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The new Egyptian wilderness

As Moses once led his people out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai, church leaders in a post-Mubarak era are discovering how to guide the largest Christian population in the Middle East against new threats and become good neighbors

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

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."

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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.

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