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Fate of Christians, Muslims tied in Middle East

ROME -- Christians and Muslims are involved together in the democracy and reform movements bubbling up around the Middle East and members of both communities will gain from their success and suffer if they are violently suppressed, said a leading Lebanese Muslim scholar.

With demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, simmering unrest in Yemen and government changes in Lebanon, "I am both worried and hopeful," said Muhammad al-Sammak, adviser to the chief mufti of Lebanon and secretary general of Lebanon's Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue.

Al-Sammak, whom Pope Benedict XVI invited to speak to the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October, met with journalists Feb. 4 at the Rome headquarters of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay organization active in interreligious dialogue for peace.

"It is true that the situation of Christians in the Middle East is not good," al-Sammak said, adding that the region's governments must do more to protect the religious minorities in their midst.

Egyptian demonstrators say they 'will not be silenced'

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Even with the recent outbreak of violence on the streets of Cairo, demonstrators calling for the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will “not be silenced,” says Philip Rizk, a filmmaker and blogger who has been assisting foreign journalists in their coverage of the unrest.

Rizk, who has been working with a Swiss TV crew, spoke to NCR today after he had been holed up in an office for fear of his safety.

Following is NCR's interview with Rizk, which caught him recovering from the events of the day and looking ahead to tomorrow, which protesters have set as the deadline for Mubarak to step down.

The conversation has been edited for clarity.

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NCR: Can you tell me what’s happening to you? Why do you think protestors came to your door?

In Egypt, most powerful example of 'people power' in history

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As reports came in that President Obama today asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak through diplomatic channels to step aside, NCR spoke with Gene Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and renowned scholar of nonviolent struggle.

Following is that interview -- which covered the origins of power, the vulnerabilities of dictatorships, and important signs coming from the Egyptian military. The conversation has been edited for length.

For an interview Claire Schaeffer-Duffy had with Egyptian expert John Esposito yesterday, see: Egyptian uprising 'far beyond what people expected'.

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NCR: Egypt is described as a security state, one in which the government relies heavily on its security apparatus for stability and legitimacy. These are not exactly ideal conditions for popular resistance. How could something like what we are witnessing in Liberation Square come about under a regime that has such a strong security apparatus?

CRS moves some staff out of Egypt

JERUSALEM -- Catholic Relief Services' international staff and their families in Cairo were evacuated as pro-democracy demonstrations entered their seventh day.

"Our current thinking is that we will be out for no more than two days," CRS country representative Jason Berlanger said in a phone interview with Catholic News Service Jan. 31 as he was on his way to Cairo's international airport with his wife and two children.

He said he was traveling with two other American staff members and their dependents and the group planned to fly to Amman, Jordan. However, flights to the Jordanian capital were unavailable late Jan. 30 and were not expected to resume soon, according to news reports.

About 25 Egyptian staff members of the U.S. bishops' aid and development agency remained at home, Berlanger said. One Palestinian staff member was scheduled to leave for Amman as well, he said.

The CRS office was closed for the Egyptian Friday-Saturday weekend Jan. 28 and 29, but did not reopen Jan. 30, Berlanger said.

"The office is closed today (Jan. 31) and tomorrow (Feb. 1) and we are monitoring the situation," Berlanger said.

Catholic Church offers prayers for Mandela

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The Catholic Church in southern Africa is praying for Nelson Mandela, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier said as the 92-year-old anti-apartheid hero returned home after being hospitalized for a respiratory infection.

"Former President Mandela means different things to different people," Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban, South Africa, said in a Jan. 28 statement, noting that to his family, Mandela "is a veritable patriarch who stands for and is an example of the virtues of a truly great and loving father, who cares for all near and dear to him."

To South Africans, "he is a great and inspiring leader, a true icon of the ... reconciliation which we still need urgently" and to the international community "he is a unique African and global statesman who rose above personal, tribal, race and party interests in order to lead the South African nation through a difficult transition from apartheid to democracy," he said.

South Africa's first democratically elected president was hospitalized for two days. Hospital officials said the infection was not life threatening and that Mandela remained in good spirits throughout his stay.

Egyptian uprising 'far beyond what people expected'

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Events in the Middle East and North Africa have been unfolding at a dizzying pace over the past month -- a revolt in Tunisia, the release of a cache of confidential Palestinian records with their damning revelations on the Mideast peace process, the fall of a pro-Western government in Lebanon, and now the uprising in Egypt.

Monday morning, amid ever-changing reports on the protests in Egypt, NCR spoke with John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, and author of The Future of Islam. Esposito is currently in Oman. The following is an edited version of that phone conversation.

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NCR: Can you talk about the Egyptian popular uprising in the context of what has been happening in the region over the past month?

Esposito: Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are countries that have governments that are authoritarian, repressive, very limited freedom of the press, etc.

Church leaders follow Egyptian unrest with concern

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VATICAN CITY -- Church leaders were watching the unfolding political drama in Egypt with a mixture of hope for reform and concern over potential violence, said the head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa told Vatican Radio Jan. 30 that the widespread unrest that has weakened the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak came as a surprise to Catholics in the region.

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