Egypt's Coptic Christians Their 14 Century-Old Coexistence with Islam Has Faced Strains Frommilitant Extremists

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Milad Hanna fingered his prayer beads methodically as he leaned into the microphone and spoke about recent reports of mass arrests and torture of Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt. This, he said, looking into the predominantly Muslim audience, is not a religious issue. A spontaneous burst of applause erupted from the assembled crowd.

The issue, Dr. Hanna went on, is indiscriminate police brutality (which human rights organizations confirmed). A prominent Copt and former parliamentarian, Hanna was referring to a highly charged incident last August in the village of el-Kusheh that created an international uproar when a London paper detailed the torture and labeled it Christian persecution.

But Hanna was not there to set the foreign press straight. This was an informal meeting at the private Shams sports club. The audience (with the exception of me) was exclusively Egyptian. Hanna, along with Salah Ideen Hafez, a well-known columnist for Al-Ahram, had come to discuss the fractured relationship between the country's native Coptic Christian and Muslim communities. Egypt's long and layered history of cohabitation between Muslim and Christian - now in its 14th century - has seen periods of rapprochement and periods of greater segregation. But through the centuries, the two communities' shared cultural experience has been uniquely Egyptian and ultimately binding. Both monotheistic faiths have tempered and shaped each other's practices and customs into what Hanna calls "Egyptian Islam" and "Coptic Christianity," producing a long-standing respect and tolerance between adherents of the two faiths. (Copts make up 6 to 12 percent of Egypt's 60 million population, depending on whom you ask.) Over the past three decades, however, this symbiotic relationship has come under increasing pressure from the tide of Islamic fundamentalism and government suppression. The divisive effect has been subtle and profound. Where once pride in being Egyptian superseded religious affiliation, now faith enters earlier into the conversation and is increasingly germane to identity. Religious consciousness and the politics of identity are gaining ground, says Mona Anis, culture editor for Al-Ahram Weekly, a sister publication of the country's leading daily. By way of example, Anis recounts a recent conversation with her Muslim hairdresser, who probed about her faith by asking when she would be celebrating Christmas. On discovering she was Muslim, albeit nonobserving, he was surprised and delighted. Yet Anis felt disheartened by the exchange. "Ten years ago," she says, "that question would never have been asked." In the past decade, religious consciousness has quietly crept beyond conversational labeling to more palpable divisions. Among the poorer classes, many Muslims who once visited Coptic doctors have since switched to Muslim physicians, citing Islamic dictates that a believer should not undress in front of a nonbeliever. It's an interpretation put forth by populist preachers, Anis says, and, like many of their pronouncements, has questionable basis in the Koran or Hadith traditions. The fundamentalist bent in Muslim practice, however, has pushed Copts closer to their own church and caused a greater parting of the communities. Yet that rift may have reached its nadir, suggests Marlyn Tadros, a human rights activist researching a book on the two communities. A Copt herself, she says that in the last year, there has been a small but perceptible easing of tensions with the government, which has made several gestures to the Coptic community. The most recent was the broadcast for the first time on local and satellite television of the Orthodox Coptic Christmas service. Conducted by Pope Shenouda III, the two-hour liturgy was beamed out Jan. 7 from the Patriarchy in Cairo. With almost a complete absence of Coptic programming on TV and radio, the broadcast was doubly significant. Last year, the government also returned church endowments, including land and property, that had been seized decades earlier under Gamal Abdel Nasser. …