It took a revolution for Beshoy Tamry, a young Egyptian Coptic Christian, to set foot for the first time in a Muslim home.
The 23-year-old engineering student from the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi said he had socialised only with Christians until he took part in the popular uprising that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
“I did not have any Muslim friends until the revolution,” said Mr Tamry. “Until then I had never even entered a Muslim home.”
Now a political activist championing Christian rights, Mr Tamry is seeking to spur members of his community to participate energetically in public life alongside Muslims.
Mostly followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Christians make up an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80m people. They have long complained of restrictions on the building of churches and informal discrimination that often deprives them of senior jobs in state institutions.
With Egypt in political ferment as Islamist and liberal forces jostle to shape its future, Christians find they can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines and let their Church speak for them as it did under Mr Mubarak. Many are now backing liberal political parties, fearing that the Muslim Brotherhood group will control politics and that it might mean an increase in discrimination.
Mr Tamry is one of a coalition of Christian youths who have led unprecedented protests and sit-ins outside state television headquarters in central Cairo since the uprising. The latest protest, for 13 days in May, was in reaction to religious clashes in the Cairo district of Imbaba, in which 10 people were killed and a church was burnt.
The protesters – mainly Copts, though some Muslims took part – called for an end to discrimination and accused the state of failing to hold to account Muslim extremists implicated in attacks against Christians. Religious violence and attacks against Christians, already on the rise in recent years, have increased since the revolution, adding to the community’s fear of the future.
The demonstrators occupied the road in front of the state television building, defying an instruction from Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic Church, to end the protest because the “patience of the rulers” was starting to run out.
Such defiance is unusual, but activists argue that in post-revolution Egypt, Christians should emerge from behind church walls and rediscover their role as citizens. But it is a challenge that requires reversing the effects of a long history of alienation from public life – partly the result of decades of dictatorship stifling civil society. Although Christians played prominent roles in the anti-colonial struggle in the first half of the 20th century, they largely disappeared from the public arena in the past 50 years. Authoritarian rule since 1952 closed off opportunities for political participation for Egyptians of all faiths.
“The state under Mr Mubarak reduced the Christians to the Church and then it reduced the Church to Pope Shenouda,” said Kamal Zakher, an analyst. “The state dealt with one person instead of 8m Christians. For the Pope, it enhanced his political and popular weight, and Christians found that this way he was able to bring them ... some of their demands.”
But Mr Zakher and others charge that this arrangement led to the mismanagement of interfaith relations. They cite an incident last year when the security services arrested Kamilia Shehata, the wife of a priest in Upper Egypt, before she could convert to Islam.
Motivated by an apparent desire to maintain the peace between Muslims and Christians in her conservative town, the security services are alleged to have handed her to the Church. She disappeared from sight except for an internet video in which she said she remained a Christian.
This sparked a wave of demonstrations by Salafis, or Muslim conservatives, in which they called for their “sister Kamilia” to be “freed”. Increasingly vocal after the revolution, the Salafis are one of the more extreme manifestations of an assertive Islamist current that has swept through Egyptian society in the past 40 years. Public space, education and the media have become Islamised, causing Christians to retreat.
“When I was a child there were only three places in my town available for after-school activities,” said Mr Tamry. “There was the government cultural centre where they ran competitions in Koran recitation, there was the Muslim Child Club, or I could go to church to take part in sports, art and theatre and make Christian friends. “With so many years of isolation and mistrust, as Copts now try to emerge into politics, some of their rhetoric and actions appear to re enforce sectarianism.” Mr Tamry says the protesters outside the television building carried so many crucifixes and pictures of saints “it looked like they were going on a crusade”.
“We are aware of the fracture in society, and we are telling our children that we can only heal this through love,” said Anba Moussa, a Coptic bishop. “As a church we are now starting to step back and to talk only about religion and not politics.”