The death of His Most Blessed Beatitude Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria Shenouda III comes at a perilous time for Egypt’s Christian minority.

Christians have a long history in the country – longer than their Muslim compatriots – and make up more than 10 percent of the country’s 80 million strong population.

But the rise of extremist forms of Islam has made their lives more difficult in recent years. A series of attacks, including one on the cathedral in Alexandria in January 2011 in which 23 died, left the community feeling vulnerable and fearful.

Christians joined the masses in Tahrir Square calling for the overthrow of President Mubarak. I remember watching Christians, carrying crosses, praying alongside Muslims carrying symbols of the crescent moon. Everyone was keen to tell me that this revolution was about religious tolerance and freedom.

Pope Shenouda, I suspect, always had his doubts. He was close to President Mubarak, believing that the best he could do for his community was work quietly within the system, never rocking the boat, nor making too many demands. He was clear that Muslims and Christians should live together peacefully, but never articulated Christian demands in a strident way.

One year on from the ousting of President Mubarak, Egyptian Christians are feeling more insecure than ever. Last October, soldiers crushed Christians beneath tank tracks when they drove into a demonstration at Maspero, a Cairo suburb. The incident is now known as the Maspero Massacre.

It was noticeable that senior military men filed into the St Mark’s Cathedral today to pay their respects to Pope Shenouda, and maybe to make amends. Recent free elections inevitably brought the Muslim Brotherhood to a majority in the Egyptian parliament, with the hardline Salafis not far behind.

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For the moment, both groups are careful to say they respect Christians, but ultimately many Islamists see Christians as infidels. The death of Pope Shenouda, even though he was 88, makes this period of uncertainty even more anxious for Christians.

It isn’t helped by the wider context of the Middle East. The Christmas before last, I went to Iraq to find out what was happening to Christians there, in the wake of a series of massacres, including one in a church in the centre of Baghdad. I found a terrified and dwindling population.

Christianity is the oldest religion in Iraq, and the Chaldeans who live there speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But almost half of them have been driven out and the remaining few are seeking passports for Europe or the USA. It’s the same story amongst Palestinians and even Lebanese. The turmoil in Syria means that Christians there are likely to be trying to emigrate too.

Christianity is as historic and fundamental a religion as Islam in the Middle East, but fewer Christians than ever can see a future for themselves in the region.

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