CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab Spring has increased pressure on Egypt's Coptic Christians, with attacks on churches and bloody clashes with Muslims and the military. Many foreign Christians feel driven to help.
Pope Benedict, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams and other church leaders have spoken out in defence of the Copts, indigenous Christians who make up 10 percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population of 80 million.
In Europe and North America, governments have denounced the violence and called on Egypt's armed forces to guarantee equal rights for all citizens, especially religious minorities. Church groups have collected funds to send to Egyptian parishes.
Worried Christians in Egypt say attacks on them have multiplied in recent years, starting even before former President Hosni Mubarak - seen as a defender of their rights - was swept from power in February by the Tahrir Square protests.
But they are wary about getting too much support from abroad, fearing a backlash from Muslims who could resent special attention to a minority at a time when all Egyptians are suffering economic hardship and political uncertainty.
"We're not afraid of anybody. We don't want help from anyone," Rev. Antonius Michael declared as he handed out blessed bread after Mass in a Coptic Orthodox church in Old Cairo.
"It's not to our benefit to have loud voices overseas talking about Christians," said Ramez Atallah, general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt.
"It's a great benefit to us to have loud voices abroad talking about a more universal bill of rights for all Egyptians."
The Copts are so named from the ancient Greek term for all Egyptians, which came to refer only to Christians after the arrival of Islam. They are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.
Many business leaders are Copts, churches dot the cities and Atallah's Bible Society can advertise in newspapers and on roadside billboards.
About 95 percent of Egyptian Christians are Coptic Orthodox, while the rest are divided among Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and other churches.
The spread of hardline Islamism in recent decades, confirmed by a surge in support for puritan Salafi candidates in the current election, has fostered a new intolerance against them and led to increasing clashes and harassment.
On January 1, a suspected suicide bomber killed 23 people at an Alexandria church. Twelve more died in May in clashes and a church burning in Cairo. In October, at least 25 died in clashes involving Christians and security forces after another Cairo church burned.
In smaller towns and villages, Christians report growing tensions. There are disputes over church-building and Muslim protests over real or imagined cases of kidnapping or conversion of Muslims to Christianity.
"It's fairly safe here (in the capital) because there are more people and media here, but down there many things can happen and nobody knows," said George Gaber, a Christian salesman at a souvenir shop in the Coptic section of old Cairo.
Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East have shrunk dramatically in recent decades as many flee to escape pressure and attacks by Muslim militants.
There are fears of the "Iraq syndrome," in which the fall of a dictator exposes minorities to attack by Muslim hardliners.
"Atrocities and attacks on churches and violence against Christians have become more frequent," said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic weekly Watani. "But 8 to 10 million people can't leave, nor do they have to."
While small foreign donations, channelled directly to Egyptian churches, go mostly unnoticed, appeals by foreign politicians to protect Copts have touched a sore nerve in Cairo.
The government recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in January after Pope Benedict criticised the attack in Alexandria as a "vile gesture of death" and al-Azhar, Egypt's top Islamic authority, suspended its interfaith dialogue with Rome.
"Why did he call for protection for Egyptian Christians?" asked Mahmoud Azab, chief official for dialogue at al-Azhar, who said Benedict had to apologise before contacts could resume. "The Copts in Egypt are not a foreign minority community."
Sidhom said any special protection for Christians could alienate the moderate Muslims they needed as political allies to stand up to more hardline Islamists.
The two main Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, have won at least two-thirds of the vote in Egypt's three-stage parliamentary elections, raising fears they could join forces to pass strict Islamic laws.
"Restoring rights for Christians depends very much on their alignment with moderate Muslims and the support of these Muslims for the rights of Copts," he said. "Aid for Christians only will harm relations between them and moderate Muslims."
As long as they're not attacked, Atallah said, Christians actually have less to lose than moderate and liberal Muslims if Egypt opts for a strict version of Islam they do not support.
"They're the ones who are terrified," he said, noting that a swimming pool in the upscale Heliopolis quarter where his office is located recently banned female bathing because Islamists consider women's swimsuits immoral.
"They won't have the option of hiding in the enclave of churches, as Christians do," he said. "Christian women won't be forced to be veiled, but Muslim women will find it almost impossible not to be."
(Reporting by Tom Heneghan. For more religion reporting, see our faith and ethics blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld)