By John Sainsbury,

Egypt’s Coptic Christians are carrying a heavy burden this Christmas, which they observe on Jan. 7. What should be a joyous occasion also follows closely on the first anniversary of a church bombing in Alexandria, which killed 23 people and left close to a hundred injured. Bloody confrontations between Copts and Muslims followed, even as Muslim leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced the bombing and appealed for calm.

The perpetrators of the bombing have never been identified, compounding Coptic anxieties. The Mubarak government was quick to blame “foreign elements,” specifically a shadowy Palestinian-based organization called the Army of Islam.

But no group has taken responsibility for the attack, and the official investigation was so badly bungled that conspiracy theories quickly acquired currency. Accusing fingers point to the Mubarak regime itself, then on its last legs, as the perpetrator. Its alleged motive was to sow discord between Muslims and Christians and then step in as the only force capable of restoring peace.

In the bewildering climate of rumour and counter-rumour, the one sure thing is that sectarian violence at Christmas has become depressingly routine. On Jan. 7, 2010 (Christmas Day in the Coptic calendar), gunmen murdered eight Christians in Nag Hammadi as they were leaving midnight mass. This year tension is high in the province of Asyut after a Coptic student allegedly posted pictures of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, an act of blasphemy in Muslim eyes. An angry mob threatened to lynch the student and, reportedly, some Coptic homes have been burned down.

What are the larger implications of these events for the future of Egypt’s Copts, who represent a substantial minority, variously estimated as numbering between 10 percent and 20 percent of the country’s total population? There are two possible scenarios. The first is optimistic. It contextualizes sectarian violence as part of an enduring and essentially stable pattern of relations between Egypt’s religious communities, one that includes as many instances of friendly co-operation as it does of hostile confrontation.

The second is pessimistic. It sees growing hostility to Copts–marked out as scapegoats for the country’s perilous economic and political condition–reaching a tipping point that will see the steady stream of Coptic migration from Egypt swell into a full-scale exodus.

I witnessed some inspiring examples of religious co-operation when I lived in Egypt in the 1980s, most memorably during a visit to the monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai. Inside the monastery’s massive walls there is a mosque, where Bedouin tribesmen come to pray and barter with the monks. But, sadly, this model of religious harmony has little application to the rest of Egypt. The monastery is Greek Orthodox, not Coptic, and because of its geographical isolation it has always enjoyed immunity from the religious strife that afflicts the larger region.

There is another possible basis for optimism. For centuries, Muslims and Christian Copts in rural Egypt have shared each other’s religious festivals–often unaware of a meaningful distinction between them–and mingled courteously at weddings and funerals. But the very urgency with which anthropologists have been exploring these religious customs suggests that they are examining a dying-village culture, terminally eroded by the rising tide of religious intolerance.

Optimism about the future of Egypt’s Copts smacks of an exercise in straw clutching. Reasons for pessimism, by contrast, are compelling. The Maspero demonstrations in October, called to protest the burning of Coptic churches in Aswan, elicited a brutal response from an unholy alliance of the ruling military and Islamic militants, the latter being urged on by the state media to protect the army from “Coptic violence.” The prospect of closer ties between the armed forces (or a faction of them), desperate for a populist support, and the Islamist Salafi faction, eager for political power, is a clear and present danger for the Copts.

It is an indication of the rise of religious extremism in Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood, once the bane of secularists, is able to represent itself as a moderate voice. With its plurality of votes in the current elections, the Brotherhood, in the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is on course to form Egypt’s first post-revolution civilian government.

The Brotherhood is making soothing overtures to the Copts. In a statement to the Al Ahram newspaper, an FJP official says that, “the party has no objection to promulgating legislation guaranteeing recourse to their religious laws with respect to personal status issues.”

But there is no enthusiasm among Copts for being constitutionally defined as a religious minority in an Islamic state. Their goal, as defined by Coptic entrepreneur Naguib Sawiris–a leader of the secularist Egyptian Bloc party–is religious freedom securely protected within a secular civil society. That goal was nearly attained in the 1920s, but the chances of it happening now are about as remote as the possibility that the Western-oriented Egyptian Bloc will ever come to power.

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.

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