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Anxiety in Cairo

Christians confront challenges and change

When gunfire sounded near her home, Ragaa Anwar reached out frantically to her only son. Again and again, she dialed Mina’s phone, but he never answered.

Mina, a 29-year-old Coptic Christian, had been caught in the crossfire between the military and supporters of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood when violence erupted in his neighborhood of Ain Shams in northern Cairo.

The loss weighs heavily on Mrs. Anwar. She speaks to pictures of Mina hung throughout her house beside icons. Every year, she visits where he is buried; she knocks on the tomb and calls for him, but again there is no reply.

“I can’t believe my son was taken from me. I feel as if he will knock on the door and come back,” Mrs. Anwar says.

In July 2013, the Egyptian army deposed President Muhammad Morsi. Most Copts, together with more secular Muslims, rallied behind the coup for fear of the Islamist project of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization’s supporters, however, orchestrated protests and sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda squares in Cairo. Forty days later, the army and police dispersed the sit-ins, killing hundreds.

Because of the government’s iron hand in Cairo’s main squares and downtown districts, the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters took their activities to the outskirts — to neighborhoods of the capital city where they have strong presence. One such suburb, Ain Shams, has a significant population of Coptic Christians, and tensions between the two groups have grown more pronounced.

After Mina’s death, his family could not bear to live in Ain Shams any longer, deciding to relocate to an area further north.

“I can’t stand seeing them every day,” says Emad Anwar, Mina’s father, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. “When I see them I want to take revenge, but I have nothing in my hand to do it with.”

Mr. Anwar had sought justice, but the case was closed and nobody was charged.

Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million, have continued to support the former leader of the coup, President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, hoping he will promote a secular government and quell sectarianism. So far, this bet has not brought about stability. Despite good-will gestures such as his historic visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral — the seat of Pope Tawadros II of the dominant Coptic Orthodox Church — and instructing the army to rebuild around 65 churches attacked by mobs after the Rabaa massacre in August 2013, the main concerns of the Coptic people, the lack of justice and equality, remain. The deterioration of the economy has also brought more bad news for Egypt’s people.

“They tell us that Sisi will not protect us forever. Prices are increasing every day and if you helped Sisi in the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood will return for you,” Mr. Anwar said.

Since 2011, the Egyptian economy has foundered. The Egyptian pound has lost more than two-thirds of its value in the past six years. Half of this decline occurred after the government’s decision in November 2016 to float its currency, previously pegged to the U.S. dollar. Since the change, prices have doubled while most household incomes have remained the same.

The Anwar family was able to cover its needs when both Emad and Mina worked. But now, with only one income and inflated prices, the family feels destitute.

This year, Mrs. Anwar says, the family will not be able to visit the cemetery because they don’t have enough money to rent a cab to take them there.

“The prices of everything are increasing,” she says, “and we have nothing.”

In addition to Khosos, the Anwar family’s new home district includes neighborhoods such as Izbet al Nakhl and Marg — relatively new, low-income areas whose inhabitants have moved to Cairo looking for a better life. Communities of Copts have found a ready home within these areas, particularly in Izbet al Nakhl.

Chaotic whorls of noise and action greet those exiting the Izbet al Nakhl metro station. Tuk-tuks — also known as auto rickshaws — block the exit, fruit and vegetable vendors hawk their goods and a continuous stream of bodies presses in and out of the metro.

The tall minarets of a huge mosque pierce the sky. On the other side of the street, a dome topped with a cross distinguishes another large building as a church. In between the mosque and the church is a busy street, where people pass every day on their way to the metro, the transportation hub of the district.

Near the northernmost end of the Cairo Metro system, Izbet al Nakhl was a rural area until 1986, when an extension of the Metro first reached it. Tall buildings grew rapidly out of the farm fields, often without government planning. To this day, most of the streets are hard-packed dirt, riddled with bumps. The tuk-tuks contribute to noise and crowding, but prove indispensable for negotiating the uneven, narrow streets.

For most residents of Izbet al Nakhl, sectarianism is not a core issue. Instead, most regard the struggle to earn a living as their main concern. Yet, Christians do worry about the future.

The parish of Our Lady of the Annunciation Coptic Catholic Church has grown with the neighborhood. The Rev. Youhanna Saad says its first Divine Liturgy, 18 years ago, had only four attendees; now, the church serves more than 600 families. Through his close relationship with the tight-knit community, Father Saad understands the concerns within his congregation.

“There is a state of anxiety of the future and a feeling of fear because of the economic situation and increasingly sectarian incidents against the Copts,” Father Saad says.

As it is the only Catholic church in a large area, buses bring families from a wide radius every Friday and Sunday to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. After the Friday liturgy, parishioners of all ages — but from one common economic background — come together to share an inexpensive breakfast of beans and falafel.

The church acts not only as a place of worship, but also a site for activities such as nursery school, elder or youth meetings, Sunday school and programs to assist people with special needs. But the congregation continues to grow, outstripping the building’s capacity and prompting Father Saad to seek a license to turn a new building nearby — currently a service center — into a more ample church.

“The situation is normal for us as Christians,” says Raof Rateb, 53, a local shopkeeper. “But regarding making living, we don’t feel secure. The rising of prices is horrible.”

Saad Hanna, 72, a retired civil servant, decided two years ago to move to the city from his village in southern Egypt. His two married sons, Samy and Shoukry, and their families relocated along with him. Although he traded a more idyllic setting for the traffic and pollution of a major metropolis, Mr. Hanna feels safer in the neighborhood of Mo’asasat al Zakat, where about 90 percent of residents are Christian, he says.

Mr. Hanna had a good relationship with his Muslim neighbors in his village near Minya in Upper Egypt.

But after President Morsi’s ouster, and the violence that followed, a Muslim mob burned and looted some 20 Christian homes in the village, including Mr. Hanna’s store.

Mr. Hanna left behind the life to which he was accustomed, a difficult adjustment at his advanced age. In his first year in Cairo, he felt alienated.

“I was like a plant uprooted from its green land and planted in the desert,” he says.

Moreover, the retiree feels the burden of the economic difficulties acutely. He describes how Egyptians’ purchasing power has changed since he was first employed in 1973.

“I used to get E£12.5 and it was enough to buy almost 90 lbs. of meat,” he says. “Now my pension is E£2,300 and it pays for only 55 lbs. of meat.”

“Nobody pays the bill except the poor, and especially the Christians,” Mr. Hanna says. “The Coptic people have paid the biggest price since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser,” adding that little has changed since.

Even still, he says, Copts were correct to support President Sisi.

“The county was on the verge of being lost. There was no easy choice.”

On 11 December 2016, Cairo witnessed the deadliest attack on Copts in recent memory, when a suicide bomber inside Al Botroseya Chapel killed 29 parishioners. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. President Sisi reassured the Copts that the state is on their side against terrorism, declaring three days of mourning and encouraging Muslims to band together with their Christian neighbors.

While the attack raised fears among the Coptic community, the families of the victims received those offering comfort with strength and grace at a memorial liturgy. “Look around you. If this were the wedding of Verena, would there be that number of people?” says Emad Amin, who lost his wife, Madlen Tawfiq, and his 19-year-old daughter, Verena.

Mr. Amin adds: “I don&rquo;t know why they were killed. Is it because they are Christians or because of President Sisi or because of ISIS? I don’t know!”

“My store is in a poor area. We have no problem; we live together in peace,” says Remon Magdy, 34, a merchant. Mr. Magdy lost his mother, Sabah Wadie, and his niece, Demiana, in the attack.

“After the bombing, many Muslims came to us to say, ‘We are sorry.’ I told them, ‘You have no fault in what happened.’ ”

Renowned as one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world in the first half of the 20th century, Cairo integrated people from different nationalities and religions into Egyptian society — where they could live, work and worship freely.

This tolerant face of Cairo has gradually faded. Much of the country’s Jewish population left the country in the 50’s because of state persecution amid the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many of those who remained later faced expulsion — along with foreign-born Egyptian citizens who lost their citizenship — amid a wave of Arab nationalism intensified by events such as the Suez Crisis. And for a variety of reasons that often relate to economic mismanagement and a restrictive and heavy-handed state, many middle-class Egyptians, including Copts, have emigrated since the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Egypt has witnessed the steady growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and other more militant Islamic groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad.

From a population of about two million in the 50’s, Cairo has expanded to some 23 million, growing in uncontrolled spurts. Among other factors, high rural unemployment has driven millions to Cairo in search of a better life.

As a result, it has become one of the most polluted and congested cities in the world, ringed by unplanned districts where newcomers carry with them various, relatively isolated rural cultures, creating enclaves and slowing assimilation.

Nowadays, Muslims and Christians in Cairo enjoy a mostly peaceful relationship. The megacity keeps its people busy with other daily crises. Moreover, the shared memory of a highly cosmopolitan city does live on in the old neighborhoods, old movies and other cultural relics.

The central Cairo neighborhood of Al Zaher is one of those areas. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians and others lived peacefully alongside Egyptians. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox and Syriac Catholic churches still stand, but very few of their people remain.

This neighborhood serves as a reminder of the Cairo that once was — and one that may yet take root again.

El Nahda Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance was established in 1998 in Al Zaher as a Jesuit initiative for Christians and Muslims interested in the artistic, civic and cultural life of Egypt.

The association established its headquarters on the site of the former Studio Nassibian, where many of Egypt’s earliest movies were made. The studio was defunct by the 80’s and later burned down.

Today, the site once again bustles with activity. In one area, a theater troupe holds auditions; in another, children gather to watch cartoons.

“When I learned about El Nahda I asked my friends about it. Everybody spoke highly about it,” says Ahmed al Daemi, a 27-year-old Arabic teacher who hopes to earn a spot on the troupe.

El Nahda was first licensed in 1998 as a non-profit organization. As its activities increased, it faced constraints due to limited options for funding. The Rev. William Sedhom, S.J., the organization’s leader, now seeks to reincorporate as a for-profit company to better fund its activities.

Father Sedhom blames political and economic difficulties for causing sectarian tensions.

“Most sectarian crises happen in places with a high percentage of poverty and illiteracy,” he explains.

El Nahda is seeking to prevent those crises before they begin, with a mission of inclusion and peaceful coexistence.

“The activities here are open to all,” the priest says, suggesting that what people are discovering at El Nahda is an Egypt of possibility and promise — a place where all are welcome and made to feel, almost literally, at home.

“Even when some people come with worries that they are going to a Christian association,” he explains, “they are surprised when it’s as though they are in their own house.”

Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is a Middle East correspondent for the The Telegraph. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and a number of other journals.

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