For generations the Christians in Egypt have lived in peace with their majority Muslim brethren. Over the years members of both communities have fought side by side in the armed forces, together played an active role in the country's social and cultural life and treated each other with equality and respect.

But now, for the first time in years, the Christian community feels itself under pressure. Immediate cause for concern is a ruling by the country's Court of Appeal that Christians, like Muslims, are entitled to four wives each. Unless the ruling is reversed, many Christians believe it could be the beginning of the end of their rights as a separate religious community.

Another worry is proposal being studied by the Egyptian Parliament, to make the sin of apostasy a capital crime. Apostasy, or the act of rejecting one's faith, is a device frequently resorted to by local Christians when they want a quick divorce. Rather than suffer the cumbersome procedure of a Church-supported divorce, many Christian men prefer a token conversion to Islam, which legitimises the use of three short sentences," I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee," before converting back to Christianity.

Under Muslim law, apostasy from Islam is forbidden and traditionally punished by decapitation. Islamic-minded parliamentarians have tried to change Egypt's religious laws accordingly. Church leaders are afraid that the changes are designed to prevent the Church from carrying out its legitimate function of winning new souls. Their underlying concern is to prevent Egypt from changing into a rigidly Islamic State in which Christians would be second-class citizens.

Most of Egypt's six million Christians belong to the orthodox Coptic Church, which dates to AD 42, when the See of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark. The church's spokesman, Bishop Samuel, says: "We have a pre-Christian tradition which is equally impressive because the modern Copts are direct decendants of the ancient Pharoahs."

Today's Coptic Church is organized around a pope, who is assisted by a synod of 45 bishops. Much emphasis is still placed on missionary work, and the Copts also have their own record of miracles and divine revelations. As recently as 1968, the Cairo suburb of Zeitun was the settling for a visitation by the Virgin Mary. For three years, between 1968 and 1971, the Virgin would appear, usually kneeling on the dome of a church on Khalil Lane. Within a short time the pope's office declared the manifestations authentic. According to a visiting devotee the manifestations were accompanied by a series of miracles. The deaf heard, the blind saw, the lame walked.

Against the background of such strong spiritual convictions, the church is acutely sensitive to what it sees as state and judicial attempts to subvert its followers.