between the Copts and Egypt as a whole.

Sidhom said he has a simple rule for predicting where Muslim and Christian violence will break out. In a community where Muslims and Christians still live and work together, he said, there will be no problem.

At another auto parts store in Shobra, where Copts and Muslims intermingle, Copt and Muslim clerks laughed at the idea of religious strife.

"Any wedding, funeral, they will be there," Hussein Mohammed Negem said of his Christian friends. A black bruise on his forehead showed Negem to be a Muslim who regularly bows his head to the floor in prayer.

Nagib Emed Aziz George, a Christian shopkeeper from next door, smiled as he leaned on Negem, his arm and chin propped on the Muslim man's shoulder.

Once, when a neighborhood mosque caught fire during prayers, Christians came running to douse the flames, the parts dealers said. And when a beloved Christian customer died recently, Negem's co-workers shut their store for a day to travel across Egypt for the funeral.

"We feel like it is all one home," Negem said.

Invariably, Sidhom said, in communities where Muslims and Christians live separately, trouble comes.

Such is the situation in parts of rural Egypt, including around the monastery at Abu Fana, where monks stood one day in bare concrete sleeping chambers blackened by fires set by the Muslim men in May's attacks.

"I believe we will be the new martyrs," said one, Brother Shenouda, walking the desert road from his scorched church.

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