.- After a Coptic Christian church was set on fire on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt’s new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, took the unprecedented step of meeting with local Christians protesting the attack.
The meeting – which comes at a time of intense political turmoil in the country – is reportedly the first time an Egyptian prime minister has acknowledged and met with demonstrators.
On March 4, witnesses say a Coptic church in the town of Soul, on the outskirts of Cairo, was set on fire by a mob after a skirmish between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. The mob allegedly prevented the local fire brigade from entering the village. The priest of the small parish, and three deacons have been reported missing.
“Some of the Muslim mobs in the area took the land … and put a sign that it’s now a mosque,” Michael Meunier, President of the U.S. Copts Association, told Vatican Radio on March 8.
Prime Minister Sharaf told the Coptic community that he would speak to the country's military council about taking back the land and rebuilding the church. However, no action has been taken at this point, largely due to the Prime Minister's need to negotiate with the military council.
“That’s a first time a seated prime minister has addressed any protesters in Egypt,” Meunier said. “He’s trying – the problem is he’s not fully authorized. It’s still the military council that holds all the cards.”
Meunier is currently in Egypt and has met with the prime minister on two occasions to discuss the issue.
About 90 percent of Egypt’s population is Muslim. Catholics make up a tiny minority of about 500,000, with the majority of the nation’s Christians being members of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The country was rocked by a wave of anti-Christian persecution at the start of the year, including the killing of 21 Coptic Orthodox worshipers by a Muslim extremist suicide bomber outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association reported that Egypt’s Copts and other Christians have been an endangered minority in the country, with Islamic radicals regularly attacking Christians and their property. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, employment and education discrimination against Christians was common and the government placed restrictions on the construction or repair of churches that did not apply to mosques.
Although Muslim-Christian relations have been rife with tension in Egypt throughout the decades, Church leaders have expressed cautious optimism about the unity between both religious groups during the recent political protests in the country.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Vatican nuncio to Egypt, told CNA in a phone interview from Cairo on Feb. 1. that the demonstrations have been remarkably free from religious overtones and that there are many signs of Christians and Muslims working together.
“There isn't a religious distinction,” he said. “They are not dividing themselves into Christians and Muslims, they're just the Egyptian citizens.”
Archbishop Fitzgerald said that in the first days of unrest, Muslims and Christians spontaneously formed neighborhood committees to provide security when police forces abruptly fled the area.
Catholic Coptic Patriarch Cardinal Antonios Naguib, head of the country’s Catholic Church, agreed that the protests have brought out “really wonderful” displays of Christian-Muslim unity.
However, Patriarch Naguib told CNA in a Feb. 4 e-mail that much depends on the future leadership of Egypt as to whether or not Christians will continue to encounter religious persecution.
“If the State is a civil state, based on equality, citizenship and law, as many are asking for, it will be an historic success,” he said.
“If, on the other hand, it is transformed into a religious state, we will have lost all of the past acquisitions, and the entire population will suffer – Christians and Muslims.”