A year after an attack by ultraconservative Muslims raised the spectre of a wave of religious strife in Egypt, the Christian churches in Cairo’s Imbaba district have been repaired, with sturdy wooden rafters, fresh paint and portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus ready to be hung anew. But the deep wounds from those attacks and ensuing clashes, which left 12 dead, cannot be painted over.
Coptic Christians, whose forefathers lived in Egypt before the arrival of Islam, had hoped that the 2011 uprising that ousted authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak would give them equal rights.
Instead, things have worsened. Egypt’s Christians have been the victims of threats and dramatic violence, and they fear the ascendance of political Islam.
With landmark elections set to begin May 23, many of the country’s Christians fear that the next president could turn Egypt into a conservative Islamic state that does not have room for their community of at least 8.5 million.
Under Mubarak, Christians complained they were treated like second-class citizens — forced to get special permission to build churches, and subjected to hate crimes that went unpunished.
But now, with the race shaping up as a choice between Islamists and former members of Mubarak’s government, most Christians are rallying behind the latter — despite past persecution.
Some are attracted to former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a Mubarak-era minister who has advocated a separation of religion and state.
Other Christians are rallying behind Ahmed Shafiq, the last premier who served under Mubarak, even though he is derided by revolutionaries as a symbol of the corruption and oppression of the former regime.
In addition to the attacks on churches, Christians have been terrified by other acts of aggression. Ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists are accused of slicing off a Christian man’s ear over accusations that he rented his apartment to prostitutes. Coptic families in Alexandria were displaced over a rumor that a Coptic man and a Muslim woman were romantically involved.
Christians also have encountered problems with the military. Last year, military forces cracked down on peaceful Christian protests, running over demonstrators with armored vehicles as state television anchors called on “honorable” Egyptians to protect the military. Nonetheless, some Copts are so fearful of a restrictive Muslim government that they hope the generals will intervene to stop an Islamist from becoming president.
In Imbaba, where garbage is heaped along unpaved roads and children play on broken jungle gyms, George Gamal, a Christian, said he wanted Shafiq for president.
“If religion is mixed with politics, this country will be destroyed,” the 50-year-old shop owner said. “It will be an Islamic emirate.”
The fact that the leading Islamist candidates have promised not to impose a discriminatory version of Islamic law did not reassure him.
People stopped in to buy eggs and juice from him as he chatted politics with Waleed Fawaz, a rickshaw driver.