CHAPEL HILL — When Americans think of the religious character of the Middle East, including North Africa, they think first and foremost of Islam. The overwhelming majority of Middle Easterners are Muslim. Still, there is, and has been for centuries, a native Christian minority in dominantly Islamic societies.
It is not hard to find Turkish, Libyan, Tunisian, Iranian. Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese Christians. This is particularly true of Egypt, which has the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.
Roughly one out of every 10 Egyptians is a Christian, the vast majority of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, a member of the Eastern Orthodox family of Christian churches. But there are also some Egyptian Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Pentecostals. Cairo even has Coptic Orthodox and Protestant theological seminaries to train new clergy for the Middle East.
Such a strong Christian presence is not surprising given Egypt's religious history. Egypt was one of the most influential centers of early Christianity. Indeed, the five most important bishops in the late ancient world were the patriarchs of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Alexandria, Egypt.
Egypt gave ancient Christianity its first monks (like Anthony the Great and Pachomius), an impressive array of world-class theologians (like Origen and Athanasius) and even a sampling of such lively (and unrepentant) heretics as Arius and Eutyches. Whatever other significance Egypt may have for modern Muslims, it has served as one of the shaping forces in the development of the religious views and practices of world Christianity - Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.
Egypt after the recent revolution is facing the question that sooner or later confronts every modern democracy: namely, how to construct a secular state that proceeds by majority rule without compromising the rights of its minorities - especially in Egypt the rights of its religious minorities.
In principle, everyone, whatever his or her religion (or lack of it), has a rightful place at the table of a genuinely democratic society. This right of full citizenship includes a just share in the benefits of such a democratic state and an equally just share of accountability for its persistent faults.
Egyptians are, by and large, too religious for Egypt to become a secular society in the sense of thoroughly non-religious. Even Turkey, which once had an overwhelmingly secular revolution, found a way to make room at the table for the hopes and aspirations of its religiously conservative citizens.
Egypt has an opportunity to construct a democracy which is both secular and religious, tolerant of the religious diversity of its population and open to the possibility that religiously diverse groups can nevertheless find a way to further the common good.
In some ways American society, like Egyptian, is feeling its way toward the full inclusion of its religious minorities. Roman Catholics were fully (and finally) emancipated in 1960 and Jews have won every political office except the presidency. American Muslims still have a long political road to travel, but they have clearly started.
Suggesting, as some have seriously done, that religion is a private matter that should not influence discussions of the public good is very much off the mark, and not only for Egypt. Our Constitution does not ask for a religiously neutral population but for a religiously neutral state. No one, religious or non-religious, can leave his or her deepest values and convictions about disputed issues outside the town meeting, abandoned in the corridor like an old battered hat.
One of the most hopeful signs of a new spirit in Cairo was the sight of Christian protesters forming a cordon around Muslim protesters to protect them at prayer. Such an act represented no loss of religious identity for either Christian or Muslim but impressive evidence of a spirit of mutual respect in the pursuit of a common good.
It was democracy Egyptian-style. Wide may it spread!
David C. Steinmetz taught for almost 40 years at the Divinity School of Duke University .