Copts protect praying Muslims during protests in Tahrir Square. Photo taken by @Nevine Zaki and published on Twitter.
This photo shows Egyptian Copts forming a cordon to protect Muslim anti-government protesters as they kneel for afternoon prayers in Cairo last week. According to our Observer, this symbolic gesture is a sign that many of the country’s Christians are questioning the Church’s continued defence of President Hosni Mubarak.
Copts make up an estimated 10% of Egypt's total population. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Post written with France 24 journalist Sarra Grira.
“Copts and Muslims finally seem to understand that they can’t afford to remain divided if they want the protest movement to succeed”
Minz Zekry is a Christian Egyptian blogger and human rights activist. He lives between Sweden and Egypt.
There were instances of police firing water cannons directly at protesters who were kneeling in prayer, so in this case the Copts' gesture may have acted as a deterrent. Above all, though, it was highly symbolic: it shows the two communities’ will to remain united against the government. The regime has reasons to be afraid of this unity. Mubarak has always posed as the protector of the Coptic minority against Muslim extremists. Many Copts were content to accept the stifling authoritarian regime in exchange for more security. But now, things have changed.
“The government used the religious divide in Egypt to its own advantage”
Although police have nearly deserted the city, there have been no attacks on Coptic churches since the start of the protests. My father is an Orthodox priest in Al Fayoum [south-west of Cairo]. I spoke to him on the phone and he told me he feels perfectly safe in his church. This goes to show that Christians are no worse off without police presence. It also shows that the government used the religious divide in Egypt to its own advantage; and even fostered inequalities between Muslims and Christians.
“The priority was uniting all Egyptians around a common goal: freedom”
I’m not denying the tensions that exist between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. But I think they have been put aside – temporarily at least – since the start of the protests. The priority was uniting all Egyptians around a common goal: freedom. My brother told me that last week he spoke to his Muslim neighbour for the first time because they both volunteered to be part of the neighbourhood safety committee. Copts and Muslims finally seem to understand they can’t afford to remain divided if they want the protest movement to succeed.
The photo of Copts forming a human chain also shows that Egypt’s Christians are defying the authority of the Church. Until now, most Christians obediently followed their Church rules, which makes sense: when you’re part of a little-considered minority, you tend to stick close behind your leaders.
This time, however, things are different: when Pope Shenouda [head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria] voiced his continued support for Mubarak, most Christians didn’t follow. This is new, even if early signs of this ‘disobedience’ were noticeable after the New Year’s attack on a cathedral in Alexandria. At the time, a Coptic leader was booed when he publicly thanked President Mubarak for his support of the Christian community."
Egyptian protest in favour of religious unity. Photo published on Flickr by Takver.