JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Now to our cover story in Egypt.
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LYDEN: The military-backed government there began a crackdown against demonstrators nearly two weeks ago, plunging the country into chaos and violence.
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LYDEN: For days, this was the sound on the streets. Hundreds of people were killed. Things are quieter now. Most of those killed are believed to have been supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ousted president, Mohammed Morsi. The government says it's fighting terrorism and that many members of its police and security forces have also been killed.
But the violence has also touched one vulnerable minority in Egypt: Christians. That's our cover story today: the uncertain future for Christians in the Middle East.
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LYDEN: Video posted on YouTube shows the streets of the city of Minya by night. As the camera moves closer, it reveals an orange glow in the sky - fire. Flames burst from the arched windows of a Coptic church. Young men toss wooden boards and rocks at the facade.
Activists and human rights groups say this scene has played out dozens of times around the country. About 10 percent of Egypt's population is Christian. And the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an Egyptian human rights group, has documented attacks on at least 45 churches. Eight schools were also attacked, along with two charities and at least one orphanage.
MINA THABET: Burning our churches, killing our brothers and sisters and looting our stores.
LYDEN: Mina Thabet is an engineer and an activist with the Coptic Christian group Maspero Youth Union. We reached him on his cellphone from Cairo.
THABET: I have seen the real meaning of hate.
LYDEN: He says, I have seen the real meaning of hate. That hate, Mina Thabet says, has come from the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Islamic groups. He also blames the government for failing to provide security. Thabet and other Christians are worried.
THABET: I feel not safe now, but I have hope. I have hope, and I think there will be a chance to rebuild.
LYDEN: He hopes, he says, for a chance to rebuild.
THABET: And we will not leave our country. We will live here, and we will die here.
LYDEN: We will live here, and we will die here. The experience of Christians in Egypt is not unique to that country, and it has echoes throughout the Middle East. In fact, Christians make up small but significant minorities in several Mideast countries.
JOHN ESPOSITO: For example, the Coptic Christian community in Egypt predates the coming of the Arabs and Islam. Or the Christian community in Iraq goes back to the earliest times of Christianity. And so it's actually - their forms of Christianity are actually much older forms of Christianity than, for example, Protestant religious traditions.
LYDEN: John Esposito is the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He says the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the revolutions of the Arab Spring more recently have brought out open sectarian conflict. But Esposito says it's important to see the violence as not just religious but also political.
ESPOSITO: For example, historically, when European colonialism came to the Arab world, they were often seen as European Christian powers that came and conquered, bringing their faith - the Christian faith. And so, if you will, the centuries-long Christians that had already been living there were often brushstroked by that association with Christianity.
The second thing connected to that is the fact that rulers, like Assad, in fact, Bashar al-Assad's father, people like Saddam Hussein and others, used their relationship with these communities. That is they offered these communities a sense of security, not so much really deep religious pluralism - it was politically motivated security in exchange for support or a relationship. And we see that tension today in Syria.
LYDEN: Remind us of what happened to the indigenous Christian population in Iraq after 2003.
ESPOSITO: The indigenous population, which goes back, again, to just about the time of the apostles, was a population that lived within Saddam's Iraq and, relatively speaking, had religious freedom, access to education and lived in relatively good relations and peace with their Muslim neighbors.
With the invasion of Iraq and its occupation, and then the growing militancy in that post-period between Sunni and Shia militants, Christians got caught in a crossfire. And for many of the militants, their sense is not only that they are anti the other form of, let's say, Islam, but they introduce an ideology, which is anti-U.S., anti-Christian European countries and anti-the Christians within their own countries. And that's when the bombing of churches, the killings, et cetera, and then the exodus of significant numbers of Iraqi Christians occurred during that period.
LYDEN: Many of the Christians who fled Baghdad and went to northern part of the country and sometimes fled the northern part of the country for the relative safety of Syria are now under attack again. There's news of attacks on churches and kidnappings of Christian clergy members in Syria, aren't there?
ESPOSITO: Yes. And that experience that is of the influx of Christians from Iraq has affected Syrian Christians from the time of the uprising in Syria because Syrian Christians, when they saw the Iraqis coming in, their great fear was that any kind of overthrow of the government - and their great fear is - would mean that they would suffer the same consequences as occurred in Iraq. And indeed, as we've seen more militant groups coming into Syria to fight, they have, in fact, targeted Christians.
LYDEN: John Esposito, you have studied these populations just about as long as anyone in this country. What do you think will happen in the next few years to the Christian population in the Middle East? Is this a minority that's going to diminish and diminish the way that Jews have in many of these places?
ESPOSITO: I think it will depend on the country. I think that the jury is really out on Iraq. I mean, we've seen significant numbers have fled Iraq. I think that, you know, the same situation is faced by many Christians in Syria. This is a watershed moment in terms of the issue of democracy, rights for all people regardless of their religion, including the rights of Muslims.
When you look at a country like Egypt, the rights of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. For people who are minorities, vis a vis the powers that be, they face a very tough time.
LYDEN: John Esposito is a professor at Georgetown University. He's also the director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding there and the author of "The Future of Islam." John, thank you very much.
ESPOSITO: Thank you.
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LYDEN: This is NPR News.