* Egypt's top Islamist party sends mixed messages
* Large Christian minority worried about its fate
By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, Dec 7 (Reuters) - An Islamist surge in Egypt has left a large Christian minority divided over whether to flee the country, stay silent or reach out to a political force that seems guaranteed a major role in the country's future.
The pessimists say a revolution that began with the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in January is unravelling because many Islamists, who won a first round of parliamentary elections, have little interest in civil liberties or religious freedom.
They say pledges from Islamists to protect the Copts, the mostly Orthodox Christians whose roots go back to before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, contradict much of their campaign rhetoric.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is set to take the most seats in the new assembly, has long said "Islam is the Solution" for a country where one-tenth of the population is Christian.
The runners-up were ultra-conservative Salafis, whose brand of Islam reflects the strict Wahhabi ideology born in Saudi Arabia, where no other religion is permitted.
"We fool ourselves if we think the Islamists will give Christians more rights or freedoms," said 29-year-old film critic Joe Fahim, a Christian. "Many of my Christian friends fear for the future and what will happen if the Brotherhood and Salafis govern Egypt. Many are thinking of leaving the country."
The Copts face a paradox of the Arab Spring, namely that more freedom for the Muslim majority can mean more pressure on a non-Muslim minority. Iraq's Christian community was shattered by Islamists after dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
But the Arab Spring revolts were a grass-roots surge for democracy, not an invasion led by the United States, and they introduced a new political system that may help balance competing interests in Egyptian society.
Coptic and liberal Muslim intellectuals say Islamist parties cannot claim victory yet with two more rounds of the election still to come. They are also divided, with the Brotherhood ready to cooperate with liberal parties but not the Salafis.
These intellectuals hope the liberal Egyptian Bloc can win enough of the final vote to be a decisive player in parliament.
If that fails, they are already contemplating Plan B - forge a working relationship with moderate Islamists - said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.
"We have to be prepared for the day (when) we must make up our minds," Sidhom told Reuters. "Will we be satisfied with any sort of opposition, whether weak or strong, or can we take a step forward to working with each other?"
Even if the Brotherhood consolidates its first-round success, he said, its desire to appear like a government-in-waiting might ensure its more moderate wing prevails.
"They know they cannot honour the responsibility that has been bestowed upon them by the people by only preaching Islamic beliefs and a fundamentalist Islamic way of life," he said.
Brotherhood officials say they want to build a modern, democratic state based on sharia, the Islamic code of morals and law. Its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) speaks of spreading the values of sharia, while insisting that followers of other faiths would be governed by their own laws on religious matters.
While some Copts say Egypt is turning into an Islamic theocracy like Iran, others say this comparison to the Shi'ite revolution there four decades ago is alarmist and unsuited to a traditional Sunni country in the era of Facebook and Twitter.
"We are betting on Egyptian society's vigilance and instincts that have always been against extremism," said Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
Copts have long complained of discrimination in the job market and before the law, and have reported problems getting licences to build churches.
Such grievances spilled over into street violence in the months before Mubarak's overthrow and up to 23 people were killed by a Jan. 1 blast at a church in Alexandria.
Occasional clashes have erupted since the uprising and at least 25 people died in October when Christians clashed with military police in central Cairo.
If the Brotherhood opts to cooperate with the Salafis in the new parliament, they could make life harder for Copts, Eid said.
"They could, for example, find it hard to get hired in certain posts or get promoted and we could also see a narrowing of the space given to Christians to publicize their feasts and celebrations in state media," he said.
While fearing second-class status under an Islamist government, some Christians say Muslims could be bigger losers.
"I think the moderate Muslims will be harmed more than any other group under Islamic rule as they could find themselves forced to abide by rules that they do not necessarily want to follow," said Christian rights activist Mamdouh Ramzy.
Some Christians criticise their religious leaders for avoiding direct confrontation with the Islamists.
"The church is so silent," said Fahim, the film critic. "I saw a priest on an Egyptian Christian channel hosting an interview with a Salafi leader. It kind of implied that the church is sending a message to people to calm down and accept the result - accept to be ruled by Islamic laws."
Church leaders were reluctant to speak on the record as they feared stoking tension with Muslims who voted for Islamists, but said they were worried by the Brotherhood's mixed messages.
"The Muslim Brotherhood's leaders were not very clear about their plans," said a senior official in the Coptic church.
"Shortly after the uprising, they said they wanted a civil state, then they said a civil one based on Islamic laws and now they say they want a modern Islamic state. All this is so confusing and worrying."
The Muslim Brotherhood says Christian fears about an Islamist parliament are unfounded, adding that all Egyptians, regardless of religion, should be respected as citizens.
Such assurances left the church official skeptical.
"I feel we are heading towards a dark tunnel and we don't know what waits at the end," he said. "But at the end, I think we will make it through. I know many Muslims are not happy with Islamists winning in the parliament vote." (Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Crispian Balmer)