He leads me downstairs into the chapel. As the sun filters through stained-glass windows, he and a Muslim acquaintance, Essam Abdul Hakim, describe how the mob knocked down the gates, then set the church on fire. On his cellphone, Hakim shows me a grainy video of the attack, which shows a dozen young men smashing a ten-foot log against the door.
The mob then looted and torched the homes of a dozen Christian families across the street. During the year era of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who this past August was hauled to court in his sickbed to face murder and corruption charges, outbreaks of sectarian violence were typically swept under the rug.
This time, YouTube videos spread on the Internet, and journalists and human rights workers flocked to Sol. In addition, Muslim leaders in Cairo, as well as Coptic figures, traveled to the town for reconciliation meetings. And the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the member panel of generals that took power after Mubarak stepped down this past February, dispatched a man team of army engineers to reconstruct the church.
When I got to town in July, a small contingent of troops was laying the foundation of an adjoining religious conference center that had also been destroyed.
Repairing the psychic damage will take longer. Today, though he still regards his Muslim neighbors with distrust, he says his anger has abated. The name Copt derives from the Arabic word Qubt, meaning Egyptian. Yet they have long suffered from discrimination by the Muslim majority. Violent incidents have increased alarmingly during the wave of Islamic fanaticism that has swept the Middle East.
Forty Egyptians died in 22 incidents in the first half of this year; 15 died in all of Another factor has been the emergence of the ultraconservative Salafist Muslim sect, which had been suppressed during the Mubarak dictatorship.
Salafists have called for jihad against the West and the creation of a pure Islamic state in Egypt. The Muslims claimed the man had had an affair with a Muslim woman. Salafists were also blamed for the violence that erupted in Cairo on May 8, after a rumor spread that a female Christian convert to Islam had been kidnapped and was being held captive in a Cairo church.
Led by Salafists, armed crowds converged on two churches. Christians fought back, and when the melee ended, at least 15 people lay dead, some were injured and two churches had been burned to the ground. In half a dozen other Arab countries, the rise of Islamic militancy and, in some cases, the toppling of dictatorships has spread fear among Christians and scattered their once-vibrant communities.
One example is Bethlehem, the West Bank birthplace of Jesus, which has lost perhaps half its Christians during the past decade. In Iraq, about half of the Christian population—once numbering between , and 1.
Offshoots of Al Qaeda have carried out attacks on churches across the country, including a suicide bombing at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October that killed 58 people.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a watchdog group based in Cairo, worries that social unity is coming undone. Some predict the brotherhood could pick up as many as half the seats in the assembly. I wandered past security police down an alley that dated to Roman times and entered the Church of St.
Sergius and Bacchus, a fourth-century basilica named for two Syrian converts to Christianity martyred by Roman authorities. Originally a Roman palace, the basilica is built over a crypt where, according to legend, Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed during their exile in Egypt.
It was around A. Holy men such as the abbot Antonius later St. Some, such as St. Arabic replaced Coptic as the national language, and the Copts, though permitted to practice their faith, steadily lost ground to a tide of Islam.
The Copts split from the Roman and Orthodox churches in a. By the year , according to some scholars, Copts made up less than half of the Egyptian population. Over the next millennium, the fortunes of the Copts rose and fell depending on the whims of a series of conquerors. The volatile Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid dynasty confiscated Christian goods, excluded Christians from public life and destroyed monasteries; the Kurdish warlord Saladin defeated the European Crusaders in the Holy Land, then allowed Copts to return to positions in the government.
Under the policies of the Ottomans, who ruled from the 16th century until the end of World War I, the Copts resumed their long downward spiral. During the s, Copts suffered a wave of attacks by Muslim extremists, and when President Anwar Sadat failed to respond to their demands for protection in , Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Coptic church, canceled Easter celebrations in protest.
Sadat deposed Shenouda in September and exiled him to the Monastery of St. Bishoy in the Nitrian Desert. The pope was replaced by a committee of five bishops, whose authority was rejected by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Sadat was murdered by members of the radical Egyptian Islamic jihad in October ; his successor, Mubarak, reinstated Shenouda four years later. Yet Christians continued to suffer from laws that made building a church nearly impossible most are constructed illicitly.
Despite the rise to powerful government positions of a few Copts, such as former secretary general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had served as foreign minister under Sadat and Mubarak, Coptic participation in public life has remained minimal. In the first days of the revolution, Shenouda continued his support for Mubarak, urging Copts not to join the protesters in Tahrir Square.
In the middle of the fourth century, anchorite holy men established three monasteries here, linked by a path known as the Road of Angels. But after most of the monks abandoned them, the monasteries fell into disrepair, only to flourish again in the past two decades as part of an anchorite revival. I drove past scraggly acacia trees and date plantations through a sandy wasteland until I arrived at the mud-walled Monastery of St. Bishoy, founded in a.
A sanctuary of baked-mud-brick monastic quarters and churches, linked by narrow passageways and topped by earthen domes, the compound has changed little over the past 1, years. As I turned a corner, I walked into a monk wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses. He introduced himself as Father Bishoy St. Anthony and offered to serve as my guide. He escorted me into the original, fourth-century church, and showed me the bier containing the remains of St. Bishoy, who died in Upper Egypt at age 97 in a. We crossed a wooden drawbridge to a sixth-century fortress of thick stone walls and vaulted corridors, built for protection from periodic attacks from Berbers.
From the rooftop, we could see a huge new cathedral, guesthouse and cafeteria complex built on the orders of Pope Shenouda after his release. Bishoy comprises a community of monks from as far away as Australia, Canada, Germany and Eritrea. All commit themselves to remain here for life. Like many monks, Bishoy St. Anthony, 51, turned to the spiritual life after a secular upbringing in Egypt. Born in Alexandria, he moved to New York City in his 20s to study veterinary medicine but found himself yearning for something deeper.
He spent two years there, serving a mix of Eritreans, Egyptians and Sudanese, then lived in Sydney for four years. In , he returned to Egypt. Anthony follows a daily routine nearly as ascetic and unvaried as that of his fourth-century predecessors: The monks wake before dawn; recite the Psalms, sing hymns and celebrate the liturgy until 10; take a short nap; then eat a simple meal at 1.
In the evening, they return to their cells for a second meal of yogurt, jam and crackers, read the Bible and wash their clothes. During the fasting periods that precede both Christmas and Easter, the monks eat one meal a day; meat and fish are stricken from their diet. Anthony acknowledged that not all of the monks here dwell in complete isolation.
Back in Cairo, one stifling hot afternoon I snaked past a dust-shrouded landscape of tenements and minarets to a district called Nasr Victory City. The quarter was partly designed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who, with other junior military officers, overthrew King Farouk in and ushered in 60 years of autocratic rule. The men, mostly Salafists, were being tried under emergency laws enacted after the Sadat assassination that have yet to be repealed. Christians had welcomed the swift justice following the May attacks; the Salafists were outraged.
Several hundred ultraconservative Islamists gathered in the asphalt plaza in front of the courthouse to protest the trial.
Police barricades lined the street, and hundreds of black-uniformed security police—Darth Vader look-alikes wearing visors and carrying shields and batons, deployed during the Mubarak years to put down pro-democracy protests—stood by in tight formation. Members of the crowd shook their fists and chanted anti-government and anti-Christian slogans: The sect had started a political party, Al Nour, and was calling for an Islamic state. Yet Al-Shahat insisted that Salafists believe in a pluralistic society.
Some fear it will open the way for further discrimination against Copts; others say that it will encourage Islamists to moderate their views. There is similar disagreement about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Christians cheered the rapid reconstruction of the three burned churches in Cairo and Sol.
And the military government has advocated a Unified Law for Places of Worship, which would remove strictures that make building a church in Egypt nearly impossible. But Sidhom says that some members of the council have cozied up to Islamic fundamentalists and the justice system has fallen short. The Copt whose ear was severed was persuaded by local government officials to drop the case.
And none of those who destroyed the church in Sol have been arrested. Also, the number was so big that this would not be practical. Also, they were just crazy youth. This is the best way to prevent this from happening again. In , the Copt who founded the church was shot by Muslim attackers; his murder was never solved.
The day after the church was burned, Basilios said, he fled to Cairo, vowing never to return. Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin. Photographer Alfred Yaghobzadeh is working on a project documenting the Copts.