Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt have largely faded from the headlines since the burning of two Coptic Christian churches by radical Muslim groups earlier this year.
But some stories are still filtering through, such as that of Aywan Anmar Mitri, a Coptic Christian from Qena, Egypt who shared his story with the Wall Street Journal last week.
Mitri was assaulted by bearded Islamists in March. His apartment was torched, and he was beaten with the charred furniture. His attackers amputated his ear with a box-cutter while threatening, "We won't leave any Christians in this country."
Any conversation about a new Egyptian government must include a recognition of sectarian divides and a discussion of religious pluralism. Given religion's powerful influence on political and personal life in Egypt, building a culture of religious tolerance in the face of religious fundamentalism is on par with the economic and political challenges facing the new regime.
In the absence of a strong Egyptian civil society consisting of private charities, businesses, cultural and other groups, some extreme voices are making themselves heard. One of these voices is the fundamentalist Salafist movement, responsible for the church burnings, for protests against the appointment of a Christian governor in the Qena region and for the attack on Mitri.
But there is also strong evidence of moderate Islamic sentiment in Egypt.
A survey conducted in Egypt in April showed that 85 percent of Egyptians thought Copts and other minorities should be able to practice their religion freely. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party vying for power in the new government, has condemned violence against Christians and stated that Christians should be allowed to hold government posts.
The transitional government promptly rebuilt both Christian churches that were burned down, and young Muslims and Christians, brought together by common cause in Tahrir Square, have literally linked arms to protect one anothers' religious observances and religious structures.
These stories are at least as important as stories of sectarian attacks and churches on fire, yet they are far less widely covered. Western media outlets also tend to focus on conflict between Muslims and Christians without recognizing that the real struggle may be between radical and moderate voices within Islam. In fact, a strong moderate Islamic voice may be one of the most important advocates for Egyptian Christians.6 comments on this story
Western nations, including the United States, should do everything within their power to influence the transitional government's approach to issues of religious freedom.
In his May 19 speech on the Middle East, President Barack Obama said, "In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, 'Muslims, Christians, we are one.' America will work to see that this spirit prevails — that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them."
To follow through on this promise, Obama should ensure that economic investments in Egypt provide for joint projects for Christians and Muslims and celebrate instances of Muslim-Christian cooperation. Western leaders must also hold Egyptian leaders to their promises that Christians can hold government posts, shine a light on the Salafi and other radical movements and work to promote cultural and religious literacy through education and dialogue.
Making religious freedom and pluralism a central part of the discussion of the new Egypt is important not just for the safety of religious minorities, but also because the religious voices that prevail may ultimately determine the future of an Egyptian democracy and its posture toward the rest of the world.