CAIRO, Egypt — Andraous Oweida, a 44-year-old construction worker and father of two, has vivid memories of the night of Oct. 9, 2011, when the Egyptian army assaulted a massive crowd of Christian protestors in the Maspero neighborhood of Cairo, killing 22 people and leaving dozens severely wounded.
Oweida was at the front of the march that night, officially estimated at around 70,000 people, many carrying Coptic crosses, icons, and lighted candles. They were demanding full equality before the law as Egyptian citizens, a long-cherished dream that had led many of the same Christians to be among the protagonists of the Tahrir Square protests that triggered the Arab Spring nine months before.
At one point, Oweida said, armored personnel carriers began plowing into the crowd, crushing people to death who fell in their way. He tripped amid the chaos and was trampled under a resulting stampede, leaving his torso severely bruised and unable to walk under his own power.
Oweida had to be carried to a makeshift battlefield hospital erected nearby, close to the massive headquarters building of Egypt’s public television service.
“No one imagined the situation would develop as it did,” Oweida said on Tuesday. “These mini-tanks were going toward the crowds … Some people fainted out of fear, and others threw themselves into the Nile to escape being crushed.”
A member of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Oweida said he had several friends killed that night. Four years later, no one has ever been prosecuted for their deaths, and several of the officers who led the army at the time have been rewarded with more senior positions.
“It makes me very angry,” Oweida said, who insisted he wants justice done, but grimly predicted he may never live to see it.
In Egypt, Christians represent roughly 10 percent of a population of 83 million people, and form the most visible and politically influential minority group in one of the Islamic world’s pacesetter nations. Most belong to the Coptic Church, an ancient community with both Orthodox and Catholic branches whose roots stretch back to the era of the earliest apostles.
“When the Christians are together, they form a very powerful lobby, a force,” said the Rev. Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the small Catholic community estimated at around 250,000.
The Copts are famously a proud, determined band, sporting small black tattoos of a cross on their right wrists as a symbol of identity. The “Maspero Massacre” of 2011 was styled by many of these Copts as their Kristallnacht, meaning the terrifying moment when a new menace suddenly took on violent form.
“It was one of the darkest times for Christians in Egypt in recent history,” Greiche said, referring to the period that began with Maspero and culminated with the rise, and then fall, of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s ruling force.
Violent assaults on Christians and their churches became so common during that period that Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian-born scholar at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom described as the worst persecution experienced by the Copts since a series of 14th-century pogroms.
Having played a key role in the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 that swept former ruler Hosni Mubarak from power, Christians by early October had begun to realize that something was wrong — that the post-Mubarak vacuum would result not in a new birth of democracy, but in the rise of fundamentalist Islam aided and abetted by elements in the army and the police.
In effect, the Maspero demonstrations was when those fears took on a hard edge.
After a Christian church was destroyed in Upper Egypt by regional authorities influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, two Coptic priests well-known in Cairo’s working class neighborhoods put out the word for Christians to turn out for a march designed to end up in front of the national TV headquarters in order to object to what Christians saw as biased coverage of the incident.
At first, Oweida said, Christians were thrilled to see the army turn out in force, thinking that meant the situation would remain under control. They were stunned, he said, when the security forces began their assault.
“The military police were in front of the people, and the other police at the back. It was like a sandwich, like a vise,” he said.
Later, he said, he tried to help out in the aftermath.
“We began to move the dead and the wounded,” Oweida said. “It’s not a moment easy to forget.”
Oweida said he believes the army lashed out in order to prove that it wasn’t losing its grip on power, and also to placate radical Islamic sentiment.
“The march was too big, more than 100,000. They were frightened. It made the army worry,” he said. “They wanted to prove that the regime had even more power, [and] that the Copts didn’t need to be strong.”
Perhaps the most famous victim of the Maspero incident was 25-year-old Mina Daniel, a long-haired charismatic Christian activist who had been among the leaders of the pro-democracy forces that brought down Mubarak.
The Rev. John Khalil, who teaches theology at a Cairo institute and is presently the lone Egyptian member of Catholicism’s storied Dominican order, said that Daniel has become a national symbol.
“The most beautiful thing is that he was a martyr for the country, and he’s a Christian,” Khalil said in a Tuesday interview.
“He’s a symbol along with Sheikh Emad Effat,” Khalil said, referring to a pro-democracy Muslim cleric killed during a different demonstration three months later. “For us, the death of Mina, for Christians and Muslims alike, was mainly for liberation … we don’t necessarily think of them as religious martyrs, even if their faith was a big part of their lives.”
Greiche said that in the heady and chaotic atmosphere of the immediate post-Mubarak period, when Egypt was governed by a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and nobody knew quite where things were headed, the Copts may have overplayed their hand with the Maspero demonstrations.
“The Copts were stupid to do this protest with the crosses and the icons,” he said. “It’s not usual in Egypt for Christians to crowd the streets like that, with their crosses and so on. It was provocative.”
Greiche said he lived with the tensions during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule, explaining that once radicals assaulted the Greek Melkite Church of St. Cyril in the Heliopolis area of Cairo where he lives and works.
“There was a day when they were knocking on the doors and I thought I would be killed, maybe decapitated,” he said. “That was the climate.”
Grieche said he shares Oweida’s frustration that no one has been held accountable for the carnage of Maspero.
“Four years later, we still don’t know officially what happened,” he said. “This is the question we have to be asking.”
Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William, who leads the diocese of Asiyut in Upper Egypt, remembers the aftermath of the Maspero tragedy as a dark time for the country’s Christians.
“People were frustrated, really frustrated, and many left,” he said.
He said Christian leaders were forced to make a pitch to hang tough.
“We were trying to tell the people to stay in Egypt,” he said. “This is a phase, a difficult period, but it’s the price we have to pay for freedom and democracy.”
“We cannot so easily leave here, because we have a mission,” he recalled saying. “We are the salt of the earth, [and] we have a mission of reconciliation to build bridges between Christians and Muslims.”
Eighteen months after Maspero, on June 30, 2013, vast crowds protested the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood under former President Mohammed Morsi. It was the end of the Morsi reigme, and Oweida says Christians were once again on the front lines.
“If there were 30 million people in the streets, 10 million were Christians,” he said. “Christians are the 30th of June.”
Today, Egypt is governed by former army leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has announced plans to lead the country towards parliamentary-style democracy, and is seen by many Christians as the man who rescued them from an Islamic theocracy.
“If you ask a normal Christian in the street, it’s complete love for Sisi,” Grieche said. “They say he’s the savior of Egypt.”
That said, Christians also insist that things are far from perfect, beginning with the lack of accountability for the Maspero killings.
William added three other chronic sources of Christian anxiety: A lack of full equality as citizens, blasphemy laws that are routinely interpreted to limit Christian expression but rarely applied in the same way for Muslims, and difficulties with obtaining permits to build or repair Christian churches.
“The mentality here is corrupted, and it will take a long time to change,” he said.
As an example of the struggles for equality William cited, on Monday a Coptic father of two children whose wife converted to Islam and divorced him was informed by a Muslim court in Alexandria, which handles family issues under Egyptian law, that he can see his children only on Friday afternoons in a local mosque.
“Some of the worshipers in the mosque asked me to reduce my voice during their prayer,” Joseph Ibrahim, the father, told Middle Eastern Christian News. “On one occasion, there was a funeral and the mourners came in with the corpse for prayer, while I was sitting with my children who are 8 years old, a scene that was awful to the children.”
“Suppose that the couple was Muslim, would the judge rule for them to see the children in a church? Does Egyptian society accept this situation?” Ibrahim asked.
Despite such challenges, Oweida said it’s never entered his mind to flee Egypt or to send his two children, now aged 15 and 12, to live abroad.
“I won’t leave my country,” he said. “We want to feel like we’re citizens, but also we want to see social justice … I won’t leave, and I won’t deny my faith.”