You might have noticed the KOLR10 banner on the brick wall behind me for the last several weeks. I’ve been in Cairo, Egypt, teaching, researching, and learning.
Christianity is very important for many in the Ozarks, and that got me thinking — what’s it like to be a Christian in a place where you’re in the religious minority? I set out to find out.
Egypt is a land of history, diversity, and warmth. It’s also crowded. Cairo, the capital, has 20 million people in a country of about 100 million-making Egypt the largest country in the middle east.
What you may know of Egypt is its close relationship with the U.S., its pyramids, and King Tut. What you may not know is that Egypt is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, one that predates Islam and Roman Catholicism.
But in this Muslim majority country, churches are surrounded by the symbols of Islam, the nation’s official faith. The red decorations seen here are for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
So what do Egyptian Christians say about their lives?
“I have not experienced any inconvenience at any level, nor have I felt that I am different or that I am not an Egyptian in any way or form,” says Dina Touta.
Touta is an Orthodox Christian who says her closest childhood friends are Muslim.
Touta offers, “We’ve lived together, shared all our years and secrets, and happiness and sadness.”
Indeed, childhood experiences are important in Egypt — some 40 percent of the country’s population are kids.
In Cairo’s residential areas, Christian and Muslim children play together every day, with pick-up games of soccer being a popular option.
But as a kid, Neder Iskander wasn’t a big fan of soccer. And this isn’t the only thing that separates Neder from his Muslim friends.
“I might be like the unique person who’s like the only Christian. And especially now, we’re having Ramadan and I’m the only person who’s like drinking and eating.”
How Muslims and Christians get along from a young age is a key question.
I asked Touta if the children sense the difference in religion between them?
She replied, “We identify ourselves as Egyptians, not as Christians or Muslims.”
But Neder’s experience isn’t as positive.
“If you’re in a cab, and, for example, and [the driver] starts putting on the Koran and you ask him to [turn] it down, he will like look at you in a very different way. It’s like ‘You don’t like it? Are you saying this is not right?'”
Constitutionally, Egypt puts religious minorities and the Muslim majority on equal footing. Dr. Rasha El-Ibiary, an expert on middle east politics, says she thinks “the rights and liberties parts of the [Egyptian] Constitution are just perfect. They guarantee all the rights of both Muslims and Christians, and for all Egyptians.”
But Neder still worries about how his faith might impact his job prospects.
He says “especially for women, they cannot have certain jobs. I think that the Christians have the same kind of aspect when they’re actually looking for specific jobs in that sense.”
But Christians in Egypt still flourish, perhaps because both Muslims and Christians here see themselves as Egyptian first. And there’s something to be learned there, across countries and continents.
There are common things that unite us: like our humanity, and our kids.
These are themes that president John F. Kennedy spoke of 55 years ago today, June 10th, in his most famous speech on peace at the American University in Washington, DC. The president said:
“For in the final analysis. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”