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Crisis in Egypt

Coptic Christians shoulder to shoulder with Muslims in Tahrir Square Add to ...

At Sunday Mass in Tahrir Square, thousands of Christians swayed to the sound of hymns blasted from a pair of tired speakers, not far from a makeshift trauma unit used to tend to the injured and count the dead on earlier, more violent days.

Above the faithful, an effigy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak swung ever so gently in the breeze, dangling from a red noose that has already begun to fray.

The mass, which followed a Muslim prayer, was dedicated to those called the "martyrs" of this uprising, but it was also meant to project a careful image of Egypt's future, which remains increasingly uncertain.

Coptic Christians stood shoulder to shoulder with Muslims, many of who sported the trademark cropped hair and long beards of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Their collective message was simple: Protesters are united in their quest to oust Mr. Mubarak. Their shared goal, forged in the crucible of Tahrir Square, trumps any differences in faith.

But as the initial euphoria of the youth uprising wears off, the square has also become a bit of a bubble, outside of which reality could prove far more complicated.

As leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood met with Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman in an attempt to chart a course out of this crisis, the talks fuelled a sense of unease among Christians in some quarters of Cairo.

"We are afraid these people will take the authority of Egypt and damage the rights of women, the rights of Christians," whispered Marianne, a 25-year-old doctor standing outside St. Marie De La Paix, a Coptic Orthodox Church, in striking distance of the Egyptian army tanks that encircle Tahrir Square.

"I am all for greater democracy, but what if concessions mean the Brotherhood takes over?" she asked.

Even before the uprising, there had been growing tensions between Egypt's Muslim and its large Christian Minority.

On New Year's Day, a suicide bombing outside a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria killed 23 people, setting off days of protests that were ultimately, and brutally suppressed by Egyptian police.

There have been dozens of other incidents of sectarian violence stretching over the past decade, the latest chapter in a long history of persecution of Egypt's 7 million Coptics Christians.

Last Sunday, an ailing Coptic Pope Shenouda III made a rare appearance on state television to warn that Egyptians should "safeguard the security and stability of the country."

Privately, Egyptian Copts worry of an exodus after the end of Mr. Mubarak's rule, similar to that which took place in Iraq.

Many are literally praying for Mr. Mubarak's government to endure, fearing its sudden collapse might trigger an anti-Christian backlash if the Muslim Brotherhood attains political power.

"Everybody is scared about the what is happening, where it is going. We worry about persecution," said Samia Shehata, a 29-year-old mother of two and Coptic Christian.

Some analysts dismiss such fears as naive, a holdover of a strategy by the Egyptian government to demonize the Brotherhood to justify repressive measures against the group and the rest of Egypt in the name of 'order'.

Indeed, Mr. Suleiman, who has become the face of the Mubarak government, suggested as much in an interview on ABC News, saying that the Islamists, were, once again, to blame for the chaos.

He also challenged the secular nature of the uprising, suggesting "other people" and "an Islamic current" was causing the protests to swell.

Some analysts say the best way to neutralize the threat posed by the Islamists is to bring them out of the shadows, into the political process, a strategy that has worked, to some extent in other countries in the region.

There have been subtle changes in the texture of the protests in Tahrir Square, which have come to feel less secular as time goes on.

There are chants of Allahu Akbar on most days. The Brotherhood, which occupied a small corner of the square, has come out in greater numbers.

They sweep the streets, direct line-ups at the bathrooms and run security checkpoints around the perimeter to ensure pro-Mubarak provocateurs are kept out.

They also appear to be mixing perfectly well with everyone else.

"We are all brothers here. We are friends here. You see, there is no problem here. We all get along," said Tamir, a 23-year-old Muslim with a festering bandage on his head and a toddler on his shoulders.

He has not been outside the area for more than 10 days.

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