DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Egypt, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is in the presidential palace, and that has left many of the Egypt's Coptic Christians deeply anxious about their future. Now, a new group calling itself the Christian Brotherhood has emerged. Merrit Kennedy in Cairo sent this report.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: On a Cairo rooftop, members of the new Christian Brotherhood are debating how to respond to the first major outbreak of Muslim-Christian violence since President Mohammed Morsi came into office in June. The incident in the village of Dahshour, south of Cairo, began as a personal spat between a Christian and a Muslim in a local laundry. It quickly escalated into communal violence, and eventually the entire Christian community - about 100 families - fled the village.
Hossam Bahgat, the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, closely follows Christian-Muslim tensions.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: This is the first time that we see this incident where the entire community fled for their life for fear of serious retribution.
KENNEDY: A few families have since returned to the village, only to find their homes in ruins. The 73-year-old spiritual father of the Christian Brotherhood, Michel Fahmy, occasionally dabs his eyes with a handkerchief as he speaks about the Dahshour events.
MICHEL FAHMY: To leave your houses, your properties, and forcing you to vacate your city, your village, it's a drama.
KENNEDY: Hossam Bahgat says that the number of interreligious incidents has decreased this year compared to last year, when several churches were destroyed and 27 Copts were killed by the military at a protest in Cairo. And yet, with the rise of Islamist political power...
BAHGAT: There's a very noticeable rise in fears and tensions. There's a general sense of anxiety among the Christian community, and that is something that the government needs to address.
KENNEDY: But the Christian Brotherhood isn't counting on the government, or their own church, to address discrimination and violence.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
KENNEDY: Michel Fahmy says we don't need anyone to stand by our side. We will stand with each other first, and then we will find others standing with us.
The Christian Brotherhood says that it has some Muslim members, including a retired major general, who support its efforts. It has already stirred controversy. Naguib Gobrail is the lawyer for the Coptic Church.
NAGUIB GOBRAIL: In general, I don't approve this, because it divides the society, two sections - Muslim section and Christian section.
KENNEDY: He worries that a group like the Christian Brotherhood could heighten existing tensions between Muslims and Christians. The group is also challenging the political authority of the Coptic Church, an institution at a crossroads since the death last March of Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for 40 years. He was beloved by much of the Coptic community, but he was also controversial.
Amir Ayyad, a member of the Christian Brotherhood, says Pope Shenouda was making political decisions for the entire community.
AMIR AYYAD: (Through translator) He prevented the Copts from being involved in politics.
KENNEDY: The Christian Brotherhood is one of several new, independent Coptic movements that hope to weigh in on politics. Hossam Bahgat says these groups emerged as a reaction among younger Copts to what they saw as the failure of their own church leadership to take a firm position against discrimination and violence.
BAHGAT: Ultimately, this is going to come with a lot of tension, because the church is going to want to maintain control, but also because it's much easier for the state to deal with the church than to deal with an unorganized, huge Coptic population of 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people.
KENNEDY: As the Coptic community prepares for the selection of a new pope later this year, the debate about who speaks for them will continue.
For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy, in Cairo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.