Facing the Tests of Tolerance: Letter from Egypt

By Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0

He was a small boy of about 8 or 10, one of the filthy urchins found all over Egypt wherever tourists roam. He had been following me along Luxor’s corniche where the cruise boats docked. I fended off his offer of picture postcards, but still he insisted on introducing himself: “Me Tarek.”

I asked Tarek if he was Muslim or Christian. It wasn’t a casual inquiry. Southern Egypt is home to a large share of the country’s Christians and has been the site of sporadic anti-Christian violence ever since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

“Muslim,” Tarek said. “But we the same—Muslim, Christian—no problem.”

Well, there were problems, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.

On December 11, 2016, twenty-nine worshippers were killed in a bombing at the Botroseya Church in Cairo’s Abassia district. A few months later, on Palm Sunday, forty-five people died in twin bombings at St. George’s Orthodox Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria.

In spite of the carnage, it was easy to see how Tarek would believe that coexistence was the norm in Egyptian life. At the St. Francis Church across the dusty road from Luxor Temple the doors were open to visitors with no police presence in sight.

So it was not all bad news, and there were other positive signs that secular division, even animosity, had not become the norm. Back in the heady days of the 2011 revolution, at the height of the antigovernment protests, Muslims had marched in solidarity with Christians to protect churches from attack, in Cairo and elsewhere. A Coptic mass was celebrated in the middle of Tahrir Square, with Muslims forming a symbolic ring of protection around the participants.

I had seen reason for hope. Before leaving Cairo for Luxor I was wandering around Tahrir Square one Friday afternoon. Friday is usually protest day. There is almost always something to protest in Egypt, and ever since the contentious days of January 2011 any and every gripe was being voiced by a people no longer afraid of speaking up. But on this Friday it appeared that the protestors had taken a day off. There were no national flags waved aloft nor homemade posters plastered with insulting caricatures of Al Sissi or members of his cabinet. The relative stability that President Mohammed Al Sissi had brought to the country after ousting Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi had pacified the restive voices, at least temporarily. Today, softer voices had the stage to themselves. Strolling the square was a man holding aloft a Bible and a Quran, taking turns kissing each one. Was he a Christian or Muslim? I like to think it didn’t matter.

A few hours earlier I was at the reception desk of the Windsor Hotel, chatting with Salman, its tour operator.

“Every time I go there I look at the ceiling. It is so beautiful,” he said, his eyes brightening.

He wasn’t trying to sell me a tour because he knew I wasn’t interested in one. He was describing one of Cairo’s historic sights—not the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, which overlooks Old Cairo from a bluff beside the Citadel, nor the dome of the Church of St. George, the centerpiece of Coptic Cairo. He had gone rhapsodic on the Ben Ezra Synagogue, on the fringe of Coptic Cairo and just a short walk from St. George’s. Almost all of Egypt’s Jews migrated to Israel shortly after its creation in 1948, while others were expelled in the wave of extremism that swept the country, but the synagogues remain as reminders of more tolerant times.

Since the Arab invasion in 64 A.D., Christianity and Islam have been interwoven into Egyptian history. Coptic Cairo, with its centuries-old churches hidden within a cloister-like warren of lanes, may give the appearance of a refuge, but less than 10 minutes away, along a street lined with shops selling crucifixes and portraits of Jesus, lies the site of Cairo’s first mosque.

I asked Salman if the Copts were concentrated in particular neighborhoods of the city, fortress-like, where residency is determined by sect. Salman’s reply was reassuring: “No, they live just about everywhere.”

Despite these auspicious signs worries lurked, and there was reason for worry.

In November 2018, Islamists hijacked a bus carrying Christian pilgrims to the monastery of St. Samuel, south of Cairo. The passengers were given the opportunity to denounce their faith, and when they refused they were executed, one at a time, 28 in all.

In recent years, mass show trials and the executions that inevitably followed had tainted the reputation of the Egyptian judicial system, also with good reason, but after a series of brazen attacks on churches and Christians the government felt that enough was enough, that it had to send a signal. In October 2018, in another mass trial, the courts sentenced 17 Islamists to death for attacks on Christians.

My first night in Luxor I had dinner in a restaurant housed in a colonial-era villa a block from the Nile, owned by one of Luxor’s Christians.

“We haven’t had any problems, but we’ll have to see,” said Youssef, the manager. I asked him if he had encountered any pressure to take alcohol off the menu.

Over the decades, beginning in the 1970s, Egypt had taken a gradual but perceptible and distinctly conservative turn. When I lived in Cairo in the ’90s, mainstream Western fashion for women was the norm. Today, even secular-minded women took to wearing a headscarf in conservative parts of cosmopolitan Cairo. At the Windsor Hotel, my home-away from-home whenever in the city, Manar, who ran the bar and did double duty as breakfast waitress, donned no headscarf when on the job but pulled one from her purse when she finished her shift and headed to the street.

“Oh, no,” Youssef replied. “Everyone knows it would hurt the tourist business, and some of the Muslims in town need a place to drink.”

A few days later I left Luxor for Aswan, deeper in the Christian south. There a new Coptic cathedral had been built. Egypt’s Copts have long complained of discrimination at all levels of Egyptian life, including in the availability of houses for worship. For decades applications for church construction limped through the approval process, and one could be held up for as many reasons as there are stones in the Giza Pyramids—objection of the local community being one of them. Such foot-dragging on the part of the government could only have been read by Islamists as a signal that Christianity was not exactly welcome in Egypt, which could have also been interpreted that attacks on this unwelcome element in Egyptian society would be given a wink and a nod, which Christians complained was often the case. To let this line of thinking run its course would lead in only one direction—into the world of the darkest of human impulses, of which there are already too many disturbing examples, throughout human history.

The construction of the Aswan cathedral should have gone a long way toward soothing Christian fears, but attacks continued. On December 11, 2016, a Sunday mass in central Cairo at the church of Saints Peter and Paul was the target of a suicide attack, killing 29. The attack was both brazen and symbolic because next door to the church are offices of the Coptic pope, Tawadros II.

A mass was being said in a ground-level hall because the walls and marble pillars of the interior had yet to receive their finishing touches, so Mary led me around the lower level. Mary was a Copt who ran the souvenir stand and doubled as the cathedral’s tour guide. The tour finished, she resumed her lunch of rice, falafel, and fava beans, which she had set aside to serve as hostess to the rare visitor.

“I don’t like Muslims,” she said pointedly, showing that prejudice and tribalism may wear any hat. “Those who want an Islamic state, I tell them go back to Saudi Arabia. We’ve been here since the second century.”

Her assertion of the longevity of the Christian presence can’t be denied, but her reading of history needed a little revision. Christianity actually arrived in Egypt in the first century, in 42 A.D. (or 44 A.D., depending on the calendar), when the apostle St. Mark landed on the shore in Alexandria and began converting the locals to the new faith. As religious conversions go, Mark had a relatively easy time of it. The Egyptians of the first millennium were a deeply religious people who had had their icons and belief systems delegitimized, and even destroyed, by the Romans. With much of their religious culture erased they were ready to embrace a new faith. That many Christian principles, such as the death and rebirth of the divine, and the concept of final judgement, were already shared by the early Egyptians helped ease the transition. In a largely preliterate world symbolism also counted for much. The Christian cross had its near reflection in the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of everlasting life.

Naturally, there was pushback. This was the heyday of the Roman Empire, when Christianity was seen as an upstart, reactionary attack on the ruling order, which was inevitably entwined with respect for the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses: any concept of monotheism would never do. A few decades later the emperor Nero oversaw the vicious persecution of Christian converts, but in Egypt the new faith managed to survive, and even thrive.

However, in 284, Christianity suffered a setback. Diocletian became emperor and aimed to out-Nero Nero. Persecution of Christians became the norm throughout the empire, including in Egypt. Near the end of the third century, native son St. Anthony retreated to the desert for 13 years, to emerge 305 A.D. to found Christianity’s first monastery. The concept caught fire. Monasteries soon dotted the Egyptian landscape, including four enormous complexes at Wadi Natrun, 90 miles northwest of Cairo, all of which still operate today. So widespread was the monastic tradition that this honorarium can be found in the History of Monks, which dates to the fourth century:

There is no town or village in Egypt or the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people depend on their prayers as if on God Himself… Through them the world is kept in being.

Christianity was given an additional jumpstart when the emperor Constantine came to power in 306. Not only did Constantine embrace Christianity, he encouraged its spread. Only on his deathbed did he formally convert, but during his reign he produced the Edict of Man, in 313, which proclaimed tolerance of Christianity throughout the empire. In 325 he called the First Council of Nicaea, the outcome of which was the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s first formal statement of doctrine. And he directed the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb.

Here in Egypt’s Christian heartland I was anxious to see one of the relics of the faith’s early days, the Monastery of St. Simeon. I’d heard was still standing, somewhere on the west bank of the Nile. Yes it was, Mary confirmed, but getting there was a problem. There were no organized tours, and any talk of public transportation was a nonstarter. I asked if she could help. She made a few phone calls and found a driver willing to shuttle me across the river, and for reasonable price, not a slight achievement anywhere in Egypt. Twenty minutes later Emad picked me up in front of the church in his battered Toyota and we headed to the bridge that would take us across the Aswan High Dam—the national symbol of Egypt’s leap into modernity—and then back more than a millennium.

We wound and twisted over the backroads, Emad holding the wheel tight but jerking it right and left whenever the inevitable potholes appeared, which they inevitably did, because this was rural Egypt after all. On both sides of the road was all West Bank desert, and in front of us and behind much of the same, except for the ribbon of road we were following north, like a compass point. After about a half an hour a pile of stone began to appear in the distance, and as we approached it kept rising from the sand like an eruption from the heart of the Earth.

Time had reduced St. Simeon to a crumbling hulk. The walls were intact, along with the corner towers, but the stone had deteriorated by being beaten by centuries of wind and sand. It resembled a sand castle after a wave has washed over it, or an ice cream cake that has been left standing in the sun.

The caretaker was quitting for the day and wouldn’t let us inside—closing time was 4:00, he said, unusually strict by Egyptian standards—but he told us where we could find a new monastery, a new St. Simeon, which would offer much more to see than the dilapidated wreck he had been watching over. I rather preferred to see the dilapidated wreck but it was nothing doing, so Emad restarted the Toyota and we headed back to the Y turn we had passed on the way. This time we turned right and continued on as the road rose and dipped over the waves in the desert landscape. Far ahead a few buildings began to emerge, like the creations of a child’s pop-up book. A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway where the new St. Simeon was being built. It was late in the afternoon and the workers were lounging in the shade. Were they Christians or Muslims? I like to think it didn’t matter. One was eager to show me the grounds—the unfinished nave of the church, the residential quarters for monks and visiting pilgrims, where the living room ceilings were topped with Coptic domes, decorated with hand-painted frescoes. Each of the residential quarters were clearly intended to become mini-shrines to the Coptic faith. All of this awaited a return of Christians to the birthplace of Christianity. “Build it and they will come” seemed to be the operating principle of the new St. Simeon. Meanwhile, Christians, by the thousands, had been deserting the birthplace of their own faith.

“Muslim—Christian, no problem,” Tarek had said on the Luxor Corniche, and I long for the day when this would be true. It will when Egypt doesn’t only tolerate Christians but accepts the fact that it is Christian.