On New Year's Day, a terrorist bombing killed 21 people outside a Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. It appeared to be the work of Muslim extremists targeting the increasingly vulnerable Coptic Christian minority in the country, with the likely intent of fomenting tension between faiths.
In the first days after the bombing there were reports of angry Coptics—who make up just 10 percent of the population—taking to the streets and clashing with Muslims, and calling for increased protection.
But that strife didn't last. According to the Al Ahram newspaper, solidarity over shared security concerns and interfaith support blossomed. The most notable example was the thousands of Muslims who took a bold and brave step to prevent a repeat bombing at Coptic Christmas Eve services on Thursday: they volunteered to serve as human shields to deter potential bombers.
Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honored, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.
From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.
“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural center distributed fliers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.
Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.
“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”
There were no bombings that day.
Government law enforcement forces also stepped up security across the country at churches, installing metal detectors and barricades. That's a positive step and it sounds like a necessary one.
But the real sense of hope from this story comes from the small group of people showing the power of community and of collective action. This has echoes of the actions of peace activists and civil rights campaigners in America where a brave vanguard lead by risk-taking example with acts of inter-racial solidarity that paved the way for the long and continuing struggle to roll back racism and discrimination. This kind of action brings with it a sense of potential.
The full article includes a few other examples of the burgeoning interfaith solidarity ranging from Facebook campaigns to public banners in cities. Though, it doesn't appear to be motivated simply by Muslim generosity. "On this Coptic Christmas eve," the article continues, "the solidarity was not just one of religion, but of a desperate and collective plea for a better life and a government with accountability." Everyone wants to feel safe.
Video: Al Jazeera reporting via Think Progress.