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Renowned as one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world in the first half of the 20th century, Cairo integrated people from different nationalities and religions into Egyptian society — where they could live, work and worship freely.

This tolerant face of Cairo has gradually faded. Much of the country’s Jewish population left the country in the 50’s because of state persecution amid the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many of those who remained later faced expulsion — along with foreign-born Egyptian citizens who lost their citizenship — amid a wave of Arab nationalism intensified by events such as the Suez Crisis. And for a variety of reasons that often relate to economic mismanagement and a restrictive and heavy-handed state, many middle-class Egyptians, including Copts, have emigrated since the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Egypt has witnessed the steady growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and other more militant Islamic groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Islamic Jihad.

From a population of about two million in the 50’s, Cairo has expanded to some 23 million, growing in uncontrolled spurts. Among other factors, high rural unemployment has driven millions to Cairo in search of a better life.

As a result, it has become one of the most polluted and congested cities in the world, ringed by unplanned districts where newcomers carry with them various, relatively isolated rural cultures, creating enclaves and slowing assimilation.

Nowadays, Muslims and Christians in Cairo enjoy a mostly peaceful relationship. The megacity keeps its people busy with other daily crises. Moreover, the shared memory of a highly cosmopolitan city does live on in the old neighborhoods, old movies and other cultural relics.

The central Cairo neighborhood of Al Zaher is one of those areas. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians and others lived peacefully alongside Egyptians. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox and Syriac Catholic churches still stand, but very few of their people remain.

This neighborhood serves as a reminder of the Cairo that once was — and one that may yet take root again.

El Nahda Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance was established in 1998 in Al Zaher as a Jesuit initiative for Christians and Muslims interested in the artistic, civic and cultural life of Egypt.

The association established its headquarters on the site of the former Studio Nassibian, where many of Egypt’s earliest movies were made. The studio was defunct by the 80’s and later burned down.

Today, the site once again bustles with activity. In one area, a theater troupe holds auditions; in another, children gather to watch cartoons.

“When I learned about El Nahda I asked my friends about it. Everybody spoke highly about it,” says Ahmed al Daemi, a 27-year-old Arabic teacher who hopes to earn a spot on the troupe.

El Nahda was first licensed in 1998 as a non-profit organization. As its activities increased, it faced constraints due to limited options for funding. The Rev. William Sedhom, S.J., the organization’s leader, now seeks to reincorporate as a for-profit company to better fund its activities.

Father Sedhom blames political and economic difficulties for causing sectarian tensions.

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