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Egypt's Coptic Christians fear the future

KHALED DESOUKI / AFP - Getty Images

An Egyptian Christian holds up a crucifix as he protests in front of the state television building in Cairo on Tuesday against recent attempts to trigger sectarian conflict in the country.

CAIRO – For a third day in a row, Egypt’s Coptic Christians demonstrated in front of the state TV building in central Cairo Tuesday against the military government they blame for failing to prevent the destruction of a church in weekend clashes.  

For Coptic Christians, the attack was just the latest in a series of events that have made them feel increasingly vulnerable, threatened and worried about whether Egypt’s post-revolution future includes them. 

Apparently, a romantic dispute sparked violent clashes on Saturday evening. Security officials said Monday that a Christian woman reportedly had an affair with a Muslim man. She then allegedly disappeared, which led the man to spread rumors that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner at Saint Mena Church in Imbaba, a working-class neighborhood of Cairo, because she converted to Islam.


Eyewitnesses say the clashes began when a group of Salafists, Muslims who practice Islamic fundamentalism, gathered outside the church. Although the parishioners denied the allegation that the woman was captive inside, the church came under attack and was burned, along with a neighboring church and some Christian-owned buildings. The clash left 12 dead (six Muslims, four Coptic Christians and two others); hundreds were injured and almost 200 arrested.

KHALED DESOUKI / AFP - Getty Images

Egyptian Christians protest in front of the state television building in Cairo on Tuesday, against recent attempts to trigger sectarian conflict in the country, as the government has vowed to use an "iron fist" to ensure national security after the weekend's deadly clashes in the Egyptian capital.

The Copts insist that the military and state security showed up late and did nothing to intervene. Although the government has transferred those arrested to military court for immediate trial and has decided to activate all laws criminalizing attacks on houses of worship, Copts feel the military government has not doing enough to protect their communities and churches.

'Islamists want to take power'
Egypt is 10 percent Christian, and Copts see the attacks targeting Christians since the revolution as an attempt by Islamists to terrorize them into leaving. Many believe Islamists want a country, and ultimately a region, free of non-Muslims. They fear that if Egyptians elect a predominantly Islamist parliament in September, the new government will widen the scope of Islamic law.

“The revolution was white, and now it has turned black because the Islamists want to take power and control the country,” said protester Marcelino Youssef said during Monday’s protests. “We are waiting to see which way the government will go, in the right direction or the wrong direction. Will the military government remain silent as usual? If they don’t take the right road, Egypt will be lost. There is no safety for Christians here, and the leaders move too slowly to solve the problems.”

Hany Abu Laila was in Saint Mena Church the night it was attacked. He denied reports that Copts fired on Muslims. “Is it logical that we would have a weapons store in a church?” he asked.

He said that dozens of army and security trucks arrived, but did the soldiers little more than observe as Muslim demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails at the church.

Mohamed Muslemany / NBC News

Coptic Christians protest outside the state TV center in Cairo, Egypt on Monday.

Many among Egypt’s Christian community fear the future and are looking for a way out.

Ibram Anton, a senior merchandiser, has concerns for his family. “I am so afraid now about my future and my daughter’s future. Every Christian is so afraid for the future. I am now seriously finding how to get out of the country because the country will no longer be safe for us,” he said. “Daily, they are attacking us. In my opinion it will not be our country. We will not find jobs. Maybe everything for the Christians will become illegal, like going to church. They have already started to make Christians afraid.”

The military government has agreed to lift a ban on the return of Egyptian militants who fought in Afghanistan against the Russians. “If [the militants] come back, we are sure they will kill the Christians,” Anton said.  

Since the revolution, he said, 90 percent of his friends have decided to emigrate, but none have succeeded so far.

But others vow to stand their ground.

“This is our land and we won’t ever leave it,” Youssef said at the protest. His friends nodded in agreement. “We don’t want to leave Egypt. This is our country and our history.”