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Worshippers pray inside the St. Mark's Church in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. (Shawn Baldwin For The Globe and Mail)
Worshippers pray inside the St. Mark's Church in the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. (Shawn Baldwin For The Globe and Mail)

This Christmas, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are asking for respect Add to ...

Jackline Nessim and Wael Sedrak, like many of Egypt’s Christians, long for a present that is unlikely to arrive before Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7. In fact, it may be a very long time in coming.

“We want an end to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mr. Sedrak, 34, an interior decorator, referring to the Islamist group that controls Egypt’s presidency, dominates its legislature and wrote the newly approved constitution. “Every day they get more and more fanatic and make our lives miserable.”

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At St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in the affluent suburb of Maadi, many Christian parishioners – long a minority in this Muslim country – worry that the rise to power of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood will marginalize them as never before. Thousands of Egyptian Christians are said to have left the country – an exodus of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities – and families here at this charming marble church fret over whether they should go, too.

“The people are praying with all their hearts because of the circumstances,” said Ms. Nessim, who has been married to Mr. Sedrak for eight years. “I believe God will listen.”

Egypt’s Copts, constituting about 10 per cent of the country’s population of about 85 million, are native to this land, and adopted Christianity in the first centuries AD, following the teaching of St. Mark, who they believe journeyed to Alexandria at the behest of Jesus and founded a church.

Egypt’s connection to the story of Jesus is particularly strong, as the Gospels say his mother, Mary, and father, Joseph, brought him here from Palestine as a baby to escape Herod’s efforts to kill him. It is said the family was in the Valley of the Nile for almost four years, spending time in several places, including Maadi, 10 kilometres south of Cairo. It was from this area that the family sailed to Upper Egypt.

The Arab Muslims who invaded in the 7th century recognized the Copts as “people of the Book” and spared them from having to convert to Islam, though they subjected them to special taxes and less than equal treatment. It was only under the Egyptian monarchy, starting in the early 19th century and ending when King Farouk was overthrown in 1952, that Copts came to enjoy a high level of respect and equality. Many became big landowners and the educated elite of the country.

Like other wealthy Egyptians, many saw their property nationalized by the first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Mr. Nasser, like the secular leaders after him, also afforded Christians a certain amount of protection. The new political power of the Muslim Brotherhood now leaves Christians feeling vulnerable again.

The Nessim-Sedraks say they feel the difference in their day-to-day lives since Mohammed Morsi, a leading member of the Brotherhood, was elected president in June.

Two months ago, Ms. Nessim was walking into church with her five-year-old daughter, Nataly, when a taxi driver pulled up and shouted at her about the way she dressed. “I was dressed as I am today,” she said, motioning to her tight-fitting blue jeans and soft sweater. She said the taxi driver yelled, “We’ll teach you how to dress,” and then drove off.

“Can you imagine that?” said an agitated Mr. Sedrak. “The next thing will be modesty patrols like in Saudi Arabia and they’ll insist she wear a scarf or veil.”

The Nessim-Sedraks say they discuss the idea of leaving every day, but are trying to trying to put such concerns aside during the festive season. They will attend evening mass on Christmas Eve, Jan. 6, as well as one on Christmas Day itself.

It’s a heavy dose of church, family and friends, more intense than most Christian rituals in Canada, and it’s one of the things the Nessim-Sedraks like best about living in Egypt.

Now, though, the season also conjures up Copts’ darkest fears. It was on Jan. 1, 2011, as worshippers were leaving a New Year’s Eve service, that 23 Copts were killed at mass in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, victims of a suicide bomb attack on their church. Four months later, after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, a series of attacks on Coptic churches and homes in the Imbaba neighbourhood of Cairo left 15 people dead.

In both Alexandria and Imbaba, radical Salafists were believed to have been responsible for the attacks, but to most Copts there’s little to distinguish those groups from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The first six months of Mr. Morsi’s presidency have not persuaded them otherwise, said Kamal Zakher, 65, a respected Coptic writer and commentator. Mohammed Beltagy, the general secretary of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, blamed the Copts for the opposition to the new constitution, Mr. Zakher said, “even though the leaders of the National Salvation Front are all Muslims.”

“Our only hope was a constitution that would recognize Egypt as a secular state and safeguard our rights as non-Muslims,” he added. “Now that battle is lost.”

In this environment the Nessim-Sedraks are edgy. “It’s not that we want to leave,” said Ms. Nessim. “We don’t. It would be very hard to abandon everything we have and start over.”

“But we worry about the children,” Mr. Sedrak said. “I thought maybe Jacky and the kids should go, at least for now.”

“But I said ‘No,’” chimed in Ms. Nessim. “That’s the sort of thing that ruins a family.”

But Egypt can’t continue as it is much longer, they both agree.

“Either it becomes like Afghanistan with the Taliban,” said Mr. Sedrak, “in which case we’ll have no choice but to leave. Or it gets rid of the Brotherhood and becomes a civilized country.”

“I believe that is what’s going to happen,” he continued, perhaps putting his heart before his head, “and it will happen very soon.”

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