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Finding Common Ground

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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On a typical evening, 61-year-old Waheed Zaghol can be found sitting on the bank of the small canal opposite his home in Izbet Chokor, a village of Christians and Muslims about 60 miles southwest of Cairo. In the waning light, he speaks to his neighbors and watches the village children play, making the most of the final hours of the day.

Mr. Zaghol, a Coptic Catholic, came to Izbet Chokor from the Egyptian city of Asaeed in 1970. Though he had arrived seeking work, he quickly came to think of the small hamlet as his home. There, he met his wife, Farha, with whom he has reared six children — four sons and two daughters.

Over 46 years, Mr. Zaghol established himself in Izbet Chokor, a process that paralleled the development of its Christian community. When he first arrived, the village lacked a church; a priest would visit from the nearby oasis city of El Faiyum to conduct prayer meetings in private homes, which eventually developed into celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. In 1991, a small hall was built to serve as a church.

Today, the village — which numbers 1,500 people — is home to two mosques and three Coptic churches: Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Protestant. Its residents coexist in peace, living and working closely together.

“The sense of community here is very good,” Mr. Zaghol says from his perch by the canal. “The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been excellent for many decades here, even after the revolution.”

Copts represent about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million — making up the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The vast majority belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria. The Coptic Catholic Church represents some 175,000 people — a tiny minority within a minority — who share the rites and traditions of the Orthodox and remain in full communion with the Church of Rome.

Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s Copts felt a certain measure of security. While his dictatorial administration was criticized for abuses of human rights and due process, it also held at bay extremist currents — such as Salafist ideologies and the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamist political organization — traditionally hostile to Christians and other minorities.

When, fueled by the hopes of the Arab Spring, Egyptians ousted Mr. Mubarak in January 2011, the nation’s Copts felt a sudden rush of anxiety. They feared the same insecurity affecting their brothers and sisters in the faith across an increasingly unsettled Middle East.

Their fears were borne out, to some degree. Since the revolution, Christian communities across Egypt have seen an increase in church burnings, interreligious conflict, abductions — especially of women — and forced conversions.

However, not every corner of Egypt has endured such acrimony; many communities, such as that of Izbet Chokor, have managed to weather the storm, keeping afloat the vessel of tolerance, coexistence and interfaith love.

“If we had places like Izbet Chokor everywhere, it would be excellent,” says Amba Antonios Aziz Mina, Catholic bishop of the Eparchy of Giza, whose episcopal see includes the village.

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