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How Will Christians and Muslims Coexist in the New Egypt?

Egypt Cairo Travel
by Ellen Freeman Aug 9, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

AT A NEWSSTAND near the Dokki metro stop in Cairo, two weeks after his death on March 17th, 2012, Pope Shenouda III — the Coptic Christian Pope for the past 40 years — smiled serenely out at me from the cover of a magazine.

In the picture he was dressed in the golden-embroidered papal robes and propped up in his chair to look like he was sleeping peacefully or lost in spiritual meditation.

Even weeks after his death, he was still all anyone in Cairo was talking about, even with the start of the presidential race as competition for coffeeshop conversation. Pictures like the one on the magazine cover had been running in every newspaper for days, along with obituaries and retrospectives with headlines like “The wise man is gone — the wisdom lives on” and “The dove of peace has flown.”

Seeing me looking at the magazine, the man working at the newsstand took it down off the rack.
“This is a great man,” said the seller, looking at the picture admiringly. “He was a symbol of our country. I am a Muslim, but this is a great man.”

I was surprised by his sentiments; in a society dominated by Islamic influences, where Coptic Christians make up only about 10% of the population, I was also surprised by the volume of media coverage the Coptic Pope’s death had been receiving.

Shenouda was beloved. A friend who went to his funeral at Abbasiya Cathedral in Cairo was turned away due to overcrowding. He was only able get inside when the gates opened to let an ambulance out.
At Baba Shenouda’s public viewing, so many thousands of Copts showed up to mourn him that the stampeding crowds killed three people.

“Do you believe in God?”

Curious about Shenouda’s popularity, I invited my Coptic Christian friend Peter out for coffee.

“How are you feeling about the loss of Baba Shenouda?” I asked him when we met at the El Hommadeya coffeeshop in downtown Cairo.

Instead of answering mine, Peter asked me a question:

“Do you believe in God?” I half-choked on my sip of Arabic coffee and put the tiny glass back down on the aluminum table.

“Peter, not you too,” I moaned.

One of the first questions that taxi drivers will ask foreigners in Cairo (after “Are you married?”) is their religion.

When I first got to Cairo, I used to say that I was not religious, but soon learned that with some cab drivers this was an open invitation for them to try to fit in the “Everything You Wanted to Know About My Religion but Were Too Afraid to Ask” speech before we reached my destination.

Now I just say that I’m Christian because, though this isn’t really true, it’s easier; Muslims and Christians have shared Egypt since the dawn of each religion, and Christianity is both more understandable and acceptable than secularism to most.

The relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt fluctuates, depending upon who one talks to and the political situation of the moment. Officially, the Egyptian mantra is that Muslims and Christians are ‘one hand’, and the popular symbol of a crescent surrounding a cross is used to represent this.

“My experience of the relationship between Muslims and Christians is pretty bad,” Peter has told me. “If you ask anybody they will say ‘Oh, its fantastic! We’ve been living with each other for centuries.’ Yes, they were living with each other for centuries, but for centuries they were also having problems.”

Copts have always struggled as a second-class minority in Egypt; they have often been excluded from political positions and relegated to undesirable economic sectors like garbage-picking. Even the actual number of Copts is downplayed by the government to limit funding and resources.

One of the first questions that taxi drivers will ask foreigners in Cairo (after “Are you married?”) is their religion.

The divide between the two religious communities can be felt on a tangible level when in Christian enclaves in Egypt. Islam is so visually pervasive in daily life in Cairo that it’s startling to visit these neighborhoods.

There’s Coptic Cairo, with its concentration of ancient Coptic monuments, and Zabaleen, the ‘garbage district’ where Christians make a living collecting and sorting through all of Cairo’s trash for recyclables. In these places almost every woman has her head and arms bare, and there is Christian iconography on the walls of shops in place of the Islamic calligraphy popular in most of the city. It’s like Cairo in an alternative universe.

Here, the Christian world feels very separate from the Muslim one. Visiting the Cave Church or St. Simon the Tanner in Zabaleen, where the grandstand-like cathedral packs in thousands of worshippers for Thursday night service, it’s almost easy to forget that Christians are an often marginalized minority.

“No, no, I don’t care if you’re a Muslim or a Christian!” laughed Peter, lighting an L&M. “It’s just because… I consider myself an atheist, but I didn’t want to, like, offend you if you believe in God.”

When I met Peter at his cousin’s wedding two years ago, he would’ve been more likely to call himself a Coptic Christian. The only tobacco he toted back then was the pack of novelty cigarettes that squirted water that I gave him for his 16th birthday, and he probably wouldn’t have known the meaning of the word atheist.

Two years later, Peter is a confident 18-year-old (although “age is just a number” is one of his favorite sayings) with a penchant for skinny jeans and real cigarettes (he calls them “his desserts”). These days Peter will eagerly expound on his political views in impressive idiomatic English. Two years engenders a lot of change in any teenager, but Peter has evolved at a particularly rapid rate because of the amount of time he spends with Anthony.

Anthony is an American, and Peter’s former English teacher at Access, a program set up by the American Embassy that selects kids from poor areas of Cairo to learn English for two years. Despite their differences in culture and age, Peter and Anthony became best friends, and most of the week Peter lives at Anthony’s apartment in Cairo to be closer to his lessons downtown.

When Peter finally answered my question, he spoke matter-of-factly.

“I don’t know, I didn’t feel anything when the Pope died,” he said. “I know you’re supposed to love the Pope, but I didn’t feel anything.”

Peter went to church regularly growing up, but says that it just never made sense to him. When he started hanging around with Anthony, he met other foreigners whom he heard use the word atheist. He went home and looked it up and realized that the definition made more sense to him than being a believer.

As a self-described atheist in a country where people don’t describe themselves as atheists, Peter was almost as inept at comprehending the Pope’s significance as I was. The Arabic word for atheist is kaffir, which is like mother****er.

“Maybe there’s some who really cry and scream because they love this person and maybe some just because they think that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone dies,” he offered.

But if there was anyone who really cried and screamed when Baba Shenouda died, it was Peter’s mother, Nargis. Peter goes back to his parents’ house in the neighborhood he grew up in every Sunday, so the next Sunday I decided to go with him to ask Nargis about Baba Shenouda.

Mourning Pope Shenouda

“Finding out that Baba Shenouda died was like finding out that my own father died. Maybe worse,” said Nargis, setting a tray of glasses of red tea on the coffee table in the combination living room / bedroom of Peter’s family’s apartment.

The Mahers live in Maasara, a traditional, working-class area of Cairo about 40 minutes from downtown by subway, where the streets are paved with dust. In Maasara, the ratio of Muslims to Christians is about 70/30.

“Finding out that Baba Shenouda died was like finding out that my own father died. Maybe worse,” said Nargis.

Peter’s neighborhood is two stops away from a hulking cement factory, and on bad weather days the people in Maasara avoid opening the windows. Peter’s 20-year-old sister, Katrin, or “Kito,” still lives here with his parents, Nargis and Maher.

“I cried for a week when he passed away,” said Nargis, handing me my tea. Nargis wears her curly black hair in a ponytail, and is the kind of mom who will force-feed you until you clutch your belly and scream “I’m dying!” and then will serve you more. She hoisted a stack of books and religious tracts related to the pope that she’s collected over the years onto her lap.

“It’s true, she really did,” confirmed Peter.

His head was surrounded by a halo of the Christian iconography, which adorned the whole apartment –medieval-looking paintings of saints and hermits, silver crucifixes, grainy black-and-white photographs of dead priests and bishops. A plaster statue of Jesus with outstretched palms stood on an end table next to a vase of plastic flowers and a framed photo of Peter.

Peter’s parents live on the top floor of the skinny apartment building, with his uncle’s family in the apartment below and grandmother on the ground floor. The door to his uncle’s apartment is painted with a glorious, glittery Virgin Mary, with the family’s shoes lined up in the hallway in front of the door like offerings.

Nargis watched me take a sip of my tea, and a pained look came across her face.

“I couldn’t bear to give you just a half spoonful of sugar like you asked,” she explained. (Egyptian tea is notoriously sweet.) “So I gave you one and a half,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand as she giggled. She handed me a pamphlet commemorating a mass that Pope Shenouda gave years ago.

“People say that the pope did miracles and now they’re calling him Saint Shenouda,” she said reverently. After Pope Shenouda performed this mass, a miraculous image of Jesus appeared in the holy water. The Pope would bless the water used for mass, Peter explained, and afterward the congregation usually drank it all so that none would spill or be wasted.

Peter rolled his eyes as Nargis kissed the picture of Baba Shenouda she was holding, and handed it to me. In the photo he’s old but not sickly, wise-looking with a ‘weight-of-the-world’ furrow in his brow, wearing the shiny, round black hat of the Coptic pope and resting a gold-tipped scepter against his shoulder.

Peter’s mom, like most Copts, can easily recount Baba Shenouda’s life story, which she did while her mustachioed husband Maher sat next to her on the sofa, adding or challenging facts as he worked to fix a broken strap on my worn-out leather purse. Maher can fix anything, including his treasured 1970s station wagon, which he loves to race down the Nile Corniche blasting a techno remix of “Cotton Eye Joe.”

Shenouda was born to Christian parents but orphaned soon after his birth. He was breastfed by a Muslim woman, which Peter’s parents said instilled his lifelong passion for dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

In the 1940s, he taught high school, studied theology, and was successful in his military service. He retired from secular life in the 1950s, choosing the life of a monk in a desert monastery where he lived in a cave for six years. He became a priest in 1958 and then in the 1960s was appointed Bishop of Education, when he took the name Shenouda after a Coptic saint.

While he was bishop, Pope Kronis VI died, and in 1971 Shenouda was consecrated as the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria — his official title was Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic Seat of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria — one of the oldest Christian churches in the world.

As Pope, Baba Shenouda preached every Wednesday at Abbasiya, Cairo’s main cathedral, which sits on land in the center of the city that’s been owned by the Coptic Orthodox church since the 10th century. Peter’s mom tried to attend when she could.

Shenouda also wrote weekly religious advice columns in a number of Egyptian newspapers, and authored many books with titles like Calmness, How to Relate to Children, Contemplations on the Ten Commandments, and The Life of Repentance and Purity.

Flipping through multiple Christian religious channels, Peter’s dad settled on one discussing Baba Shenouda’s poetry.

“There was no book that came under his hands that he didn’t read, no matter what subject,” Maher told me.

As a student, Shenouda even memorized 10,000 lines of poetry. A sentimental montage of images of flowers and waterfalls played on the TV as the voice-over of the poem, which was about universal love, came to a close.

“Are you gonna cry?” joked Peter.

But while he might mock his parents’ reverence for the Pope, it’s not just the older generation of Copts who venerate Baba Shenouda.

Young Egyptian Christians: The Pope as celebrity

Just down the street from Peter’s parents’ apartment, his sister Kito was blow-drying a young woman’s hair in the beauty shop, or coiffure, she opened this year with her best friend Yasmeen and loans from Peter’s relatives.

The immaculately done-up brides in the photos on the window of Kito’s coiffure wear both traditional Christian wedding veils and the bedazzled hijab that is popular with Muslim brides. About half of her customers brush past the curtain which shields the inside of the shop from the gaze of the street and instantly remove their niqabs — the veil that covers everything but the eyes — to have their hair dyed or face threaded.

In Maasara, like in most of Cairo, Christians and Muslims mostly stick to their own groups socially, but mingle peacefully.

“In our Easter, our Muslim neighbors say ‘Happy New Year’, and we do the same for them,” said Marina, Kito and Peter’s 18-year-old cousin, who compared Muslims and Christians in Egypt to brothers and sisters.

“In our Easter, our Muslim neighbors say ‘Happy New Year’, and we do the same for them,” said Marina.

The coiffure space was just big enough to fit two salon chairs and a sink, with yellow and red painted walls decorated with stenciled flowers, and plastic ivy taped around the mirror. On top of a cabinet of beauty supplies, a picture of a saint poked out from behind swatches of hair dye. On the wall, a Baba Shenouda poster was taped next to an Ann Taylor advertisement featuring a smiling blond woman.
Marina noticed me looking at the poster of the Pope.

“Baba Shenouda was really really really really wise,” said Marina, counting the wises on her fingers. “If we needed any advice, we took it from him.”

Once, she told me, she saw him getting into a car. “I was so happy!” she said, and her dimples became even more prominent when she smiled. Her earnestness makes anything she says seems like she’s divulging a girlish secret.

“It was just like when you see an actor you like. My life wish was to see him again and talk to him about my problems, what I want to be…”

Marina, like Nargis, the rest of Peter’s family, and most of the Copts I’ve met in Maasara, is devoutly religious.

“Religion helps me, not with everything, but most of things. It made my character,” she said. “I have read a lot of things to believe what I do. I’m completely convinced with my religion.”

“Religion helps me, not with everything, but most of things. It made my character,” she said. “I have read a lot of things to believe what I do. I’m completely convinced with my religion.”

Her fierce kind of devotion comes not just from religious study, but from the strength it takes to identify oneself as a member of a religious minority.

Coptic Christians are outwardly identifiable by their uncovered hair, the tiny Coptic crosses tattooed on their inner right wrists as infants, and their Biblical names like Peter, Maria, or George.

It can be hard for me to comprehend the magnitude of religious difference in Egyptian society, having grown up in a progressive American city and being personally non-religious — my parents aren’t religious and we never went to church when I was growing up. We celebrated Christmas “for the family being together” (read: for presents).

Speaking to Marina, I was able to better understand why Peter and I, as non-religious people, were unable to grasp the significance of the Pope’s death. Copts mourned his death not because they were supposed to, but because to them Baba Shenouda was, like his name suggests, a father figure.

“He loved poor people a lot,” said Peter’s father. “He had a meeting with them every Thursday to give them things — new brides, people who can’t find an apartment, people who are in jail. If you went and asked for money, he wouldn’t refuse you.”

Nargis even remembered when the Pope gave her 20 pounds. Peter didn’t fail to bring up the fact that at the end of his life the Pope could afford to fly to the US for regular kidney treatments that were financed by donations from Copts who, he pointed out, suffer because no one pays for them to fly to the US for medical treatments.

Peter’s family, though, said that they were more than happy to provide for the Pope after all that he’d done for them. Beyond giving to those in need, and teaching and inspiring with his speeches and writing, Copts told me that Shenouda used his voice to protect their community.

Christians under attack in Egypt

Baba Shenouda had a famously testy relationship with Mubarak’s predecessor, president Anwar Sadat. The Pope spoke out against what he viewed as Sadat’s encouragement of Islamic extremism and the increase in violence against Copts, and publically disagreed with the 1977 census, which he said underestimated the number of Christians in the country.

In the 1980’s Sadat exiled Shenouda to the desert monastery in Wadi El Natrun for six years when Shenouda refused to align with his support of Israel in the Camp David Accords.

The fact that their president loudly deposed the Pope only affirmed the Copts’ view of Shenouda as their divinely-chosen leader, explained Nargis.

“God planned it that way,” she told me. “If Shenouda had been there with the president on the 6th of October (when Sadat was assassinated) and not in Wadi El Natrun, he would’ve been killed too.”

On New Year’s 2011, a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria, killing 23 people.

After Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak brought Shenouda out of exile and began what was a notably chummy relationship. After his conflicts with Sadat, Shenouda seems to have realized that, politically, it was in the best interests of the Coptic community to ally himself with the president.

At Shenouda’s urging, Mubarak secured Christmas not just as a holiday for Copts, but as an Egyptian national holiday. Copts speak about this as a tangible benefit of the alliance between the two leaders, who see it as a careful concession toward legitimizing Christian beliefs in Egyptian eyes. (Mubarak denied also making Easter a holiday, because though Islam acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, and thus celebrates his birth, it does not view him as the son of God, and thus doesn’t recognize his resurrection, Peter’s dad explained to me.)

Despite their public partnership, persecution of Copts continued under Mubarak in much the same way as it had under Sadat.

On New Year’s 2011, a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria, killing 23 people. A group called Army of Islam was blamed but never tried. Ten years earlier, 21 Copts were killed by their Muslim neighbors in the Kosheh Massacre in Upper Egypt.

When I was studying abroad in Cairo two years ago, thousands of the pigs raised by the garbage collectors in Zabaleen were slaughtered as Swine Flu fears swept through the country, in a move that many believed was an excuse to shut down a major part of Zabaleen’s source of livelihood.

Despite this, Peter’s father called Shenouda the “backbone of peace and safety” for Christians, because of his relationship with Mubarak. The fact that his passion was working for peace between Muslims and Christians was reiterated by almost everyone, no matter what religion, who mourned his loss.

Though Copts have never hoped for a Christian political leader to secure their rights, Shenouda approached that in the most realistic way possible through his position of power with Mubarak.

By the time that I sat in the Maher’s living room, of course, Egypt’s whole political structure had been overthrown.

Coptic Christians in Morsi’s Egypt

Coptic Christians suddenly found themselves not only in transition from an oligarchy to a freely elected president for the first time in many of their lives, but also coping with the loss of their re’is ad-deen, or “president of religion”, as Peter’s dad referred to Baba Shenouda.

In the last century, Copts have received recognition for brief periods when the country has come together to oust a leader, and for the most part this was the experience of the most recent revolution — many revolutionary slogans were about the oneness of the Egyptian people, and the foreign press loved to publish pictures of the two groups protesting together.

Historically, though, things have tended to settle back into the direction of the Islam-influenced leanings of the majority, and this is what the Copts I spoke with feared most.

“There are fights lately between Muslims and Christians, because the Muslim Brotherhood wants to make us wear the hijab,” said Marina. “They want to make us do Islamic traditions.”

“The Muslims say that everything is haram,” said Peter’s dad, using a word that describes anything that is prohibited by the Qur’an. He motioned to my outfit — jeans and a conservative three-quarter-sleeve blouse buttoned to the collarbone.

“Dancing on TV? Haram.” He picked up the bottle of soda I was drinking. “Pepsi? Haram.”

“The way you’re dressed with your arms and hair showing? Haram.” He changed the TV to a belly-dancing channel where a rotund, scantily-clad woman gyrated to Egyptian music. “Dancing on TV? Haram.” He picked up the bottle of soda I was drinking. “Pepsi? Haram.”

“Pepsi?” I asked, chuckling in disbelief.

“Yes!” he said, laughing. “Because it comes from America!” At this moment the sundown call to prayer began, and he turned the TV up louder. “They do this five times a day, you know.”

Wisdom, a love of peace for the country, and forgiveness were the qualities that Peter’s dad said he hoped for in Shenouda’s successor. Until the election of the new Pope, which has now begun, an interim Pope had been appointed “kind of like what the army is doing now until we elect a president,” explained Peter.

As Egyptians voted for their new president and parliament, the global Coptic community was carrying out the ritual of choosing a new Pope. First they nominated candidates that Church officials voted on. The three top candidates will have their names written on slips of paper, which will be placed on the altar at Abbasiya.

According to tradition, a young boy will be blindfolded and choose the slip with the name of the next Coptic pope, to allow for divine intervention in the choice.

Marina and Nargis said they weren’t worried at all about the particulars of who the next pope would be.

“Baba Shenouda was the 117th pope and all 117 were good. God will choose someone who can lead us.” The security they felt in divine intervention didn’t extend to politics, however.

“The presidential election,” said Marina, shaking her head. “That’s what I’m really worried about.”

At that time hundreds of potential presidential hopefuls had begun entering their names into the candidacy, with widely ranging ideas about the future of the country from Sharia law to a reinstatement of Mubarak-era policies.

The Christian community knew that a Christian candidate would never be realistically electable, but when the run-off elections came down to Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s former prime minister, and Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, most supported Shafik.

“Pray for his success,” a Coptic bishop told the congregation at a crowded Thursday night service I attended, extending his hand toward Shafik who sat in the front row, hoping to secure the Christian vote.

In June, Morsi was elected with 52% of the vote. Shafik was often criticized as a remnant of the old regime, but for many Coptic Christians he symbolized stability, the possibility of a return to the sense of security they felt in the alliance between Shenouda and Mubarak.

At the election of Morsi, many Copts feared a shift towards a more religiously conservative government and further oppression of their community.

Looking forward, though, a continuation of the kind of complacent relationship that Shenouda had with Mubarak’s policies towards Christians seems politically safe, but it may just keep preventing the kind of dialogue that is needed for Copts to truly become equal citizens.

Peter, unlike most Christians I know, didn’t view Shenouda’s friendship with Mubarak in a positive light. He called him a “bullshitter politician” who was afraid to lose his position of power with Mubarak by risking a rocky relationship like he had with Sadat.

A few members of the community, even devout ones, began to question Shenouda’s motives at the beginning of the revolution, when he discouraged Copts from joining the protests against Mubarak and openly endorsed the president’s son as the next ruler of Egypt.

For Peter, the decisive moment was when Shenouda had an opportunity to make the Christian’s plight public on an international scale, but failed to speak out about the violent attacks and oppression. For devout Copts like Peter’s parents, though, this was just another example of Baba Shenouda’s unfaltering dream of peace in Egypt.

“When stuff would happen between Muslims and Christians here and Americans would try to get involved, they would ask, ‘Are there problems between Muslims and Christians?’” explained Peter’s Dad.

“Baba Shenouda would say ‘No,’ because he didn’t want foreign involvement and he didn’t want tension between Muslims and Christians.”

“When stuff would happen between Muslims and Christians here and Americans would try to get involved, they would ask, ‘Are there problems between Muslims and Christians?’” explained Peter’s Dad.

“That just means he was too scared,” said Peter to me in English so that his parents couldn’t understand him. To Peter, Pope Shenouda and Mubarak were like men who fight dogs.

“If this man’s dog lives, he gets the money, if his dog dies, the other guy gets the money. But the men don’t get hurt. They just have their fun.”

Death of the big dogs

With both of the big guys out of the picture these days, Egyptians may finally have the opportunity to actually try to understand the differences that have kept them divided.

As Peter sees it, “There is nobody who wants to admit that Muslims and Christians are fighting, because then they must admit that they have hate for one another.”

What the Copts might need most now is a new Pope who will be willing to use his position of power to push back against the old Egyptian order.

The new Pope will have to be able to actively engage with President Morsi in order for his community to receive recognition, even if it means that he won’t be as likeable for the rest of Egypt as Shenouda was.

“You know,” said Marina, smiling so her dimples showed, “he will have to be very good to get us to love him as much as we loved Baba Shenouda.”

Nargis took Peter, Marina and me up onto the roof of the apartment building, where the family was keeping two goats tied up to await slaughter for Coptic Easter the following week.

The goats munched on food scraps, and the fatter one bleated when Peter struggled to it pick up. Old broken furniture and other junk littered the rooftop, but even here framed icons and a picture of Baba Shenouda hung on the walls.

The sun had almost gone down, but Kito would go on blow-drying and threading late into the night because, Peter’s mom said, “Every Christian woman in Maasara will be getting her hair done for Easter.”

This Easter — their first in 40 years without Baba Shenouda — the holiday’s overtones of sacrifice, celebration, and resurrection would resonate with the Copts more acutely than ever.

“Baba Shenouda had a saying,” said Nargis, leaning down to feed one of the goats a piece of greens. ‘God is here. Everything is for good. At one time it will end.” [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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