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Faith Under Fire

Young Copts persevere in Egypt

Nestled in a warren of unpaved streets, surrounded by butcher shops, cafes and vegetable stalls, the grounds of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church are a quiet refuge from the cacophony of taxi horns and clopping donkey carts in the Bulaq neighborhood of Cairo. On the second floor of a rickety annex next to the church, Mina Semon, a 21-year-old college student with gelled, wavy hair and bright brown eyes, teaches Scripture to a group of young teenagers every Friday.

The young man adds his own touch to these lessons by connecting his pupils’ daily struggles to the teachings of Christ. One subject dominates his weekly lessons: What is the appropriate way to respond to sectarian insults in the playground? Jesus, Mr. Semon says, has much to teach the students on this topic.

“Forgiveness, and love and kindness,” he reminds the students, are the correct reactions, but “to control one’s nerves, this is the difficult part.”

It is the sort of challenge many young Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian and specifically refers to indigenous Egyptian Christians) know only too well. Copts make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85.3 million. While Christianity predates Islam and the Arab invasion of Egypt by six centuries, anti-Christian violence has reached unprecedented levels since the January 2011 revolution that toppled the nation’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak. This past summer, that violence reached a fever pitch after the military removed Egypt’s democratically elected president, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Usually, Mr. Semon thinks, a Muslim student may parrot something heard from an adult without understanding the meaning behind the slander. Christian students, being children, have retaliated the same way, turning a typical childish argument into a sectarian incident with violent consequences.

“We tie situations like this to how Jesus would act, drawing upon stories from the Bible and how Christian values demand us to respond,” Mr. Semon says. “Then we discuss the practical ways to deal with it.”

Mina Semon is a reminder of the Egyptian Christian community’s rich history of educating young Christians — but he is also a bridge to the next generation. The eldest of three children, he grew up spending every weekend at church and in Scripture study. He participated in church sports leagues after school and attended youth conferences across the country. Most of his friendships were forged during parish activities. Teaching other young Copts, he says, is his way of giving back, and personalizing those lesson plans is his way of engaging with his country.

“Things are different now,” he says. “After the revolution, the youth are more outspoken and want to be involved, because this is their church too.”

Egypt’s Coptic churches — the dominant Orthodox Church as well as the smaller Catholic and Evangelical churches — have been sources of support and hope for its members throughout Egypt’s turbulent history, providing religious education and community activities to create a safe space for children while fostering their faith. But today, more than two years after the revolution, more devout young Copts are seeking a bigger role in their community. And they are often doing it at great risk.

For young Copts, day-to-day life has become a struggle, fraught with danger. Sectarian incidences have escalated across the country. A feeling of insecurity permeates these young people’s routines.

Egypt’s first freely elected parliament in six decades saw the rise of an outspoken fundamentalist Salafist minority, and in June 2012, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood took office as president. Life has never been the same since.

“We try to act normally,” Mina Semon explains. “But there is always a concern that someone will threaten or harass us. I haven’t experienced this personally, but it’s always in the back of our minds to be ready to defend ourselves.”

Mr. Semon says the situation is much worse for Coptic women, because it is easier for strangers to single them out since they do not wear an Islamic headscarf. He can sense it when he goes out with his female Christian friends, such as 24-year-old Diana Ghali.

Ms. Ghali graduated from Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University with a degree in media in 2010. Now she works as the executive secretary for the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation in Cairo. Last year, she married her childhood sweetheart, whom she met at her parish 10 years ago. They are expecting their first child in the autumn.

Many of Ms. Ghali’s friends have been harassed on the streets for being Christian. She says she is one of the lucky ones; she has a car and drives to work every day. Her friends who take public transportation convey horror stories.

“It’s terrifying,” she says. “But even having a car, I’m scared to death walking from the building to my car or from a car to any building, and it&rsuo;s even more terrifying if I park a little farther from the place I’m going.”

Anti-Christian attacks have hit close to home. One day, driving down one of Cairo’s narrow alleyways, her mother slowed to let an oncoming car pass. Through her open window, the other driver leaned out and shouted, “we’re going to slaughter you to cleanse this country of your kind!” and then spat on her face.

With so much insecurity, many Copts have left Egypt. But though Ms. Ghali holds both United States and Egyptian citizenship, she is steadfast in her desire to stay in Cairo.

“I cannot escape the things I don’t like,” she says. “I have a dream this country will become better, but it’s not going to be better while we are sitting in our homes. Everyone has to do something.”

For many, the heart of that “something,” their hope, lies in learning. And the church plays a critical role.

For the past century, education has been at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s interaction with its flock. In the 1930’s, schools for young Copts opened across the country. At the time, these classes were revolutionary. More than just teaching children hymns and liturgical chants, these new schools fostered Christian formation, focusing on Scripture, catechesis and how to live the Christian life.

The late Shenouda III — Coptic Orthodox pope and patriarch of Alexandria, who died in March 2012 after a pontificate lasting more than four decades — was a product of this movement. Throughout his long life, he championed the Coptic renewal and this so-called Sunday School Movement. With his leadership, the roster of activities grew to include sports clubs and summer retreats. Though Pope Shenouda had fostered a safe space for the Coptic minority amid the rising Islamist climate of Anwar Sadat’s era, this also isolated young Coptic Christians from the mainstream.

This was the cloistered environment Diana Ghali’s parents knew.

“The church was our guardian, we felt safe inside the church walls because I think the state put us in that situation,” she explains. “When the Copts faced difficult issues, the state would negotiate with the church or the church would negotiate for them.”

But 25 January 2011 changed everything when many young Copts largely dismissed the pope’s calls to stay away from the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Against the wishes of even their parents, they came out to brave tear gas and live ammunition in the streets. They demanded the resignation of Mubarak, whose nearly three-decade reign made him the only president young Egyptians had ever known.

Together, young Egyptians of all stripes stood on the streets of downtown Cairo and chanted: “Christians and Muslims are one hand!” Eighteen days later, the regime fell. Young people were invigorated.

“After the revolution we felt free from everything … from any barriers,” says Ms. Ghali. “We have our own opinions and we can make our own decisions.”

In some ways, the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church has struggled to keep up with Egypt’s political and generational changes. While young people remain devoted to their parish communities and participate in liturgical celebrations, after the heady changes in their country many are seeking new ways of engagement.

Some, especially university students, are no longer satisfied with the formation of youth, the catechesis and the strict hierarchy that has governed Coptic Orthodox practice in Egypt for centuries, says Deacon John Gabriel, who teaches at the Catholic Catechism Institute. “They feel it is passé — old fashioned.

“The church,” he adds, “needs to adapt new methods to speak to young people.”

Samuel Saad, a 24-year-old medical student in Cairo, was not satisfied with the youth formation program at his parish in Beni Mazar, a city in Upper Egypt on the banks of the Nile. He thought the Sunday school teachings were formulaic and rote. Most of his lessons were given as rules: Don’t do this, don’t do that.

“It was more of forcing things down one’s throat,” he explains. Mr. Saad and his friends wanted an explanation of spirituality and right and wrong that they could apply for themselves — a way to make religious faith a positive force in their lives. Six years ago, they held a meeting to discuss their concerns with local church officials, who dismissed their complaints.

But the young friends were determined. Slowly, they began building contacts among churchgoers. Two years ago, the community held another meeting. This time, the parish decided it might be time for a change. Today, three churches in Beni Mazar offer classes based on the model Samuel Saad and his friends created.

“We talk to them about Jesus, about developing a relationship with Jesus, a special relationship, not just religion as usual,” Mr. Saad explains of his group’s formation classes. “We try to help youths develop relationships with God in a different way. God was distant from them, now we try to make them more attached.

“It was great,” he says of his group’s accomplishment. “We saw we could gather together, we could make this change and succeed.”

Diana Ghali says she has her own part to play in post-revolutionary Egypt. She is starting her own program, Eagles Center, to foster youth awareness.

“I believe education and awareness are the two components that Egyptians lack, because most of our people are not educated, they don’t have any sort of awareness, they just listen and follow instructions. I think if we were to take initiative and take 20 young people and educate them, and they each did the same, then maybe it could be a different country,” she says.

But the country’s downward economic spiral has further complicated life in Egypt, a hardship that cuts across religious lines. Since 2011, the country’s economy has tanked. Foreign currency reserves are down and inflation has spiked. Today, one in four Egyptians lives below the poverty line of $1.65 a day.

Though the official unemployment rate is 13 percent, most estimates consider it much higher. Young people have been hit especially hard. About 77 percent of the unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29. Egypt’s youth dominate the country demographically; half the country’s population is under the age of 25.

In this climate, making ends meet is a struggle. While pursuing a college degree full time, Mina Semon helps his father’s small business, installing curtains and blinds, and also enters data at a cemetery office. He is studying quality control in manufacturing at college, but even if he is able to find a job in his field after graduating, he says he expects his starting salary to be between $143 and $214 per month.

“It’s difficult,” he says of his economic prospects.

All of his friends worry about rising prices and, especially, how they will pay to get married and start a family. “This is usually the biggest concern,” he says. “All of us, almost everyone works, even if they don’t get paid well, and we always try to improve ourselves, whether by taking courses or trying to find more work.”

Though he says many of his friends think about leaving, Mina Semon is adamant. He wants to stay.

“We have hopes of changing things,” he says.

Sarah Topol is a Cairo-based journalist whose writing has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire, Foreign Policy, Harper’s, New Republic and The New York Times. Earlier this year, she was honored by the Catholic Press Association for her story “Salvaging Dignity,” published in the September 2012 issue of ONE.

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