Is a new departure in Christian-Muslim relations unfolding in Egypt, this Orthodox Christmas Day?

An Egyptian Coptic Christian lights candles during Christmas Mass held at the St. Marc and the Virgin Mary Coptic church,in Lebanon (AP Photo / Bilal Hussein)

Is the apparent world-wide antagonism between Christians and Muslims actually inevitable? It sometimes looks as though it is. We have seen atrocities against Christians, perpetrated by Muslims in the name of their religion, throughout the  Middle East. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, still on death row, is in great danger following the assassination of the Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. “None of us feel safe, least of all her,” said Shahzad Kamran, a Christian charity. Since Taseer was shot by his own guard on Tuesday, Kamran said he feared Bibi could be simply killed, perhaps by a prison guard, since “they are Muslims and we cannot trust them”. “Taseer died for the Christians and now we are feeling broken and scared. If they can kill the governor of Punjab then who am I?”
Rather differently, a referendum is taking place this month in Sudan, on whether or not the broadly Christian South should become independent of the hard-line Muslim North.  For the South, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) . which  ended the civil war between them, is an opportunity to vote for independence. But when the South actually votes for it, will they actually be allowed the independence they have voted for? Can Christians, in other words, really trust an Islamist government?
Many other examples, world-wide, of a seemingly universal antagonism and lack of trust between Muslim and Christian, could be given. It really does often look as though Samuel P Huntingdon’s famous theory of a “clash of cultures” replacing the cold war isn’t as intellectually disreputable as we have been told by all the pundits.  It is a bleak picture; and perhaps the most depressing and outrageous recent example was the terrorist bombing on New Year’s Day at a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.
The car bomb explosion also injured 79 people just after midnight last Saturday as the congregation was leaving a Mass on New Year’s Day. The bombing sparked street clashes between police and angry Copts, who hurled stones, stormed a nearby mosque and threw some of its books into the street. This was one of the most deadly attacks on Egyptian Christians in recent memory: and there are fears, after al-Qaeda threats, that there will be further atrocities as the Copts celebrate the Orthodox Christmas today.
So far, so depressingly familiar. But there has been a backlash to these anti-Christian attacks, not just among the Copts, but among Egyptian Muslims, too. This is a very remarkable story, summed up by a headline on the online edition of the major Cairo daily Al Ahram: “Egypt Muslims to act as ‘human shields’ at Coptic Christmas Eve mass”. The story should be read in full: but its first paragraph conveys the unprecedented character of what appears to be happening:
“Although 2011 started tragically, I feel it will be a year of eagerly anticipated change, where Egyptians will stand against sectarianism and unite as one,” Fr Rafaeil Sarwat of the Mar-Mina church told Ahram Online. The Coptic priest was commenting on the now widespread call by Muslim intellectuals and activists upon Egyptian Muslims at large to flock to Coptic churches across the country to attend Coptic Christmas Eve mass, to show solidarity with the nation’s Coptic minority, but also to serve as “human shields” against possible attacks by Islamist militants.
Are there here signs of hope?  By the time this appears, who knows, there may already be reports of some tragic new event in which Muslims who show their solidarity in this way will be slaughtered along with their Coptic brethren, just as the governor of the Punjab was murdered for showing support for Christians in his province. It is difficult to be hopeful: but let us see what happens in Egypt. Who knows? Perhaps this is the beginning of a new era.
Then again, maybe it isn’t. We shall see.