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Photo by Matjaz Kacicnik/Stephen's Children

Outside the camp

Egypt's minority Christians, already shut out of mainstream life and politics, fear more legal-and perhaps violent-forms of oppression under the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood government

Issue: "De-coding Morsi," July 28, 2012

CAIRO-In a barren village just outside Cairo, two barefoot toddlers in tattered shirts perch on a pile of rotting garbage and play with a trash-heap find: a six-inch kitchen knife plucked from the refuse.

Deeper inside the enclave of tin shacks and one-room dwellings, heaps of trash serve a distinctly grown-up function for villagers in this predominantly Christian community. Egyptian aid worker Emad Beshay explains: "They get their daily bread from the garbage."

That's the daily reality in at least six garbage districts scattered across Cairo: Nearly 60,000 Egyptians live among the garbage and scour the refuse for materials to sell to local factories or to recycle. Nearly 90 percent of that population is Christian.

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Women and children here in the Helwan district swat the swarming flies and rummage for materials like plastic, metal, glass, and cardboard. A good day's work might yield a dollar in sales. Most days, it's closer to 50 cents.

This treeless patch of hot sand on Cairo's outskirts is home to several thousand Egyptians, but it lacks nearly every major service: no electricity, no phones, no schools, no hospitals, no churches, and no markets nearby. Villagers rejoiced when water began running to a few spigots earlier this year.

Walking along the village's rutted paths, Beshay, a worker with Egyptian aid group Stephen's Children, says the short distance to Cairo makes a huge difference for villagers with scant resources. "This is what happens with Christians," he says. "They send them outside the camp."

These days, poverty-stricken Christians aren't the only ones wondering if they'll live outside the camp of Egyptian life. Just months after my visit to Helwan, a new question confronts all members of Egypt's minority Christian population: How will they fare under a Muslim Brotherhood president?

It's a gnawing question. When Egyptian officials announced on June 24 that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi had won the presidential run-off, thousands of Egyptians erupted in cheers in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Indeed, it was a momentous moment. After 30 years of former President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule, Egyptians had accomplished a remarkable feat: Less than 18 months after ousting Mubarak, they freely elected a president for the first time in the nation's modern history.

At a somber inauguration ceremony, Morsi pledged: "Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life-absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability."

A few miles away, some Christians weren't convinced. In an email on the eve of Morsi's inauguration, Pastor Nagi Said of Kasr el Dobara Church just off Tahrir Square described the mood among Christians as depressed. "Just minutes after the announcement of the results, some Christians felt uncomfortable walking the streets of some parts of Egypt and even Cairo," he wrote. "Many are afraid of the future under an Islamic regime."

It isn't a far-fetched fear. Despite Morsi's assurances that the government won't oppress Egyptian Christians, many point to the Muslim Brotherhood's motto: "Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

That doesn't inspire hope for many Christians, but some remain determined to press for equal rights in a country where they've long faced oppression. They compare the new dynamic to freshly poured cement: Though it's beginning to harden, there's still time to make an impression.

That adds urgency to a set of critical questions: How should Egyptian Christians interact with the Muslim Brotherhood?

How should the United States-with its billion-dollar aid package to Egypt and a commitment to protecting the rights of all-use its influence before an Islamist agenda is set in stone?

And what happens to millions of poverty-stricken Christians-like those in Helwan-who have no chance of fleeing the country, no matter what the future holds?

Atef Gendy has been grappling with how to interact with the Muslim Brotherhood since last year. The president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo says the question became unavoidable after the Brotherhood's political party gained nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliament.

After that victory, Gendy and other evangelical leaders got a surprising call: The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to talk. At first, the leaders declined, but they eventually agreed to a February 2012 meeting to discuss their concerns about Christians living under an Islamist parliament. The two groups published a joint statement that agreed on a number of items, including equal rights for Christians and other minority groups.

From his office in Cairo (before the presidential elections) Gendy acknowledged the statement was controversial: Some Christians opposed the meeting and doubted the Muslim Brotherhood's sincerity, particularly on points like allowing Christians to build and renovate churches-something the country hasn't allowed without substantial obstacles for decades. Coptic Christians, who make up the majority of Egypt's Christian population, are especially suspicious of interacting with the Brotherhood.

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