Hope in Egypt

  • February 16, 2011
During the extraordinary days that culminated in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Christians and Muslims set aside religious differences to march together as Egyptian citizens demanding reform.  

Thus the protests that caused Mubarak’s resignation were not so much an Islamic uprising as they were a broad popular revolt that crossed deep religious divides. There were stories from Cairo of Christians forming protective circles around Muslims during Friday prayers, and Muslims reciprocating when, remarkably, Christians prayed in public. Christians held crosses next to Muslims carrying Qurans. Some protesters waved signs that had the Christian cross mingling with the Muslim crescent in a unified symbol. When the radical Muslim Brotherhood shouted “Allah Akbar!” they were drowned out by chants of “Muslim, Christian. . .  we’re all Egyptian.”

As one observer put it, the revolt was about popular sovereignty, not God’s sovereignty. The leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church, wary of reprisal, did not endorse the protests. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood failed to hijack the reform agenda and twist it into religious one. So Muslims and Christians marched as one to demand human rights, freedom and justice.

Inter-faith co-operation is just one of the feel-good stories to emerge from Egypt, but it is an important one. There can be no real democracy in Egypt without freedom of religion. And there can be no freedom of religion without tolerance, respect and acceptance.

How Egypt treats its Christian minority will be a measure of its success in transitioning from autocracy to democracy. The new regime must invite Christians to participate as equals in political, cultural, economic and religious life. The coming constitution must enshrine respect for equality, human rights and religious freedom, and leaders must be vigilant in protecting those guarantees.

A top priority should be rejection of Mubarak’s Egypt in which Christians were openly persecuted and  often murdered, as happened at a New Year’s church bombing that killed 23 people. With about eight million Christians among its 83 million people, Egypt’s Christian population is the largest in the Middle East. The two religions have lived together, often peacefully, for more than 1,200 years and now they have an opportunity to set a standard of tolerance that can become a model of co-existence for the troubled region.

The fear, of course, is that Egypt could just as easily exchange an old tyrant for a new type of tyranny that is even more repressive. In Iraq, the ouster of Saddam Hussein fuelled an open season on Christians. Many Egyptians worry that Cairo’s political vacuum could spark the rise of an Iranian-styled theocracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For now, however, the remarkable days in Tahrir Square have kindled hope that Christians might continue to be invited to march as equals on Egypt’s road to democracy.

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