A man holds a cross made of flowers as he chants slogans after clashes between… (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo — Fears and worries murmur like prayers beneath the hammered crosses of the Church of the Virgin Mary.
"The whole country will collapse," says Shenouda Nasri.
"I'm trying to get my family out," says Samir Ramsis.
"This is the Islamists' time," says George Saied.
A caretaker sweeps the stones, a woman slips into a pew. But these days Egypt's minority Coptic Christians are finding little serenity. Islamist political candidates, including puritanical Salafis, are dominating parliamentary elections. Sectarianism is intensifying and the patriotic veneer that unified Egyptians in overthrowing longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak is threatened by ultraconservative Muslim clerics whose divisive voices had been suppressed by the state for decades.
"Our goal is to achieve an Islamic caliphate with Islamic sharia rules," Mohamed Zoghbi, a hard-line Salafi preacher, said this year on TV. "If Egypt becomes a caliphate, then the Middle East and Arab countries will follow our path. All Muslim youth should strive and die to build this caliphate even over their own bodies."
Copts are now anxiously watching a theological and political battle sharpen between Muslim parties that are expected to win at least 60% of parliamentary seats after the final round of elections in January. The struggle between the Salafis and the more moderate and popular Muslim Brotherhood will define an emerging political Islam and how deeply religion will be ingrained in public life.
That unresolved question is one of the most contentious in Islam. It has been energized as uprisings across the region have upended despots, leaving fertile ground for untested political voices that would have been unimaginable just months ago. It is a seminal moment for an Arab world that appears, at least for now, determined to reinvent failed secular governments through what clerics regard as the purifying prism of Islam.
"The Islamists have been unleashed," says Nasri, a pharmacist hoping to follow the lead of tens of thousands of Copts who have left Egypt this year. "You're talking about no rights for women. No rights for Coptic Christians. They'll make us more of a minority. It'll be like living centuries ago."
Coptic Christians make up 10% of Egypt's population of 82 million. They have coexisted in relative peace with Muslims for centuries, but even before the overthrow of Mubarak, they endured increasing deadly attacks on churches, including a bombing in Alexandria and incidents of arson in Cairo and other cities.
Copts have felt further isolated as radical screeds have echoed from mosques since Mubarak's rule was brought down by a popular rebellion in February that included secularists, Islamists and communists.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members were jailed under the former president. But as the "Arab Spring" burgeoned early this year, the once-outlawed Brotherhood, which for decades built a network of social and religious programs, quickly became the nation's most potent political force. It has attempted to calm secular Egyptians and the West by emphasizing democracy and civil rights as it moves to gradually expand Islam throughout the government while addressing the country's economic turmoil, poverty and neglected institutions.
But the Salafis, who had been apolitical for decades, are demanding an immediate debate on religion and saying the new constitution must be interchangeable with the Koran. Relying on satellite TV and money from the Persian Gulf, the resurgent fundamentalists epitomize Egypt's startling political upheaval. They show little concern for compromise or diplomatic sound bites. One of their groups, Gamaa al Islamiya, renounced violence long ago but its candidates are a link to the coarse sectarian voices that led to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and terrorist attacks.
Wagdi Ghoneim, a popular ultraconservative Muslim preacher, fled Egypt's police state years ago. He has lived in the United States and the gulf, transmitting audio and televised speeches that resonate in Cairo's slums and outlying villages. He couldn't be more clear on where he stands.
"There's nothing called democracy. Democracy is built on the basis of infidelity," he says. "The Crusader Christians are a minority and we can never equate a minority's rights with the majority's.... How can they ask for the same rights as ours?"
Such rhetoric alarms Copts such as Ramsis, seated on a bench in the church courtyard, the Nile shining like a mirror beyond the marsh grass. Copts believe that Mary and the baby Jesus fled here to escape King Herod's soldiers. Ramsis, a math teacher with two children, is now contemplating his own possible flight from his native land.
"I was born in Cairo," he says. "But as a Christian I no longer feel like a whole citizen. I just want to go someplace where I can be respected."