Copts say Egypt regime change trumps Islamist fears

CAIRO Tue Feb 1, 2011 6:18pm EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - For Rafik, a member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, the myth that President Hosni Mubarak is the community's best defense against Islamist militants was shattered by an Alexandria church bombing on New Year's Day.

He and other Copts continued to demonstrate alongside at least 1 million Egyptians on Tuesday, saying their desire to end Mubarak's three-decade rule was for now more pressing than any fears that a change of power might empower Islamist groups.

"After (the Alexandria) bombing the Copts for the first time started to demonstrate against Mubarak. He was telling us that 'When I'm in power, you're safe.' Well, obviously, when he's in power, we're not safe," the 33-year-old dentist said as he stood amid thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Mubarak, whose government battled a violent Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, has sold himself to Western allies as their safest bet against militancy.

Authorities have also kept the popular Muslim Brotherhood, which has foresworn violence, on a tight leash under his watch.

The 82-year-old leader has sought to portray himself as defender of Egypt's Copts, some 10 percent of the country's 80 million people. Critics say that has included co-opting the centuries-old church to lend legitimacy to his rule.

Violence sometimes flares up between Egypt's Christians and Muslims over issues such as land disputes, family vendettas and interfaith romances, and many Copts complain it is hard for them to secure some government jobs and build churches.

But over the past week Christians have joined demonstrators thronging to Egypt's streets despite comments from the church's head, Pope Shenouda, praising Mubarak after protests began.

"We came here to show that every Egyptian should be here and wants to be here. There is no difference between Christians and Muslims," said Mina Shehata, a Christian from Nagaa Hamady, the site of a drive-by shooting that killed six Copts in early 2010.

Images of mingling crosses and crescents which appeared after the Alexandria bombing that killed 23 people have been common sights in Tahrir Square through the protests.

"We do not want Mubarak. The people here do not want him. Muslims and Christians do not want him," said Mariam Eissa Nasif, 25, a silver cross dangling around her neck.

ISLAMIST FEARS

Some Copts nevertheless said they worried Islamist groups could gain more influence after Mubarak's departure, even though ousting the strongman took priority.

"We've lived all our lives with the thought that Hosni Mubarak is protecting us as Christians, and if he goes we're going to be repressed," Salama, a 36-year-old information technology worker, said.

"I have fears that they (the Brotherhood) come to power, however, I'm still very happy about what's happening and I will still be very happy that Mubarak leaves, at any price," said Rasha, 29, a marketing worker who, like most of the others, did want her full name used.

Orascom Telecom chairman Naguib Sawiris, the oldest of three brothers from an influential Christian family, told Reuters he expected the Muslim Brotherhood to have relatively small influence in any new order.

"This revolution has been mainly run by the secular, young, educated Egyptians," he said.

(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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