November 17, 2012

Coptics: Strong faith, cloudy future

At this year's annual pilgrimage, a sense of persecution reigns with Muslim hardliners in control.

By HAMZA HENDAWI The Associated Press

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Coptics participate in a mass in Cairo. Egypt’s Christian minority fears discrimination has worsened since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago and the subsequent rise to power of Islamists.

The Associated Press

In recent weeks, there have been several cases of Muslim women forcibly cutting the hair of Christian girls, who unlike almost all Egyptian Muslim women don't wear headscarves.

"We are like gold, we must be burned so we can become purer," said Romani Abdullah Fakhouri, a 47-year-old math teacher who has been volunteering to help at the pilgrimage since he was 11.

He bitterly recalled an incident of anti-Christian sentiment that his firstborn child, Peter, confronted several years ago.

A third grader at the time, Peter came home crying and kept asking his parents what was wrong with being a Christian. His best friend at school, a Muslim boy called Moaz, refused to drink the water Peter brought him from home because his mother had told him not to.

"I tried to explain it away. I told him perhaps his mother thought that because we are poor our water may not be clean," said Fakhouri, a slender man with the bronze complexion of Egyptians of the deep south. "I was very upset."

Bishop Marcus told how his diocese in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra narrowly averted a violent clash between Christians and Muslims when Islamic hardliners recently took over a Christian-owned plot of land and declared it a mosque. The hardliners prayed on the site three times as tensions grew, until Muslim residents persuaded them to pack up and go.

Among the crowds at Mar Girgis, 400 miles south of Cairo, Copts find a place where they don't have to worry about disapproving looks from ultraconservative Muslims. They don't have to be cautious about saying or doing something that could be construed as an offense to Islam. They don't have to try to blend in.

Men and women flaunted the cross tattoos on the inside of their wrists, which these days they often keep discreet. Others showed off more elaborate tattoos of their favorite saints on their arms.

A 6-month-old child cried as a cross was tattooed on his tiny wrist. Almost all Egyptian Christians have the wrist cross as a sign of pride in their identity, and many families had their children tattooed at the pilgrimage, taking advantage of discount prices.

Thousands slept for days in tents outside the monastery walls. Hymns blared from loudspeakers, along with announcements of engagements, marriages and deaths. The pilgrimage is a prime opportunity for young Copts to meet potential spouses.

Teenage girls in their Sunday best lined up to receive communion in the monastery's small, multi-domed chapel, where the saint's remains are said to be interred.

Here, everything is a blessing. Many spoke matter-of-factly about St. George's healing powers, and families brought their sick and elderly, hoping for a miracle cure. Outside, women stepped over the carcasses of sacrificed sheep, goats and cows, believing it will cure infertility. Parents smeared crosses with the blood on their children's foreheads for luck.

Pilgrims jubilantly mobbed passing black-clad clergymen, kissing their hands and surrendering their heads to them for a blessing. Bishop Bieman tried to keep order with a bamboo stick, gently smacking pilgrims who rushed to join a procession of clergy carrying the St. George icon.

Instead, he was mobbed by worshippers demanding he strike them with the stick as a blessing.

Others browsed stores selling Christian paraphernalia. Anything with the image of the late Pope Shenouda was selling big. Cushions bore images of him embraced by a blonde Jesus. Posters showed him in heaven handing Jesus pieces of paper and saying, "Lord, these are the problems of my children for you to deal with."

There were even remnants of the traditional mingling of Egypt's religious communities: Several Muslim women in conservative headscarves lined up with Christians to have demons exorcized by the priests. Egypt's Muslims and Christians, particularly in the countryside, have traditionally had no problem turning to each other's holy men for succor. But it's a practice sharply opposed by ultraconservative Muslims.

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