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Faith Under Fire

Young Copts persevere in Egypt

by Sarah Topol

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Nestled in a warren of unpaved streets, surrounded by butcher shops, cafes and vegetable stalls, the grounds of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church are a quiet refuge from the cacophony of taxi horns and clopping donkey carts in the Bulaq neighborhood of Cairo. On the second floor of a rickety annex next to the church, Mina Semon, a 21-year-old college student with gelled, wavy hair and bright brown eyes, teaches Scripture to a group of young teenagers every Friday.

The young man adds his own touch to these lessons by connecting his pupils’ daily struggles to the teachings of Christ. One subject dominates his weekly lessons: What is the appropriate way to respond to sectarian insults in the playground? Jesus, Mr. Semon says, has much to teach the students on this topic.

“Forgiveness, and love and kindness,” he reminds the students, are the correct reactions, but “to control one’s nerves, this is the difficult part.”

It is the sort of challenge many young Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian and specifically refers to indigenous Egyptian Christians) know only too well. Copts make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85.3 million. While Christianity predates Islam and the Arab invasion of Egypt by six centuries, anti-Christian violence has reached unprecedented levels since the January 2011 revolution that toppled the nation’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak. This past summer, that violence reached a fever pitch after the military removed Egypt’s democratically elected president, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Usually, Mr. Semon thinks, a Muslim student may parrot something heard from an adult without understanding the meaning behind the slander. Christian students, being children, have retaliated the same way, turning a typical childish argument into a sectarian incident with violent consequences.

“We tie situations like this to how Jesus would act, drawing upon stories from the Bible and how Christian values demand us to respond,” Mr. Semon says. “Then we discuss the practical ways to deal with it.”

Mina Semon is a reminder of the Egyptian Christian community’s rich history of educating young Christians — but he is also a bridge to the next generation. The eldest of three children, he grew up spending every weekend at church and in Scripture study. He participated in church sports leagues after school and attended youth conferences across the country. Most of his friendships were forged during parish activities. Teaching other young Copts, he says, is his way of giving back, and personalizing those lesson plans is his way of engaging with his country.

“Things are different now,” he says. “After the revolution, the youth are more outspoken and want to be involved, because this is their church too.”

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