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Copts in Crisis

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the largest Christian Church in Egypt and the Middle East and has existed as a separate entity since the council of Chalcedon in 451 AD when it diverged from the main Eastern Orthodox Church on intricate concepts of theology. Despite persecution by Byzantine authorities who considered the Coptic Church heretical, Egyptian copts held onto their beliefs throughout the period leading up to the Muslim conquest of the region in the mid to late 6th century. It wasn't until the 12th century that Egypt had become a majority Muslim country. Today, copts are thought to make up about 10% of Egypt's population, or about 8 million.

Egypt's 2011 revolution, which saw the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, one of Africa's longest serving heads of state, after a concerted campaign of protests and civil disobedience, has brought the issue of religion very much to the forefront of politics and daily life again. As in other Arab countries where secular regimes held sway, Mubarak had been staunchly secular, banning the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoning thousands of its leaders and foot soldiers. The repealing in May 2012 of the old regime's much hated emergency law, in force for over 40 years, has given the Brotherhood a massive boost, giving their Freedom and Justice party the highest number of seats in the post-revolution parliamentary elections, closely followed by the Al Nour party, the political wing of the ultra-conservative Salafist movement.

With such a strong swing toward Islamist parties of different stripes, Egypt's Christians have started to feel increasingly isolated and embattled in their own country. Their fears were borne out in the months following the revolution when sporadic attacks on churches, priests and Christian gatherings claimed dozens of lives.

A Christians protest march complaining about the army's inadequate response to the persecution of their co-religionists in front of the state television offices in Cairo was violently repressed by soldiers with the loss of another 25 people in October 2011. As if to add more woes to the besieged community's troubled life, the Coptic Church's highest authority, Pope Shenouda III, died on 17 March 2012, leaving his flock in disarray and fearing the worst.

The elections to Egypt's presidency, seen by some as a counterweight to a newly empowered parliament now dominated by Islamists, has given secularists and the Christian community little comfort. Of the dozen or so candidates who qualified, two front-runner emerged after the first round of the election. Mohammed Morsi is the current head of the Freedom and Justice Party and thus heavily identified with the Islamist cause. Ahmed Shafiq served as Mubarak's last prime minister , thus tainted by association with the old regime in the minds of many. For Christians, Shafiq may seem the only option, despite his questionable political career.

Cairo's Christian community is concentrated in the decrepit and overcrowded Mokattam district and for many of the city's poor Christians, collecting and recycling the tonnes of garbage thrown out onto the street on a daily basis is the only form of livelihood. They are called the Zabbaleen ('garbage people') and have made their living for over a century by gathering the recyclables, sorting and cleaning them and selling them on. Mokattam looks like any other slum in Cairo's urban sprawl. The only difference here is that women are not veiled an many people have a cross tattooed on their forearms as a sign of their religious faith. Over the decades, a number of churches have been built into the caves in the Mokattam hills.

Fernando Moleres went on a number of trips to Egypt in 2011 and documented the Christian community in Cairo as it awaits political developments with apprehension.
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