Minarets and church towers mingle on Cairo’s skyline, but tensions mar Egypt’s record of religious coexistence and a perception of growing intolerance is leading some Christians to shun their Muslim compatriots.
Amira Helmy, from a middle-class area of the capital, was brought up by a Muslim neighbour after her mother died and attended a state school alongside Muslim children. “Most of my friends were Muslims. We used to go on outings together and some would call to me from below my house so we could walk to school,” recalls Helmy with a smile. (Photo: Leader of Egypt’s Copts, Pope Shenouda (C), with fellow clergymen,June 8, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)
Now a housewife in her 40s, she sends her daughter Christine and son Kirollos to a private Christian school and forbids them from mingling with Muslim children to protect them from insults. Around a tenth of Egypt’s 78 million people are Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts — descendents of Christian communities that founded monasticism in the early centuries after Jesus.
Christian and Muslim clerics stress sectarian harmony, but communal tensions can erupt into criminality and violence, usually sparked by land disputes or cross-faith relationships. Such spats could multiply if the state ignores Christian grievances on issues such as an Islam-focused school curriculum and laws making it easier to build mosques than churches.