Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long felt like second-class citizens in their own country.
Now many fear that the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is giving Muslim extremists free rein to torch churches and attack Coptic homes in the worst violence against the community in decades.
An assault Sunday night on Christians protesting over a church attack set off riots that drew in Muslims, Christians and the police. Among the 26 people left killed in the melee, most were Copts. For Coptic scholar Wassem el-Sissi, it was evidence that the Christian community in Egypt is vulnerable as never before.
“In the absence of law, you can understand how demolishing a church goes unpunished,” he said. “I have not heard of anyone who got arrested or prosecuted.”
Once a majority in Egypt, Copts now make up about 10 percent of the country’s 85 million people. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Their history dates back 19 centuries and the language used in their liturgy can be traced to the speech of Egypt’s pharaohs. Proud of their history and faith, many Copts are identifiable by tattoos of crosses or Jesus Christ on their right wrists, and Coptic women do not wear the veil as the vast majority of Muslim women in Egypt do.