As presidential election nears, Egypt's Christians worry

(CBS News) Egyptians vote this week in their first free presidential election in six decades. Thirteen candidates, from all over the political spectrum, are running.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports Egypt's largest minority fears their situation may go from bad to worse.

Mass at St. Mary's in Cairo starts early, at 7:30 a.m. Even so, the church is nearly full.

The Coptic Christian ritual is ancient and familiar, but outside the door Egypt now feels unwelcoming and unsafe.

Last May, a Coptic church was set on fire. Locals blamed Muslims in the neighborhood. Then in October, Christians protesting the destruction of another church were mowed down by soldiers in armored vehicles.

A year and a half ago, millions joined in the call from Tahrir Square for democracy.

Since then, in this majority Muslim country, Islamic politicians and parties have flourished.

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Christians, says Father Pola Marqus of St. Mary's - feel under siege.

"We see that in neighboring countries with Islamic leaders, Christians aren't safe," Margus says. "So we're concerned about getting an Islamist president too."

Egypt's presidential elections are just three days away now and the country's Christians are deeply worried. They are Egypt's largest religious minority, and yet they don't think that any of the candidates has made them a priority, or is really capable of protecting their community.

Two of the front runners in the presidential race with a realistic chance of winning are deeply devout Islamists.

Christians, like Youssef Radana, just don't know what to expect.

"We are in a hazy period where you cannot predict exactyl what is coming. It could be good but it might be worse," Radana says.

And if it does get worse, the future is uncertain for for St. Mary's. It is full this morning, but perhaps not for long.

Since the start of Egypt's political upheaval alone, over 100,000 Christians have already left the country.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."

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