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Egypt's Coptic Christians

January 23, 2012

The Egyptian desert Natrun valley oasis is home to several Coptic Christian monasteries. The monks living there have remained largely unaffected by the political upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Coptic priest, Brother Joaquin, blessing visitors to the St. Pishoy monastery
The future of Egypt's Coptic Christians is uncertainImage: DW

A young monk living in al-Baramus, the oldest of all Coptic Christian monasteries, does not want his name mentioned, but is prepared to talk about his life.

"I only leave the monastery very, very rarely. In 12 years, I have only been outside three times. I chose this life myself and that is why I do not feel like it has impaired my freedom," he says.

It would appear that a monk's life in the desert has not lost any of its appeal. Several hundred monks live at the Natrun valley monastery in self-imposed austerity and abstinence.

"Every one of us has a different reason. I had a very comfortable life. I studied business and had a good job. Thank goodness I had a successful life. But even so, I chose to leave the world behind me and enter a monastery. I wanted more time for prayer and contemplation," said the young monk.

Mass at Cairo's oldest Coptic church al-Muallaga
The devout still gather at Cairo's Al-Muallaga churchImage: DW

Dwindling solidarity

Life in a monastery is shaped by rituals and customs. The monks have not been affected by the monumental changes that have swept across Egyptian society.

"We are not involved in politics, but from time to time people from outside stop by with news. We do have our opinion, like anybody else. I think the country is becoming more Islamic. There are more freedoms, but not for Christians. In Cairo, there have been many arson attacks on churches," he says.

In January 2011, during the early days of the protests against President Hosni Mubarak, Copts and Moslems stood side by side. They were united in their resistance against a despot and their common struggle was successful.

But since then, the solidarity has dissipated. The political and social upheaval has brought the people new freedoms. Among them, however, is the freedom to discriminate against religious minorities without fear of punishment. In particular, the Copts have borne the brunt of these actions.

Religious freedom?

Egyptian Coptic Christians hold crosses and shout slogans during a protest in front of the state television building in Cairo
The growing number of attacks against Copts has led to protestsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In the course of the last few months, several churches have been set on fire across Egypt and dozens of Christians murdered.

The violent attacks flare up especially when Christians protest against restrictions on their religious freedom.

This discrimination has a long tradition in Egypt. Even former president and Nobel peace laureate Anwar al-Sadat was an opponent of religious freedom for Christians. In 1981, he banished the Coptic Pope to Saint Pishoy, the most famous Coptic orthodox monastery, in the Natrun valley. Four years later, the leader of the Coptic Church was freed by Sadat's successor, Mubarak.

Saint Pishoy is the second residence of the current Coptic Pope Shenouda III. Some 120 monks live in the monastery. One of them is Brother Joaquin. When Deutsche Welle met him he was sitting on a bed of wooden planks in a bare room no larger than five square meters (54 sq. ft.). There is nothing in this room that recalls the violent protests on streets of Egypt.

"This is a monk's cell with two rooms built in the 9th century," explains Brother Joaquin. "This room is for meditation, prayer, learning, and for sleeping. In the other room, a monk can receive guests or other monks who are his friends," he says.

While the people of Egypt brace themselves for fundamental change, a monk's life in a monastery remains mostly the same.

"The system is the same for us every day," notes Brother Joaquin. "We pray for the people who live outside. We also have a spiritual obligation to pray for peace." And with an imploring expression he adds: "The security situation here is very good. God watches over us."

Priests in Cairo's old town

At Saint Barbara's Church in the old center of Cairo, a mass has just ended. The priest, Sarabamoni Zaki has returned to his luxuriously appointed office. Unlike his fellow believers in the desert monasteries he is very interested in the political events of Egypt. Zaki says that the situation of the Copts has changed noticeably since the revolution.

Picutre of the Holy Family fleeing to Egpyt in a Coptic church
Pictures of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt are a common Coptic motifImage: DW

"Since January 25 (2011), some Christians are now afraid. We do not know what will happen. We are very aware that there has been a change in the relationship between Christians and Muslims."

The Muslim segment of society is deeply involved in the power struggle. "We've never seen anything like this in the last 30 years," Zaki explains.

Most Coptic Church leaders say they are grateful that the people were able to topple Mubarak. But at the same time they recognize that there were certain advantages to the old regime.

"I would not say he was good or bad. But we did not have the insecurity that we have now," says Zaki.

The priest is concerned about the future of Coptic Christians in Egypt, but he also sees no reason to hide.

"I tell young people to persevere, to be strong. You must mix with the Muslims and live with them. Do not be afraid. Make them your friends and explain your concerns. But don't ever be angry or nervous. Be respectful and speak calmly."

Such is the wishful thinking of a pious man.

Author: Andreas Boueke /gb
Editor: Rob Mudge