Religious tolerance

While still in college, I lived and worked in a remote mountain village in Michoacan, Mexico. There was no running water or electricity. One got there by either walking or riding a mule.

I was amazed at how local taboos, which I didn't know but which I was supposed to abide by, affected daily life, especially those about ghosts believed to inhabit an ancient, abandoned mine shaft.

The villagers were patient with me as I showed deference to their beliefs, even as I continued to violate local taboos unintentionally.

Negotiating religious differences in a country not one's own can be like walking through a minefield. This is doubly so where religious beliefs are being exploited by a militant minority.

Sue Leach skirts this minefield in Egypt (at right), where Copts (a Christian minority) and Muslims confront the pressure of militant Islamic fundamentalism in conflict with the national government.

Returning to Cairo for 10 days (previously having lived there for two years), she reports on the taut, but resilient relationship between these two faiths that dates back 14 centuries.

As with any story about a complex set of mores, there is more than a headline. In the face of doctrinal differences, mutual respect and personal understanding run deep in Egypt's older generation, fostering tolerance. Copts and Muslims view themselves as Egyptians first and members of a religion second.

Cultural and religious practices often are so entwined as to be one. This is the case in Egypt. Many other Christian communities outside the Middle East and Europe were established by missionaries and therefore are not native.

Write to Ideas editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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