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April 19, 2013

Even in desert retreat, monks feel Egypt’s turmoil

NORMAN — ST. ANTHONY’S MONASTERY, Egypt — In a cave high in the desert mountains of eastern Egypt, the man said to be the father of monasticism took refuge from the temptations of the world some 17 centuries ago. At the foot of the mountain, the monks at the St. Anthony’s Monastery bearing his name continue the tradition.

But even this remote spot is touched by the turbulent times facing Egypt’s Christians, who fear for their future under the rising power of Islamists. Monks normally immersed in spirituality are joining the increasingly assertive tone of many in the minority community, vowing Christian voices won’t be silenced.

Their tone reflects the growing activist political role of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which for decades had adopted a quietist policy, avoided rocking the boat and relied on backroom dealings with the country’s leadership to try to preserve the community’s rights. In doing so, the church is essentially following the lead of many young Christians who insist they must stand up for themselves rather than trusting politicians to protect them.

“Anyone who thinks of hurting our church will face divine retribution,” said Father Yacoub, the monastery’s deputy head. “Our church grows stronger with martyrdom. My faith and confidence tell me that so long as our church is in the hands of God, no one can hurt it.”

Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to promote equality between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Christian minority. But Christians have been worried by the growing influence in society and government of Muslim conservatives and hard-liners, many of whom espouse rhetoric consigning Christians to second-class status.

A mob attack this month on the Cairo cathedral that serves as the seat of the Coptic pope raised alarm bells among Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 90 million people. There has been a surge in attacks on Christians and churches in the two years since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But for Christians, the cathedral violence laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But the Coptic Pope Tawadros II accused him of failing to protect the cathedral in a direct criticism.

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