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How Lebanon’s First Female Militant Made Her Fight More Faithful

Image: Courtesy of Shiraz Awad

On July 31, Jocelyne Khoueiry passed away mercifully five days before seeing Beirut destroyed, again. A key player in the civil war that once tore the city apart, she spent the rest of her life trying to stitch it back together, and all of Lebanon with it.

The Beirut explosion on August 4 reminded many of the worst days of the 1975-1990 conflict. The Lebanese capital divided into a Christian east and a Muslim west, alternately shelled by militias and foreign armies vying for control.

But though far smaller in scale than the blast at the port, the deaths caused by Jocelyne’s 1976 hand grenade also shook the nation.

Born as one of two daughters in a Maronite Christian family of ten, Jocelyne grew up across the street from the Beirut headquarters of the Phalange.

Originally a Christian youth movement dedicated to an independent Lebanon, the Phalange took great offense at the state-within-a-state formed by the 300,000 Palestinians who were fleeing war with Israel. The 1969 Cairo agreement gave the refugees sovereignty to organize their own communities and continue the armed struggle, with the blessing—though not involvement—of their host nation.

The Khoueiry family provided some of the earliest fighters to the Phalange Christian militia formed in response, and a not yet 20-year-old Jocelyne enlisted with her brothers. In 1975, the civil war broke out in earnest, and several Lebanese Muslim militias sided with the Palestinians.

Jocelyne was not a practicing Christian; she preferred the Beirut nightlife. But on May 7, 1976, on a routine patrol on the roof of the Regent Hotel, she had a vision. She said the Virgin Mary appeared to her, and she saw herself kneeling in veneration. But she was also overcome with a sense of dread, and prayed that God would protect the six other female fighters stationed there with her.

On the way down from the roof, she saw advancing Palestinian militants.

The Regent sat on a dividing line between mixed and wholly Christian neighborhoods of Beirut, and Jocelyne’s squad was completely alone. While the Phalange militia’s men had anticipated defending a different hotel encampment, a 300-strong regiment of Palestinians attacked the female outpost instead.

The battle lasted six hours. Eventually, Jocelyne risked exposure by climbing back to the roof, and threw down a hand grenade that miraculously killed the Palestinian commander. The militia scattered, and the line was held.

Jocelyne became a legend. But in the years that followed, she contemplated…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on September 14, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Satellite Ministries Cross Boundaries. That’s Their Promise and Peril.

Image: Illustration by Nicole Xu

GOD TV celebrated too soon.

The 25-year-old Christian broadcasting corporation was granted a license for a new Hebrew-language channel in Israel, and the CEO wanted to praise the Lord.

“God has supernaturally opened the door for us to take the gospel of Jesus into the homes and lives and hearts of his Jewish people,” said CEO Ward Simpson, former director of the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry, in a video posted online. “They’ll watch secretly. They’ll watch quietly. . . . God is restoring his people. God is removing the blindness from their eyes.”

It was a public relations disaster. An outcry from Orthodox Jews and anti-missionary groups led Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council to reconsider GOD TV’s seven-year license. Council chairman Asher Biton claimed the company had misrepresented the channel as something that offered content for Christians when it was really programming designed to convert Jews.

GOD TV scrambled to take down Simpson’s video and clarify its purpose. GOD TV would not try to convert Jews to Christianity. But it would preach Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, consistent with the beliefs of Israel’s approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews. It wasn’t enough. Eight weeks after GOD TV was awarded the license…

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Old Scars and New Wounds: Christians Comfort Lebanon’s Trauma

To a traumatized child, a teddy bear can make a big difference.

But as the handful of Lebanese evangelicals trained in counseling are emphasizing in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, so can an ordinary individual.

“I don’t think the sit-with-a-psychologist model works with a communal culture,” said Kate Mayhew, country representative for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Lebanon.

“A lay person might be fearful of doing harm. But there is a lot they can do.”

There is a lot that needs to be done.

An impact assessment conducted by Strategy& in the worst affected neighborhoods of Beirut found that 3 in 4 respondents were suffering anxiety two weeks after the blast.

Nearly 7 in 10 were experiencing disturbing dreams, and 6 in 10 reported difficulty doing household chores.

And according to UNICEF, 50 percent of its respondents said their children were showing signs of trauma and extreme stress. In the poverty-stricken Karantina district directly in front of the port, one child clutched a bag of distributed bread to his chest, rocking back and forth. Though by then…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 9, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Sudan Agrees with Rebels to Remove Islam as State Religion

In signing successive peace deals with entrenched rebel movements last week, Sudan drew upon the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

“The constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’” read the text of an agreement between the North African nation’s joint military-civilian transitional council and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North (SPLM–N).

“The state shall not establish an official religion.”

The declaration of principles further cements Sudan’s efforts to undo the 30-year system of strict sharia law under President Omar al-Bashir, during which Islam was the religion of the state.

The agreement was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, four days after a more inclusive peace deal was signed with a coalition of rebel groups in the Sudan Revolutionary Front in Juba, South Sudan.

The Juba agreement established a national commission for religious freedom, which guarantees the rights of Christian communities in Sudan’s southern regions.

Sudan’s population of 45 million is roughly 91 percent Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Open Doors’s World Watch List ranks Sudan No. 7 among nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) interpreted the agreement even more widely: to protect…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Controversial Religion Law Tips Montenegro Election

For the first time in his life, 82-year-old Bishop Amfilohije voted in an election.

His example led record numbers of citizens in Montenegro to do the same this past Sunday.

Spurred by what he perceived as government attacks on his beloved Serbian Orthodox Church, he launched an “anybody but them” campaign against the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which held power in the Eastern European country for the last 30 years.

“[Vote] for the saints, and against the lawless,” said Amfilohije one week before the August 30 election, according to Balkan Insight. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic is accused of running a corrupt government.

Preliminary results indicate a razor-thin victory for the bishop.

The opposition coalition won 41 out of 81 seats in parliament.

The DPS claimed the largest solo share with 30, but will find itself out of power for the first time in Montenegro’s 14-year history if all coalitions hold.

“This is the freedom that so many have long been longing for,” pastor Sinisa Nadazdin told CT. His Gospel of Jesus Christ Church is located in the capital city of Podgorica, and is one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“The myth of Djukanovic’s invincibility is finally broken.”

Montenegro is the 6th-least evangelical country in Europe, according to the Joshua Project. Believers were not united behind any particular party, but many welcomed the democratic message. “This is an opportunity to get some new blood into the system…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 3, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Researchers Find Christians in Iran Approaching 1 Million

Missiologists have long spoken of the explosive growth of the church in Iran.

Now they have data to back up their claims—from secular research.

According to a new survey of 50,000 Iranians—90 percent residing in Iran—by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, 1.5 percent identified as Christian.

Extrapolating over Iran’s population of approximately 50 million literate adults (the sample surveyed) yields at least 750,000 believers. According to GAMAAN, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million.”

The traditional Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran number 117,700, according to the latest government statistics.

Christian experts surveyed by CT expressed little surprise. But it may make a significant difference for the Iranian church.

“With the lack of proper data, most international advocacy groups expressed a degree of doubt on how widespread the conversion phenomenon is in Iran,” said Mansour Borji, research and advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom in Iran.

“It is pleasing to see—for the first time—a secular organization adding its weight to these claims.” The research, which asked 22 questions about…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 3, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Zimbabwe Evangelicals Defend Catholics from Government’s ‘Genocide’ Accusations

Never Muparutsa

Zimbabwe, in its 40 years of independent history, has “never enjoyed life.”

And as the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) stands in solidarity this week with maligned Catholic bishops accused of fomenting genocide, its president, Never Muparutsa, told CT the Southern African government is failing to honor its biblical responsibility.

There are too many poor, amid official repression.

An excerpt from the interview:

On June 1, we called for 90 days of prayer. On the 15th day, the president called for a national day of prayer, and we supported him. We don’t necessarily blame the president for all the problems, but there is a lack of leadership to bring everyone to the table.

And this is why you stood with the Catholics?

The Catholic letter was trying to provoke discussion, not give an insult. It pointed out problems like all of us were doing. But it received such a strong backlash.

We felt that given the situation in the country, if we just stand by and watch, we don’t know what will happen. We have journalists and activists in prison. There have been abductions with perpetrators unidentified, making us all vulnerable.

So this prompted us to stand with the Catholics, because an insult to one is an insult to all.

The 90 days of prayer will end on August 29. What are your hopes for Zimbabwe, in how God might move on behalf of the church and country?

We need a better future. We have suffered enough over 40 years, having never really enjoyed life. Zimbabwe has been given many natural resources and riches, and if our leaders are gifted enough, they can exploit these for the benefit of the people.

We are praying that the church will raise up disciples, who in the future will be good politicians. We blame ourselves. We have what we deserve, because we have not done a good job.

We want God to help us achieve the Zimbabwe we want, with freedom of speech, access to the wealth of the nation, and an uprooting of corruption.

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 24, 2020. Please click here for the full text.

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Turkey Turns Another Historic Church into a Mosque

The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer.

A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers.

Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, the historic Chora church had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it restored as a mosque.

The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the fourth century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th–12th centuries.

The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision.

And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform the Chora church museum back into a mosque is seen as geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another UN-listed world heritage site.

“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”

Protestant believers agree. “The Hagia Sophia is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 21, 2020, in cooperation with the AP. I contributed additional reporting. Please click here to read the full text.

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A Beacon of Hope in a Broken Beirut

Image: P. Clarkson

Sitting at his desk in the second-floor office adjacent to the historic National Evangelical Church of Beirut, Habib Badr calmly filled out the wedding registry. It was a ritual the almost 70-year-old had performed countless times over the course of his 35-year ministry.

The next day, there would be a funeral. A stalwart member of his congregation, the former head of reconstructive surgery at the American University of Beirut hospital during the years of civil war, had passed away of natural causes.

It seemed there were more funerals than weddings these days, Badr thought. But the nostalgic church would always draw young people ready to exchange their vows, even from the scattered Lebanese diaspora, in imitation of their parents a generation before.

There was something special about the lighting. On a clear day, parishioners could see the distant snow-covered peak of Mt. Sannine, towering over the capital below. Three years ago, the church replaced its eight ordinary windows. Bracketing the sanctuary pews with translucent glass depicting the three crosses of Calvary above colored stones, they aimed to remind worshipers of the ever-present Rock of Ages, upon whom the church is built.

Lebanese evangelicals don’t prefer stained glass windows with human imagery, Badr said. This serves to distinguish them from original Catholic and Orthodox heritages.

“To the missionaries, we say, ‘Go home,’” a Lebanese Greek Orthodox bishop had publicly proclaimed a generation earlier. “And to the Protestants we say, ‘Come back home.’”

But for Badr and his congregants, they were already home. The National Evangelical Church, the oldest Arabic-speaking Protestant congregation in the Middle East, was formed in 1848. Badr’s grandfather Yusuf was the first native pastor, installed in 1890.

And as if to emphasize, the circular window high above the pulpit—installed in 1998—pictured a cross above Mt. Sannine, with an image of the church in the foothills below. Originally constructed in 1869, the architecture was a blend of Scottish and Lebanese styles.

Every Sunday, the symbolism would resonate: A Reformed church, nestled like any other Lebanese home into the rugged mountainous terrain.

Badr’s wedding thoughts were abruptly shaken by a small tremor. Small earthquakes periodically rattle the small Mediterranean nation two-thirds the size of Connecticut, so the pastor stood and prepared to momentarily take refuge underneath his office doorframe. It was not a moment too soon…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 20, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Can ‘Abraham’ Bring Peace to the Middle East?

In forging the first Arab-Israeli peace deal since 1994, President Donald Trump paid homage to a patriarch.

He named the historic normalization the “Abraham Accord.”

The familiar Bible character “is referred to as ‘Abraham’ in the Christian faith, ‘Ibrahim’ in the Muslim faith, and ‘Avraham’ in the Jewish faith,” explained David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel.

“And no person better symbolizes the potential for unity, among all these three great faiths.”

In signing the accord, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab nations to make peace with Israel. Telephone lines are already being connected between the Gulf nation and the Jewish state, with preparations underway to exchange embassies.

It may open a new era. Fellow Gulf nations Bahrain and Oman signaled their support, while Saudi Arabia did not oppose it.

“This is a once-in-a-generation diplomatic achievement, but I predict it will be the first, not the last,” said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical leader engaged in behind-the-scenes advocacy. He and bestselling novelist Joel Rosenberg led an evangelical delegation to the UAE in October 2018 (as well as two delegations to Saudi Arabia), and Moore has personally visited three more times.

“The Abraham Accord,” he said, “will prove to be the moment when the grievances of the past no longer overpowered the promises of the future in the Middle East.” A hero of faith to both Christians and Jews, ‘Ibrahim’ is already a central figure in the UAE. The nation…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 17, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Why Many Christians Want to Leave Palestine. And Why Most Won’t.

In Bethlehem—the little town of Jesus’ birth—only 1 in 5 residents today are Christians (22%). A decade earlier, more than 4 in 5 were believers (84%).

The steep decline is reflected in other traditional Christian cities in the Holy Land. In Beit Jala, the Christian majority has fallen from 99 percent to 61 percent. In Beit Sahour, it has fallen from 81 percent to 65 percent.

When the Ottoman era ended in 1922, Christians were 11 percent of the population of Palestine—about 70,000 people. According to the 2017 census by the Palestinian Authority (PA), they now number 47,000—barely 1 percent.

There are competing explanations of what—or who—is to blame. Some identify the Israeli occupation. Others describe Muslim chauvinism.

The overwhelming answer, according to a new survey of local Christians by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), is economics.

Nearly 6 in 10 respondents identified this as the main reason they consider emigration (59%).

The poll, commissioned by the Philos Project, a US-based initiative promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, surveyed 995 Christians in 98 Palestinian locations throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip in January and February.

Compared to the economy, other cited reasons paled in significance.

Security conditions were named by 7 percent. Another 7 percent cited better education. And another 7 percent blamed the political situation.

Only 4 percent blamed corruption, while 3 percent gave a religious explanation.

But this particular question measured the primary driver of desire to leave the Holy Land. What secondary factors might be involved? Philos “affirms the right of all Christians to…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 4, 2020. Please click here to read the full text, and here for the Arabic translation.

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How I Explained Beirut’s Explosion to My Kids

Credit: Julie Casper

Our family was sitting down to dinner when the walls rumbled.

Assuming it was just an unusual surge of electricity preceding one of Lebanon’s frequent power outages, we readied to say our prayers.

And then came the boom, and the whole house shook.

“An earthquake?” I wondered, as we rushed our four children, ages 7 to 13, outside to presumed safety. But there we found neighbors, anxiously skimming through Twitter on their balconies, shouting out the news.

Beirut had just suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

My nerves for my family’s security settled when I learned it was not an earthquake. But then the political nerves took over.

Was it an assassination? An Israeli strike?

Reporting for Christianity Today from Cairo during the Arab Spring, our family had become somewhat accustomed to instability. But that was my realm: attending demonstrations, visiting attacked churches. Yet there was always a sense that life carried on, like the ever-calm waters flowing in the nearby Nile River, where we would often board a felucca boat and float in peace.

Our year in Lebanon has been much different. Within two weeks of our arrival…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 7, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Lebanon Was Already in Turmoil. Then Came the Blast.

Joseph Kassab

The massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Monday evening has left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and more than 300,000 displaced from their homes.

Millions around the world watched in horror as the detonation of 2,750 tons of confiscated ammonium nitrate laid waste to the Mediterranean port and surrounding neighborhoods. The equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake was felt deep into the coastal mountains of Lebanon and as far away as Cyprus.

The images of destruction reminded many of the small Middle Eastern nation’s 15-year civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

Christianity Today spoke with Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. Based in Beirut but born in Aleppo, Syria, Kassab reflected on the damage suffered in Christian neighborhoods, early efforts to assist the suffering, and hope for what this tragedy might produce in the Lebanese church.

These are very difficult days in Lebanon. What happened, and how bad is it?

It is very bad. I’ve been in Lebanon since 1984, experiencing the civil war. This is the first time that one single explosion caused such damage. People were terrified.

Until now, there is no agreement on the explanation, with many speaking according to their political point of view. Some say it was an electrical problem. Some say it was arson. Others assure that they heard jet fighters. We have to wait, hoping that the coming days will provide an answer.

This explosion destroyed so much of Beirut, across sectarian lines. What is the impact on the Christian community? The areas nearest the port in East Beirut are primarily Christian neighborhoods, and generally…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on August 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Many Copts Anxious as Islamists Win Majority in Parliament

Egypt’s parliamentary elections are over.

While noting irregularities, former US president Jimmy Carter, through his Carter Center for promoting democracy, has judged the elections to be “acceptable.” When the first post-Mubarak parliament opens session today (January 23) its composition will be 72 percent Islamist.

The celebrated chant of Tahrir Square – “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – has given way to sectarian politics in which liberal parties, favored by the great majority of Copts, received a crushing defeat.

The Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, has won 46 percent of the seats. The more conservative Salafi Nour Party has captured 24 percent. A handful of smaller Islamist parties add another 2 percent. Liberal politicians, who were once hopeful, are reeling from their losses. Coptic Christians are left pondering their murky future.

Today, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article about risks to freedom that observed, “Especially critical is protection for Copts, the canaries in Egypt’s coal mine. The fate of Egypt’s democracy—and the chances for the emergence of non-Islamist options—will rest on whether this millennia-old community, as well as an array of other groups, feels comfortable in the new Egypt.”

Amin Makram Ebeid, a Coptic intellectual and author, summarizes four primary Coptic responses:

  • A minority, though sizeable, is planning to emigrate.
  • The largest group is looking for spiritual, perhaps even mystical solutions.
  • A smaller party is dedicated to stay and fight for their rights, especially in securing a non-Islamist constitution, which according to the national referendum in March is the provenance of parliament.
  • Finally, there is a group that is looking to cooperate with Islamists, provided Copts do not lose their identity in the process.

Paula Magdy, a 24-year-old volunteer librarian in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, illustrates the group seeking spiritual solutions. “We pray to God to save us, but I am not afraid. Up until now we have not been sure about anything. Maybe they have won elections, but we will win the war?”

Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church also estimates most Christians fall into the spiritual solution category, with only about 10 percent actively participating in shaping the political outcome for Copts.

Standing their Ground

Emad Gad is one of the 10 percent, representing the group wishing to stay and fight. He is a Coptic leader in the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, winning a parliament seat in the north Cairo district. Naturally, he offers political perspective.

“We don’t fear the result of elections because there were many violations that skewed results. In any case, parliament will not form the government, the president will, and the military council also maintains its influence.”

For him, the constitution is the largest battleground, but liberals are working on an agreement with Islamists for each party to nominate a limited number of members to the committee which will draft it.

Nevertheless, “If Islamists reach toward a Saudi-style government we have many means to resist. Certainly the new generation is able to go once again to the streets. I expect Egypt will remain a civil state.”

Fr. Philopater

Father Philopater will also stay and fight, but his is a religious perspective. A controversial priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church who has repeatedly clashed with the hierarchy, Philopater expects a continuation of the suffering of Copts.

“The one benefit is that persecution will now be obvious, as under Mubarak it was always assigned to hidden hands or deviant people.”

Furthermore, Copts should not cooperate with Islamists. ‘It is true some speak of protecting Copts, but others speak about jizia, call us infidels, or instruct Muslims not to greet us in the street.’

Ebeid agrees with non-cooperation. “Christians should not support them in their quest for power. If we sell ourselves, why should liberal Muslims continue to fight?”

Cooperating with Islamists

Then there is the group which promotes cooperation. Rafik Habib, son of a now-deceased prominent Protestant pastor, represents a tiny Coptic constituency that actually favors Islamist rule. He is among roughly one hundred Copts who are founding members of the Brotherhood’s FJP, and serves as one of its vice-presidents.

He believes Egypt must accept the essential religious basis of society, not deny it.

“Secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under an Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.”

Youssef Sidhom

More typical are Copts who wish to cooperate with Islamists but due to necessity. Among these is Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani.

“In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must stay at the table with them and remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.”

Unlike Philopater, Sidhom has a degree of trust in the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who through his interactions with them finds them to be decent people.

“I believe the Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”

Similar to Social Democrat Gad, however, Sidhom is prepared.

“Our Plan B if Islamist groups seek an Islamic state is to oppose their constitution in a referendum, but if it is accepted, Copts and liberal Muslims – 40 percent of the population – will take again to the streets.”

All Politics is Local

While these responses are varied, it is “the street” that decides. This is not the street of Tahrir Square, but the poor, crowded neighborhoods in every city of Egypt.

In Warrak, a suburb of Cairo, Shadia Bushra, a 45 year old Coptic widow, cast her vote for the Freedom and Justice Party.

“I don’t know much about politics, but I followed the general view of the neighborhood.”

Essam Sharif

It did not hurt that when her local church failed to intervene to defend her rights in a property dispute, Essam Sharif, her Salafi neighbor and a leader in the Nour Party stood by her side, retained a lawyer, and helped win the judgment against wealthier Christian neighbors.

“I told her I would have done the same if she was opposed by Muslims,” stated Sharif.

Stated Islamist commitment to the rights of all has also won support from Copts in Maghagha, a small city in Upper Egypt. Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a candidate for the Nour Party.

“I will consider myself the candidate of Christians ahead of Muslims, even if they do not vote for me. As such, I have to demand their rights. This is both democracy and Shari’ah law.”

Sheikh Hamdi and Fr. Yu’annis

Father Yu’annis is a Coptic Orthodox priest in Maghagha and has campaigned openly for Abdel Fattah.

“I don’t support him as a Salafi or as a Muslim, but as a person. He is from our village and I hope all Salafis will be like him.”

Yet he is pragmatic as well. “If we see more than two-thirds of the people are for an Islamic state we cannot stop them from having it, so as the Egyptian proverb says, ’With him who wins, play with him’. I must do my village duty to stand by him, so he won’t say I caused him to lose, and if he wins, he will be thankful.”

Perplexing Questions

The seismic politic changes in Egypt during the past 12 months are still underway. Copts and others fill this resulting uncertainty with fears and expectations in wildly different directions.

Essam Thabit, a Coptic school teacher in Maghagha, believes all will be well. “Whoever comes to power will make sure they treat Christians better than the old regime, even though they know Christians won’t vote for them. I expect many churches to be built.”

His Coptic colleague Yasser Tekla from the neighboring city of Beni Mazar expects, and oddly welcomes, the worst. “I will vote for the Salafis now so they will come to power and people will see them truly, and then reject them afterwards.”

Many Copts hesitated during the revolution, while others joined wholeheartedly. The initial celebrations of Tahrir – where Muslims and Christians alternated protecting each other at prayer – have been followed by multiple instances of bloody sectarian conflict.

This has prompted Copts to ask themselves hard questions: Should Copts take refuge in the military council against Islamists, or with Islamists against the military-as-old-regime? Should they enter the political arena and trust its processes, or enter their churches and trust in God?

So far, clear answers to these questions seem beyond the reach of Egypt’s Christian minority.

This article was published originally at Christianity Today. Please click here to view it at that site.