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Associated Press/Photo by Victoria Hazou

Survivors

Egypt | Egyptian Christians recount the upheaval now behind them and consider the future before their country

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Every morning for 18 days, Egyptian Sylvia Zaki prayed the words of Psalm 91 like her life depended on it. In many ways, it did.

From her home in downtown Cairo, near the outskirts of Tahrir Square, the 37-year-old evangelical Christian could smell the wafting tear gas and hear the thundering sounds of Egypt's revolution: chanting crowds, gunfire, tanks, helicopters, and F-16 fighters overhead.

The psalmist's words resonated: "You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day . . . nor the destruction that wastes at noonday."

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Zaki prayed as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians massed in Cairo and cities across the country for nearly three weeks, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of ironclad rule. A week after Mubarak's Feb. 11 resignation, Zaki reflected on the experience. "There were times when I feared that I wouldn't live any kind of normal life again, but I thank God for the blessing of forgetfulness," she said. "We forget the fear and remember God's protection, so we can go on."

Egyptians are grappling with what it means to go on. For now, the country's military has assumed control, calling for an amended constitution and promising elections in six months. But the rough roadmap has an uncertain destination: What kind of government will Egyptians choose? And will newfound freedoms extend to the most oppressed populations?

Some Egyptian Christians are hopeful for a secular government that would allow greater freedoms after decades of harassment. Others fear the rise of an Islamic government that could make life even harder. But they agree on this: No matter what the future holds, Christians should speak up now.

"Christians have been living in a sort of cocoon for many years," said Emad Mikhail, president of the evangelical Alexandria School of Theology. "It's time to come out of the shelter."

For many Christians, coming out of the shelter began weeks before nationwide protests erupted on Jan. 25. A New Year's Eve bombing at the Coptic All Saints Church in Alexandria killed 23 churchgoers and wounded at least 70. Grieving Christians filled the streets, protesting the worst attack on Christians in decades and demanding a strong response from a government that often ignored such violence.

A strong response came quickly from an unexpected source: local Muslims. Mikhail, who in addition to his seminary position pastors a small Anglican church in Alexandria, says many moderate Muslims disapproved of the violence against Christians: "It woke up a lot of people who had become silent, or had maybe become fearful to express their opinions, or perhaps had been influenced by some of the fanatical ideas." The pastor says an unusual solidarity emerged between Christians and Muslims that helped set the stage for what would happen next.

By Monday, Jan. 24, protests were brewing 130 miles south in Cairo. Egyptians emboldened by the Tunisian protests that toppled the country's president on Jan. 14 began organizing mass demonstrations via Facebook, Twitter, and fliers distributed in neighborhoods. Mikhail met with his church youth group on Monday night: "I assured them change is coming."

By Tuesday morning, Jan. 25, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. Mikhail says some church members and seminary students joined the demonstrations, but disagreements surfaced that remained throughout the protests: Some church leaders thought Christians should stay away. Mikhail left the decision to each person: "As a church we can't demonstrate, but as individual members, I can't tell someone whether to demonstrate or not."

Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III called on church members to avoid protests, though many Copts demonstrated. Some young Egyptian Christians embraced the movement to oust the entrenched president, but some worried that losing Mubarak might mean gaining an Islamic government.

By Friday, Jan. 28, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Egyptian cities for "The Day of Rage," and the Muslim Brotherhood-a group that initially remained quiet-called its members to join the protests. Mubarak deployed the military into the streets, and riot police sprayed protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, water, and eventually live ammunition. By nightfall, hundreds were injured and more than a dozen dead across the country.

In Alexandria, Mikhail watched events unfold from home. "It was either television, or praying, or handling phone calls," he said. "For most of the 18 days, that was our schedule." Handling calls grew challenging with cell-phone service cut by the government: "We had to scurry to try to find people's landlines."

Conditions deteriorated on Saturday, Jan. 30, as embattled police forces fled, leaving citizens vulnerable to preying bands of looters and thugs. Driving through Alexandria, Mikhail saw car dealerships burned, government buildings in shambles, and citizens directing traffic at intersections.

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