Like every year, Amira Ibrahim has bought a big sack of flour to bake cookies for Christmas. However, even though Christmas is only one day away, the sack remains in the kitchen untouched.
“I usually distribute the cookies to friends and relatives after the Christmas service,” explains Ibrahim. “But this year I am not even sure I am going to be alive after the service.”
Ibrahim, a 47-year-old mother of two, is voicing a concern held by many of Egypt’s Christian population. Only minutes into 2011 a bomb exploded in the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, and the year before a crazed gunmen killed six worshippers as they were leaving a Christmas service in a church in Naga Hammadi.
“The terrorists have made this a routine event for us,” says Ibrahim’s 22-year-old daughter Niveen El-Shahat. “I go to every service and kiss my friends goodbye in case I don’t see them again.”
Indeed, says El-Shahat, during the past few days several Coptic websites have received death threats from extremists promising a big “surprise” for Christians at Christmas.
That is not to say that Christians did not have enough morbid “surprises” in 2011. The January 25 Revolution did not ease the troubles of Copts or bring the much-anticipated equality they had dreamed of. If anything, the situation deteriorated rapidly after the revolution: Churches in many parts of the country were attacked, Coptic homes were torched, Islamists accused them of being Kafirs (heretics) and threatened to force them pay theJizya (Islamic tax for non-Muslims) if they took power.
However, nothing terrified them as much as watching Islamists, especially the hard-line Salafists, win so many seats in the first post-Mubarak parliament. The alarm bells have become deafening and many Christians in Egypt watch as a nightmare future is being drawn in front of their eyes.
Ibrahim is a poor woman, living in a tiny flat with her husband, a painter, and two children in the Omraneya district. A small Christmas tree sits on a low table next to her couch, and Ibrahim’s brow furrows as she stares at the tree while thinking about her family’s fate in the coming months.
“My husband doesn't earn much money; how on earth will be able to pay the Jizya if the Islamists order us to do that?” she asks.
Ibrahim has seen what fanaticism can do with her own eyes. Her house is only two blocks from the Church of the Virgin and El-Malak in Omraneya, which was attacked by security forces in November 2010 for violating building codes.
“There is a mosque now being built right next to our house and there is no fuss at all,” says Ibrahim. “So why is it that every time we build a church there has to be bloodshed? Sometimes I think that the only way I can save my children is to emigrate.”
If Ibrahim is still pondering whether she should stay or leave, others have already made up their mind. Thousands of Christians have reportedly fled the country since the revolution, while others are in the process of leaving.
Manal Tamry, a young mother of six, has already finalised her papers and is ready to leave for the US in a few months. Like many Egyptians, she is attracted to the bright lights of the West. She talks about how in the US the streets are paved, the hospitals are clean and life is easy. However, this is not the main reason she is leaving.
“I am just scared; Egypt is not safe for us anymore. You hear stories of young Christian girls being kidnapped all the time, and I have daughters,” says Tamry, while standing in a hushed group at her Shubra church.
In addition, the daily obstacles facing Christians in Egypt have become too much to bear. She tells the story of her 11-year-old niece whose new friends in school turned their backs on her when they found out she was Christian.
“She was new to the school and has a neutral name, so it took them two weeks to figure out her faith and once they did, they stopped talking to her,” Matry says as her voice trails off. “It was heartbreaking.”
Like many Christian women, Matry is also worried the Islamists will force her to wear the veil. But after months of worry, she has found a solution that while not ideal, will at least will ease the pain of being forced to perform an act that is not part of her faith.
“My friends and I decided that if the worst comes to worst, we will just wear a nun’s habit with a big cross over it. That way, our whole body and hair are covered, just like the Islamists want, but at the same time we keep out Christian identity.”
While Matry has already resigned herself, others are more hopeful. A couple of streets away, Father Antonious Elijah of the Archangel Michael Church in Shubra, waves away any worries.
A jovial man with a tendency to bursts of loud hearty laughter, Father Elijah urges his people to be optimistic.
“Nothing has changed here,” he smiles. “We still have our services and celebrations and hymns. We still enjoy our time in church and everything is great. We are not scared of bullets, tear gas or Molotov cocktails. Do you know why? Because Jesus visited Egypt and this country is blessed and always will be. God will never leave us and he’s always beside us in our pain.”
A deeply political man, Father Elijah points out that politics often drips its bitter taste into religion. He points out that the Maspero massacre, which took place on 9 October when Christian protesters clashed with army forces, started with a peaceful march.
“The protesters were not violent in any way, but the authorities were just trying to scare us so that we remain quiet and don’t ask for our rights,” he says.
Egypt’s Christians need to have their questions answers, he says. Who, for example, was responsible for the Two Saints Church bombing? Was it former interior minister Habib El-Adly, or Mubarak, or an outside force?”
A physics teacher for 25 years, he boasts proudly that his students, many of them Muslims, used to get the best grades in school. Many of them are still in contact with him.
“Those were beautiful years and we didn’t have this disgusting attitude that you see now,” says Father Elijah.
He blamed the current sectarian crisis in Egypt on former president Sadat, who famously released thousands of Islamists from jail to help him quash the communists.
“He played a dirty game,” says Father Elijah. “But then he paid for it. He raised a lion and then lion ate him.”
It’s too late to talk of what might have been, he says, because the Islamists are here.
Some of them, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have attempted to reach out to Egypt’s Christians with promises of justice and equal citizenship with their Muslim counterparts.
“That’s great,” Father Elijah says. “Now they have a chance to show the world they are good people.”
However, he says, it is not right to call Christians Kafirs, as many Islamists have taken to doing, because Christians believe in God. Additionally, the threats they have made about destroying Egypt’s monuments are unacceptable.
“When Amr Ibn El-Ass (the military general who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt) came to Egypt, he didn’t destroy the monuments,” says Father Elijah. “Why don’t they be good and fair like him?”
Most importantly, he says, Egyptians should stop accusing each other of being traitors or heretics and unite for the love of the country.
“Egyptians are by nature kind and emotional and will overcome this tension and unite once again,” he insists.
Father Elijah’s comforting words do not soothe everyone. Mina Tharwat, a long-time revolutionary, is furious at the position of Egypt’s Christian population.
“Copts face daily discrimination in Egypt,” he says. “I can’t even practice my religion in peace anymore.”
He adds that many Copts are also infuriated because the criminals who attacked churches and killed Christians during the past year have not been brought to justice.
“If they were attacking mosques and killing Muslims, would they have let them go? Of course not,” he fumes.
He is also livid because the upcoming parliament will be dominated by Islamists. “Who will represent the Christians in parliament? Who will be our voice?” he asks.
However, the situation is not as gloomy as Tharwat believes. Although few Copts won seats in the new parliament, their performance wasn’t too shabby if compared to the Mubarak days. In the infamous 2010 parliamentary elections, only one Christian, Youssef Botrous Ghali, Mubarak’s minister of finance, won a seat. This time, however, several Christians have managed to secure seats, although the final results will only be clear when the third round of elections are complete.
Emad Gad, a parliamentary candidate for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says Christian candidates may win up to 2% of the seats in parliament.
“Copts make up 10 per cent of the population and so should have 10 per cent of parliament,” says Gad. “But we are in a transitional period and this is the first post-Mubarak election and so 2 per cent is not bad, given the circumstances.”
Indeed, Egypt has been going through turbulent times with episodes of violence breaking out on a regular basis. Mary Daniel, 41, lost her brother Mina, 25 - who is otherwise known as the “Egyptian Guevara" - during the Maspero clashes. However, despite this tragedy, she is the most hopeful of the lot.
“Before my brother’s death I used to think the Copts in Egypt were repressed and discriminated against,” says Daniel. “But now I know that the army is just attacking Christians so they can maintain power. It’s the typical divide and rule tactics. By dividing the Muslims and Christians they can stay in power.”
However, says Daniel, the Christians are not the only target:
“During the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in December, the army did not differentiate between Muslims and Christians. They were attacking everyone, beating everyone, killing everyone.”
Following all of these tragic events, a small light of hope appeared during the New Year’s Eve celebrations, when thousands of Muslims went to Tahrir Square to celebrate with their Christian fellow citizens. Coptic hymns played out in the square and once again chants of “Muslim and Christians are one hand” echoed throughout the square. It was a strong show of solidarity and warmed the hearts of many Christians.
Daniel, whose brother’s dying wish was for his friends to march with his coffin to Tahrir, says that the square will always be a reminder that good times can return to Egypt.
“The real Egypt is in Tahrir Square,” says Daniel. “As long as it is there, we have hope.”