As Christmas arrives, crisis for Mideast Christians
While Christians in Iraq have long faced the threat of growing Islamism and violence, now Christians in Egypt – and Syria – are facing new pressures as a year of dramatic change wraps up.
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Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 81 million citizens, are unlikely to face the kind of violence Iraqi Christians saw after the removal of Saddam Hussein. But attacks on Copts have sharply increased in the past year and many are terrified of the rise of Islamists – those who want Islam to play a greater role in politics. Egypt's Copts fear that Islamists will make the already onerous church-permitting process harder, worsen the lack of responsiveness of security forces to their concerns, and expand mob violence.Skip to next paragraph
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"Unfortunately it's very likely in the short term that there will be continuing [e]migrations, as well as capital flight. Christians are disproportionately transferring their money out of the country," says Ms. Dunne. She says it will be up to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to prove it's willing to enshrine protections for Egypt's Christians – as it has sometimes promised – in the Constitution to put them at ease.
Tough road ahead for Egypt's Copts
Early results from Egypt's staggered parliamentary election, which will run through January, indicate that between the dominant Muslim Brotherhood and the far more religiously extreme and intolerant Salafi parties, the next Egyptian parliament could be 50 percent or more Islamist.
Peter Zarief, for one, is planning an escape route. The Coptic Egyptian has obtained a US visa and plans to visit a friend in North Carolina for Christmas to scope out possibilities. He has also applied for a green card, though he says he hasn't fully decided to leave.
"We all think it's going to be tough for Christians in Egypt," says Mr. Zarief, a marketer at mobile phone operator Mobinil. "Every time clashes break out, they're discussing it. With the elections, they're talking about it even more."
In November, Michael Posner, of the US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told the congressional hearing "From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter" that sectarian attacks tell a "disturbing story."
Dina Guirgis, a Copt and member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, told the hearing that there have been 33 sectarian attacks in Egypt this year, with 97 killed and more than 400 injured – a sixfold increase over 2010, she said.
"While it may be alluring to blame the revolution for this serious escalation and praise the relative stability of the Mubarak days," she told Congress, "I submit that the same societal ills and perhaps more sig-nificantly the insidious state role in inciting sectarian violence plague Egypt more than ever today, and that responsibility lies in no small measure squarely at the foot of the military dictatorship [that is now running Egypt.]"
How many Copts have left this year? No one knows yet. But while some pastors urge their congregations to stay, Zarief says his mother sometimes voices worry that Egypt could become like Iraq. "I think there will be a time when you're not able to stand against the religious wave," he says.
• Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Beirut.
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