A Christian worship service was held in Tahrir Square today on behalf of the protesters. Just as Christians formed a cordon of their bodies around their praying, vulnerable Muslim colleagues on Friday, so the Muslim Brotherhood had vowed to protect these Christians. The gestures are symbolic rather than practical, but that does not make them unimportant.
Perhaps it makes them more important.
Following today’s service, there was footage on Al-Jazeera (Arabic) of a Muslim Imam in the dress of an Al-Azhar cleric holding arms with a Christian priest in Tahrir square, both saying that they are united to get Mubarak out and change the regime.
Their words echoed that of the Muslim preacher during Friday prayers Feb. 5 said, “This is an Egyptian movement, with Christians and Muslims taking part. It does not have a religious goal. It is spontaneous, and is not driven by party-political aims. Our aims are to get rid of Mubarak and his regime.”
But aren’t Muslims and Christians at each others’ throats in Egypt? Wasn’t there a church bombing just last month? What is going on?
It is difficult to be Christian in Egypt. In rural communities, small scale disputes that begin as squabbles between neighbors may descend into community-wide violence along sectarian lines.
In the city, Christians winding their way through the Byzantine regulations that govern the building of new churches may find that their Muslim neighbors (for whom building a mosque is a much simpler process) have deliberately stolen a jump on them and built a mosque on the site they sought to put their church on.
During the chaos that has occurred since the dissolution of the police, there have been reports of Muslim neighborhood militias standing aside as their Christian neighbors were looted.
There are strong friendships and working partnerships between Christians and Muslims, but also considerable mistrust. Christians have increasingly begun to signal their identities by tattooing crosses or fish on their hands.
For many Christians, however, the root of their problems lies with the Mubarak regime rather than with Islam per se, or even with organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Over the past several decades the state has created a framework of legal discrimination against Christians. Under Egypt’s constitution, Christians are free to practice their faith but the regime has structurally limited their ability to do so.
Christians in Egypt are consistently under counted in official censuses, limiting their political influence. They are routinely refused permission to build new churches and claim to be treated by state institutions as second class citizens.
While Christians do not blame the state for violence perpetrated against them, they claim that the state is slow to investigate anti-Christian crime, but quick to investigate when a Christian is accused of a crime.
And the state is quite capable of direct persecution, as when the regime slaughtered more than 300,000 pigs as a precaution against “swine flu”, rendering thousands of poor Christians destitute. One Christian told me last summer that he believed the action was a retaliation for Coptic resistance to efforts by government cronies to take over the beautiful rock churches in Moqattam and turn them into tourist destinations.
[The official government web site on H1N1 virus in Egypt claimed that contact with infected swine was the most common way to transmit swine flu, while the US CDC web site claimed it was the least common–only 50 recorded cases since 1958]
Many Christians also say that the regime quietly supports, and sometimes even sponsors sectarian violence in order to produce evidence of the chaos they are supposedly preserving Egypt from. For those in Tahrir Square, their symbols of unity are aspirational signs of what they hope life could be like freed of the heavy hand of the Mubarak regime.
That’s why there have been so many placards showing the conjoined signs of cross and crescent during the uprisings. It’s why there have been joint Muslim-Christian prayers in Tahrir Square.
These signs reflect a historical tradition of Christians and Muslims joining together in political protest that dates back to banners carried by the nationalist Wafd party in 1919 when it led revolution against British colonial.
Similar signs were seen during the anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 and during recent workers’ strikes.
The collapse of the regime will not solve the problems of Egypt’s 8 million or so minority Christians. But many Christians clearly believe a new government would be a breakthrough that would give them an opportunity to redress grievances.
It is surely a significant statement against the Mubarak regime that many of Egypt’s beleaguered Christians would rather work with the Muslim Brotherhood toward change than continue to live under the current government.