A young woman with a kerchief on her head lit a candle and prayed Sunday beneath a mosaic of Mary and Jesus at a packed Mass at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church. Then she picked up a leaflet next to the candle rack from an organization called Shahid, or Witness. It listed emergency phone numbers, e-mail addresses, Facebook and Twitter information should trouble arise at voting stations during parliamentary elections this week.
For those attending Mass at St. Mark’s, in the upper-class district of Maadi in Cairo, the elections represent the beginning of a democratic Egypt but also instill fear of a party coming to power that favors Islamic law.
It is widely expected that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will dominate the political landscape. This expectation has already affected the Christian community. Since the Jan. 25 revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak from power, 100,000 Christian families have emigrated abroad, according to Naguib Gibrael, the Coptic Church’s lawyer.
To counter the Muslim Brotherhood, St. Mark’s has encouraged its parishioners to vote for the secular Egyptian Bloc, made up of both Muslim and Christian candidates. Bishop Danial, spiritual leader for church members in Maadi, made a special appearance at St. Mark’s on Sunday. In his sermon, after emphasizing the need to reject hatred in favor of compassion, the bishop turned to politics.
“These elections matter a lot to us,” he told the congregation. “Perhaps the situation is not as stable as we would have liked before voting, but we must participate. This is freedom and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is very organized.”
“You can choose whomever you want,” he added, “but we have had meetings with the moderate Muslims and Christians in the Egyptian Bloc and we support these parties.”
The Egyptian Bloc is a newly formed mix of mainly three parties: the pro-business, neo-liberal Free Egyptians; the socialist Gathering party; and the Egyptian Socialist Democrats. There are smaller, Coptic parties, but for many Copts, a separation of religion and government is both in their interests as Egyptians and as Christians to defend themselves against the potential introduction of Islam into politics.
“We picked the Egyptian Bloc because it’s the most liberal group and because they are against religious parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” Father Ishak, a priest at St. Mark’s, said after Mass. “And if elections are free and fair, it will mean that Copts are more clearly represented and be more active in building a new Egypt.”
The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, does not condone political campaigning inside churches and has called on his followers to vote only for whom they think will be the best candidates.
Copts, the largest Christian majority in the Middle East, are Egyptian Christians whose ancestors date to the first century and who now number 10 million in a country of 85 million.
Their name derives from the Arabic qutb, what the seventh-century Muslim invaders called the Egyptian Christians. According to tradition, St. Mark brought Christianity to Alexandria in the first century and it was the dominant religion in Egypt from the fourth to sixth centuries, until the Arabs arrived and Islam took its place.
While Christians and members of other minority religions are free to practice in Egypt, the increase of a stricter interpretation of Islam over the past 30 years has marginalized these smaller groups.
According to a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Egypt published in September, in the second half of 2010 Christians held less than 2 percent of the seats in the two legislative houses. In the last assembly election, during the Mubarak regime, of the 839 candidates for his National Democratic Party, only 10 were Copts.
Religious divisions have led to numerous violent confrontations, though some Muslims and Christians said that most incidents were personal feuds that had escalated into religious battles.
On television, private Muslim and Coptic channels hurl vicious slurs and justify violence against the other in the name of God.
“If I were a Muslim and I heard some of these channels, I would probably become violent, too,” said Mena Abdelrahman, 27, a Coptic Christian who is an accountant in Cairo. “Adults program this hatred into children. I once saw a kid around 5 years old kicking a cat. When I asked him why he was doing that, he said, ‘It’s a Copt cat.’ Five years old!”
The most recent clash took place on Oct. 9, when hundreds of Copts, and some Muslims, marched on the building that houses the state-run television and radio to protest the authorities’ failure to investigate the burning of a church in Aswan. The demonstration turned bloody when soldiers guarding the building shot at protesters and ran over them with armored vehicles. The protest, which had been approved by the ruling military council, became a battleground that left 28 people dead and 325 wounded.
At St. Mark’s, everyone interviewed said that even if an Islamic group won elections they would remain in Egypt, putting their faith in a democratic system that may favor Muslims but will at least include their representatives as well.
“We expect a Muslim group to win a lot of seats, and that’s fine, but what we will be looking for is if they try to hijack the Parliament and try to write the constitution their own way,” Ayman Fahmy, a 52-year-old doctor, said after Mass.
“If that happens, people will go back to the streets to protest,” he added, noting, however, that if Muslims “are willing to work out a consensus, then there won’t be a problem.”
This article, "Egypt's Christians prepare for new political climate," originally appeared in The New York Times.