CAIRO (Reuters) - The surge of popular unity that toppled Hosni Mubarak last week has eased tension between Egypt’s Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority and raised hopes for lasting harmony.
Muslims and Christians joined hands and formed human shields to protect each other from riot police as members of the different faiths prayed during the protests in Cairo.
Alongside banners demanding Mubarak’s resignation and an end to emergency rule, protesters held aloft posters of the Christian cross and Islamic crescent together against the red white and black of Egypt’s flag.
“Egypt has been victorious over what they called sectarian strife,” respected Muslim preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi told millions gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Friday.
“Here in Tahrir, the Christian and Muslim stood side by side,” said Qaradawi. “This cursed strife is no more.”
Some of Egypt’s Copts, who make up a tenth of Egypt’s 79 million population, say it will take more than effusive displays of interfaith unity to heal the wounds of the past.
“I am still afraid of what will happen in the future,” said Marie, a tourism worker in her late 20s. “More guarantees are needed that Copts will live freely and be treated fairly.”
Others say they have already noticed a positive change.
Lawyer Peter el-Naggar, who spent years defending the right of Christians to have their religion recognized, said officials were often reluctant to recognise a Christian’s religion, but this changed when Mubarak’s government fell.
“The Ministry of Interior has issued a decision saying everyone who has a church document stating that his faith is Christianity will be recognized as such by the state,” he said.
Leaders of both religions tend to emphasise sectarian harmony but communal tensions sometimes boil up into violence, often sparked by land disputes, cross-faith relationships or church construction permits.
Last year saw more than the usual share of strife.
A drive-by shooting outside a church killed six Christians and a Muslim policeman in January. Protests followed and homes and shops were set ablaze. Fighting in northern Egypt sparked by a land dispute led to 27 arrests in March.
In November, hundreds of Christians protesting after construction of a church was halted clashed with riot police in the Cairo suburb of Giza. Dozens of Muslims joined in.
This January, Christians took to the streets in protest after a bomb hit a church in Alexandria, killing up to 23 people. Police fired tear gas to disperse them.
The authorities stepped up security at Egypt’s churches after the Alexandria attack, but Christians say many of the extra guards withdrew as the protests against Mubarak grew.
Two churches in Sinai were attacked but Naggar sees that as part of sporadic looting that was not motivated by religion.
Social researcher Negad al-Borai blamed government repression and poverty for growing religious extremism in Egyptian society. Democracy was the only solution, he said.
“I can certainly see the people’s souls returning to them now, but obviously the harm they felt for thirty years will not go away in ten days,” he said. “If a proper democratic system is implemented, it can easily replace any religious fanaticism.”
Unemployed Christian Medhat Malak, 32, who took part in the Giza protests in November, said he was already seeing more kindness from many of his Muslim compatriots.
“I don’t feel about Muslims the way I used to,” he said. “I feel that all the Egyptian people around me are treating me nicely and with respect and decency.”
Some government officials were an exception, he said.
“I went yesterday to finish some procedural paper work and the official threw my papers in my face and treated me badly.”
Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer