CAIRO-On a bright Sunday morning in Nasr City, a district of Cairo, millions of Egyptians begin a typical workday: Women in brightly colored head coverings barter for vegetables in outdoor markets, men in compact cars relentlessly blare horns during morning commutes, and children in neat uniforms march arm-in-arm to local schools.
The morning call to prayer wafts from dozens of nearby mosques, but Sunday isn't a holy day for Egypt's majority Muslim population. Schools close and mosques open for weekly sermons on Friday.
But in an eight-story building tucked into a row of high-rise apartments on a major thoroughfare, an exception to the normal routine unfolds. Draw near to the gates of the only evangelical church in this district of some 2 million Egyptians, and you'll hear the sound of nearly 300 voices singing in Arabic: "Consider it all joy when you go through trials."
Come inside the packed meeting room with high ceilings and wooden pews and you'll find a church leader behind a pulpit talking about Moses. "Moses understood the sovereignty and power of God," he says. "But I don't think he had a clue how powerful and sovereign God was until he lived with Him in the wilderness."
It's a message that resonates for Egyptian Christians living in a modern-day wilderness of their own. Though life has been difficult for the minority group for decades, the last year has brought a revolution that yielded an Islamist-dominated parliament and worries that life may grow even harder for Christians already facing discrimination and oppression.
Last October, fears deepened when the army cracked down on Coptic Christians in Cairo protesting the demolition of a church building in Aswan. The assault on protesters killed 27 and injured more than 300.
As many as 200,000 Coptic Christians have fled Egypt since last year, and handfuls of evangelicals report knowing many in their own circles fleeing the unrest. With the country set to hold its first post-revolution presidential elections May 23-24 (and possible run-off elections in June), the unrest could grow deeper. Conflicts between supporters of Islamic groups, the military, and secular parties fomented into violent street fights by early May.
The turmoil affects all Egyptians, including the millions of Egyptians who live below the poverty line and have little hope of fleeing. But it leaves minority groups especially vulnerable and threatens to shrink dramatically the largest remaining Christian population in the Middle East.
Though this wilderness may be vast for Egypt's Christians, it isn't barren. Even if Egyptian Christians aren't sure where they're headed in an unpredictable landscape, some-including a determined population of evangelicals-are finding fresh resolve to continue serving their communities and new courage to speak into a society that has often scorned them.
At the church in Nasr City, pastor Ezzat Shaker prays that trend continues: "I hope that the church will be a church without walls." And though he knows that life for Christians could grow more difficult in the days ahead, he adds: "Jesus said it's His church. ... No fear."
For many Egyptians, fear has been a steady reality since last year. During the Middle East's tumultuous Arab Spring last year, Egyptian citizens amassed in cities like Cairo and Alexandria demanding regime change. The protests shut down ordinary life, and chaos ensued when security police abandoned their posts, leaving citizens to guard their homes and businesses round-the-clock.
Still, in an extraordinary 18 days, the 30-year-old rule of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak crumbled, and a military council announced its ruling power until the country could hold its first legitimate elections in decades.
More than a million Egyptians had packed into Cairo's Tahrir Square for protests that turned to mass celebrations as Mubarak announced his departure. (More than a year later, Egyptians await a verdict in Mubarak's trial for charges of corruption and murder during his dictatorial reign.)
But celebration turned to uncertainty as Egyptians faced the post-Mubarak reality: How would unorganized citizens build a new government? An organized group answered: The Muslim Brotherhood-an Islamic group long banned from Egyptian politics by Mubarak-emerged with a well-organized political party that drew widespread support. The group's Freedom and Justice Party won nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections in January.
The group's rise alarmed secularists who had led the revolution in hopes of a secular government. It also alarmed Christians. Though the Muslim Brotherhood claims moderation in its views, the group has had terrorist ties in other countries, and its most famous slogan is stark: "Islam is the solution."
While some worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, others worried more about Salafi Muslims who won 24 percent of the seats in parliament. Salafists don't claim moderation: The fundamentalist group advocates strict adherence to Sharia law. Authorities increasingly implicate the group in targeted attacks on Christians. And when the group backed a presidential candidate earlier this year, men with long beards and women with faces covered by black niqabs carried signs of support through Tahrir Square.
The Islamist dynamic isn't surprising in a country that's nearly 90 percent Muslim, and challenges to Christians may not be new but are now more open and direct. An estimated 12 percent of Egypt's population identifies as Christian-a designation given at birth. (National identity cards indicate an Egyptian's religion, and changing the designation from Islam to Christianity is forbidden.)
Most Egyptian Christians identify as Coptic Orthodox-an ancient tradition of Christianity and the oldest church in Egypt. A smaller percentage identify as Protestant or evangelical (often synonymous terms), making Egyptian evangelicals a minority within a minority.
Minority status brings huge hurdles: Egyptian regulations for building churches makes constructing-or even renovating-church buildings a sometimes decades-long process. Public evangelism is forbidden. Discrimination in the workplace is common. Social scorn is an ongoing reality in some areas. Beyond hassles, Christians have faced violence: Terrorists bombed the Coptic All Saints Church in Alexandria in January 2011, killing 23 congregants leaving a New Year's Eve service.
The growing Islamist power has compounded ongoing fears and sent thousands of Christians fleeing Egypt. In conversations with dozens of evangelicals in Cairo and Alexandria, many told me they knew dozens of Christians who had left the country and said more were contemplating a move.
At one evangelical congregation in Cairo, a longtime church member spoke in hushed tones and asked not to be identified when he talked about a handful of Christian friends who had fled since last year. He plans to stay, but admitted: "We are afraid the Islamists will kill the freedoms worse than before."
Despite the growing fears, other Egyptian Christians remain hopeful-and determined to stay. Back in Nasr City, the church's pastor, Shaker, seems buoyant when he talks about his church's vibrancy since the revolution. He says services remain packed (the congregation holds two services to accommodate 500 members) and that churches around the city are using the post-revolution environment to meet Muslim neighbors: "The churches are stepping outside their walls."
Churches in Cairo and Alexandria report new visitors, including Muslims curious about Christianity. (Since state police dispersed after the revolution, Christians and Muslims feel less scrutiny from local officials for now.)
Members of the Nasr City church continue their longtime efforts to serve their neighborhood: Three floors above the church hall, the congregation has operated a small community clinic for years. During a recent visit, patients sat in a small waiting room of the four-room clinic that maintains a dentist's office, a lab, and examining rooms for services that include cardiology and dialysis. Doctors from the church volunteer, and the clinic offers treatment for a nominal fee to all members of the community, including Muslims.
On another floor, the church operates a preschool program for community children at a low cost to parents that work outside the home. Children sit around low tables in colorful rooms working puzzles, coloring, and playing games. Volunteers teach the children using the Montessori method that stresses creativity and critical thinking-an innovative approach in a country that emphasizes learning by rote.
Shaker says such efforts have built the church's credibility in the community, and that they haven't encountered problems from government officials. They plan to continue working hard for as long as they can. "Of course there are some concerns that things could get harder," he says. "But I know the Lord is the Lord of the church, and He'll stay faithful to it."
Across town, the members of Kasr el Dobara have been working hard, too. The largest evangelical church in the Middle East is home to several thousand members that take turns packing into three worship services each week and a Monday night prayer meeting that draws more than 1,500 people.
The church has another notable feature: It sits on the edge of Tahrir Square-ground zero for political protests and filled by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the last year. The square has filled with protesters again during the days leading up to the presidential elections in May, but officials usually turn off streetlights in part of the area at night to discourage locals from assembling in the dark.
A handful of citizens remain on a patch of dirt in the center of the square full time, hovering over small campfires and sitting at doorways of makeshift tents. (Locals say the campers are family members of protesters slain during the demonstrations.)
Across the square and behind a government building, churchgoers streamed toward Kasr el Dobara for a recent Sunday night service. Each person filed through a high gate and a metal detector before passing into the church's grounds, but the extra security doesn't mean the church is closed to outsiders.
Indeed, during the revolution, the church's open-air courtyard became a triage center for demonstrators wounded during the protests. The church maintained a clinic that included 80 beds and volunteer doctors who treated as many as 300 patients a day at the height of the unrest. Medical supplies still sit piled high near the church's entrance, waiting for the next emergency.
"The revolution opened doors for us," said associate pastor Nagi Said after the evening service. "The church became more exposed."
That exposure draws visitors to church services that on a recent Sunday night included two hours of prayer, singing, preaching, and communion. The church's senior pastor didn't address the political instability directly, but he reminded his congregation that spiritual victory often comes through tribulation. "Sometimes the news seems to go from bad to worse," he said. "But we go from glory to glory."
Pastor Said, the associate minster, said that attitudes about the future vary in the congregation: some people are optimistic, some are worried, and others have fled. But he says the church is encouraging Christians to persevere through difficulties and seize new opportunities to serve others: "We encourage them to live their Christian life ... be servants, be loving, be compassionate, show the love of Christ, and be good citizens."
Discovering how to be good citizens in a new political environment is a challenge for many Christians long-marginalized by society. Though Christians enjoyed some protections under the Mubarak regime, they've had little voice in government or broader society.
From the early days of the revolution, Christians debated whether they should participate in protests or remain quiet-a debate that continues. From an Anglican church in Alexandria, pastor Emad Mikhail has encouraged his congregation to learn more about the political process and candidates and to become active citizens that advocate for the good of the whole country.
It's been a gradual journey. During the first days of the revolution, Mikhail spent hours on the phone with church members who feared for their safety as looters roamed the streets in the absence of police.
Now life is calmer. Visitors have returned to Alexandria's famed library, and the streets of the port city bustle with cars, buses, taxis, and pedestrians making harrowing commutes across traffic. Still, people are more cautious about going out at night, and the possibility of mass protests always looms. On a busy street near his church, Mikhail says: "We're still in the shaky transition."
That transition could take years. Though Egyptians have been eager to adopt a new government quickly, their task is formidable: elect a new parliament, draft a new constitution, elect a new president, transfer power from the military to a civilian government, and manage unrest when factions disagree.
Public distrust of political powers-including the military and the Muslim Brotherhood-has grown, as citizens worry about any one group gaining too much power. Meanwhile, tensions have grown between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as both groups look to maintain measures of control.
And conspiracy theories abound, with some Egyptians convinced the military stirs unrest to make citizens long for stability that the military would promise to provide. Others believe the two groups have struck a secret political deal that will give both organizations lasting power.
Whatever the case, Mikhail isn't surprised at the ongoing uncertainty. But he's encouraged that Egyptians seem willing to discuss openly ideas that they once talked about in private. (Indeed, newspapers that once carried only state propaganda now carry letters to the editor criticizing the government-a definite shift in freedom of speech. But Human Rights Watch noted in February that the military has also continued to crack down on reporters covering political rallies, detaining and beating some.)
If the news seems hopeful and gloomy all at once, that's the new reality in Egypt. Mikhail says he remains "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility for progress in the next five to 10 years, but he also emphasizes: "We hope for a good political system to evolve over time, but as a church, that's not our primary goal."
For now, Mikhail continues his work as a pastor and as head of the Alexandria School of Theology. On a Sunday afternoon, classes weren't in session, but some students buzzed around the seminary and waited for evening services to begin at the church on the same grounds.
That didn't stop Tamer Hitler (his real name) from plunging into a discussion about politics. The young Muslim considers himself a secular revolutionary devoted to encouraging a secular government in Egypt. Before the revolution, he'd never visited a church. But since the country's upheaval, he says he wanted to learn more about his Christian neighbors: "I had no idea what went on behind these walls."
After attending some worship services, classes, and social functions, he says he has a better understanding of Christians: "They take care of each other." But he also has some advice: "They should get out of their isolation and into society, let people know them. That's what they need to do before the doors are closing."
Whether the doors will close for religious minorities in Egypt is an open question. Back at Kasr el Dobara, the associate pastor says he knows difficult times could come. But he compares Christians' plight in Egypt to the plight of the Old Testament's Joseph who endured his own difficulties in the same country.
"We know that maybe we have to go through some tough times, but we hope that will lead to better times," said the minister. "Maybe seven lean years will go before seven years of abundance."
Arranging a meeting in Egypt with a Muslim convert to Christianity is a sensitive proposition. When I met Mary Ahmed to discuss life since her conversion-and the changes in Egypt over the last year-I agreed to protect her identity. (Mary Ahmed is a pseudonym.)
Ahmed isn't ashamed of her faith. She's worried about her safety and her livelihood if her devout Muslim family learns that she's a Christian. And since Egypt's revolution last year, her fears have grown.
If Christians are a vulnerable minority in Egypt, converts to Christianity are an especially vulnerable minority. Add being a woman to the dynamic and the dangers increase further.
Ahmed's concerns were obvious in the route she took to our meeting: After leaving her home, she took a minibus, switched to a cab, and then walked part of the distance to obscure her trail. She planned to take a different route home. When she's home, she's careful to hide her Bible and remove Christian resources that could reveal her faith.
But Ahmed isn't reserved about her commitment to Christ. She became a Christian through the influence of a friend who encouraged her to read the Bible. "I began reading in Genesis, and I finished the whole Bible," she says. "I didn't understand everything, but I was very happy."
Ahmed says she was particularly drawn to the teaching that God is near to those who believe in Him. (Islam teaches a distant God.) And she was attracted to a Christian community that has become a spiritual family. She volunteers for church functions, visits the sick, prays with needy members, and attends nearly every event, even though every trip is a potential risk.
She longs for her own family to know Christ, but says she must remain quiet about her faith for now. If they discover she's a Christian, Ahmed believes they would imprison her in her own home. It's difficult for her to contemplate being separated from her church.
Since the revolution, the dynamic has grown worse, and Ahmed says she sees parts of the culture becoming more severe. The political rise of Salafi Muslims and their hard-line call for strict adherence to Sharia law has inflamed Ahmed's family against Christians. They've pressured her to embrace Muslim practices that she's quietly given up in her home.
Perhaps they already know she's a Christian. Perhaps they'll find out. Either way, Ahmed says that while giving up church would be difficult, she's not afraid of retribution. "I know that God has been protecting me all this time," she says. "And even if something happens to me, He'll be in control of that too. ... I'm not afraid, even though things might get worse."