(ADDS LATEST FIGURE ON DEMONSTRATORS ESTIMATES, CHANGING HEADLINE)
By BosNewsLife Middle East and Africa Services
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)-- Minority Christians in Egypt feared more violence and looting of their shops Tuesday, February 1, as over one million people gathered in Cairo to demonstrate against Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, witnesses said. Large protests were also held in other cities.
"While many shops are being attacked and looted, Christian shops have been particularly targeted," and "essential supplies are running out," said Barnabas Fund, an advocacy and aid group supporting Christians in Egypt's troubled areas.
"The majority of Egyptian Christians already live in extreme poverty, and as the demonstrations paralyze daily life, their struggle to make ends meet has become harder," the group told BosNewsLife. In several districts of the capital Cairo and other cities, residents have tried to protect their properties, often with little more than kitchen knives, after dreaded security forces disappeared.
Several demonstrators said police took of their uniforms and participated in looting to create chaos, in a bid to validate Mubarak's attempt to restore order and clinging on to power.
Protesters demanding social and democratic changes have called for the immediate ouster of Mubarak, despite concerns among local Christians that this will lead to an initial power vacuum and growing influence of radical Islamic groups. "Though the unrest is essentially fueled by economic, social and political grievances, there are growing fears that radical Islamists may capitalize on it to seize power," Barnabas Bund explained. "The Muslim Brotherhood, which is backing influential opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, is the only large, organized opposition group."
Christian gatherings and church meetings have been canceled, while some church leaders were reportedly sleeping in their church buildings, to protect them from attacks, Christians said. Barnabas Fund quoted a contact as saying that other believers were staying in their homes, where they are "praying hard" and "trusting God" amid the tumult.
The latest protest comes at a time when Egypt's Christian community is still reeling from several targeted attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed 23 Christians and wounded nearly 100 outside a church in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria.
The New Year's bombing was the country's deadliest sectarian attack in years.
Additionally, Christians find themselves caught up in an escalating political crisis that could have worrying implications for their future, according to international observers.
Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton warned this weekend that Egypt's ancient Christian minority, also known as Copts, could become increasingly endangered should President Mubarak be ousted. "It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability follow Mubarak’s fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood," he explained. "Whatever you want to say about the military government for 60 years is it’s been secular," Bolton said. "It’s a Muslim government, but it doesn’t operate under the tenet of sharia legal tenets that the Brotherhood would impose on Egypt."
Yet, Washington Institute scholar Dina Guirgis, herself a Copt and an observer of Egyptian politics, said in published remarks that it was to early to jump to alarmist conclusions about what could happen to the Copts should the Mubarak regime collapse. "It would probably be some sort of national unity government comprised of various political forces, but all within the rules of a democratic regime, which the Muslim Brotherhood would have to subscribe to as well," Guirgis said.
"I don’t think we need to exaggerate fears of the transition from the Mubarak regime, especially because conditions were very poor for the Copts under the Mubarak regime, so it’s not as though things were rosy," she added.
But Bolton and Barnabas Fund counter that with more Islamic influence, Egyptian Christians will face more attacks and pressure at a time when they already complaint of discrimination in several areas, including in education and employment.
"Christians in Egypt need our immediate practical help and prayer support as they find themselves embroiled in this unfolding crisis," wrote Barnabas Fund's International Director Patrick Sookhdeo in an e-mail to supporters. "We must also pray that as Egyptian citizens seek freedom from an autocratic leader, they will not fall into the hands of a strict Islamic regime that will only further oppress its people, especially Christians."
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population, which is mainly Sunni Muslim.