Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Egypt’s Copts: A history of exclusion and discrimina­tion

The rhetoric about national unity doesn’t correspond to reality

- By Hilal Khashan

Two incidents earlier this month highlighte­d the discrimina­tion facing Egypt’s Coptic Christians. In Alexandria, a Coptic priest was stabbed to death by someone whom the police described as a mentally deranged elderly person. Then, a leading Egyptian magazine apologized to its readers after publishing a controvers­ial religious edict about stores selling food to the infidel, an implicit reference to Copts, during the day in the fasting month of Ramadan. These incidents cast doubt on President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s pledge to guarantee equal treatment to Copts and Muslims and end centuries of persecutio­n and discrimina­tion.

From Persecuted Majority to a Pariah Minority

Coptic Christians in Egypt constitute the largest concentrat­ion of Christians in the Arab world, totaling at least 10 percent of the country’s almost 106 million inhabitant­s. The word “Copt” is a synonym for “Egypt” and evolved from “Hikuptah,” the earlier name of Memphis, Pharaonic Egypt’s ancient capital southwest of present-day Cairo. Egypt became part of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) when it was establishe­d in 330. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon split Christiani­ty between the Chalcedoni­ans, who believed Jesus had two distinct natures (divine and human), and the Miaphysite­s, who believed Jesus had only one nature. The Byzantine rite subscribed to Chalcedoni­anism and the Copts to Miaphysiti­sm, leading to the latter’s religious suppressio­n and persecutio­n. When the Muslim armies invaded Egypt in 639, the Copts did not support the Byzantines, hoping the new conquerors would grant them the freedom to worship.

The Copts enjoyed greater freedoms during the Rashidum Caliphate, which ended in 661. The Umayyad Caliphate was more Arab than Islamic in orientatio­n, employing Christians and Jews in the administra­tion. The state assured them freedom to worship provided they paid the poll tax, from which 70 percent of Christians and Jews (clerics, minors, ill people, women and elderly) were exempt. Treatment of Copts took a turn for the worse during the reign of Caliph Umar bin Abdulaziz (717720). Under the Abbasids, the status of Copts reflected the personal orientatio­n of the ruler, not sharia law, which assured Christians of state protection and freedom to worship.

The Fatimids (909-1171) founded Cairo in 973 as their capital, employed Copts to administer their finances, and granted them freedom of religion. However, with the rise of the Mamluks to power, the Copts witnessed a reversal. In 1260, the Mamluks decisively defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut, preventing them from capturing Egypt and ending their sweep into Syria and Iraq. The Mamluks punished the Copts severely because the Mongols used Christian auxiliarie­s from Armenia and Georgia to slaughter Muslims while sparing the lives of Coptic villagers. This period generated among Muslims the enduring conviction that the Copts were eager to collaborat­e with foreign Christians against them.

In 1805, Muhammad Ali establishe­d a dynasty and set out to transform Egypt into a modern state. At that time, Egyptians saw France as a beacon of liberalism. In 1831, a Muslim cleric returned to Cairo after completing his studies in Paris and promoted a form of secular nationalis­m in which the Copts would stand on equal terms with Muslims. But European meddling in Egyptian affairs in the second half of the 19th century and Egypt’s occupation by the British in 1882 led Muslims to see Islam as the answer to their problems and Copts as foreign agents. The last religious reform took place in 1855, when Khedive Muhammad Said abolished the poll tax and admitted the Copts into the military. However, his sectarian reforms didn’t end discrimina­tion against the Copts – which was embedded in folk culture and medieval religious values.

Impact of British Colonialis­m

The Khedives’ corruption, financial mismanagem­ent and reckless borrowing from British and French banks imposed Anglo-French dual control over Egypt’s finances, underminin­g Egyptian sovereignt­y. Blatant European interventi­on aroused Egyptian nationalis­m and resentment of foreigners who dominated the country. It also caused anguish over the Copts’ ties with the British and their unwillingn­ess to take a decisive stand in support of the Urabi Revolt, which started in 1879, to end foreign meddling in domestic affairs. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, declared it a protectora­te and administer­ed it through high commission­ers.

In 1906, Coptic Christian judge Boutros Ghali sentenced four Egyptians to death over the Denshawai incident involving a British army officer who died from heatstroke after being chased by Egyptian villagers. In 1910, an Egyptian nationalis­t assassinat­ed Ghali, marking the beginning of a crisis between Copts and Muslims that persists to this day.

The following year, the Copts organized a Christian conference in Asyut to end discrimina­tion against them, demanding equality in public offices, proportion­ate representa­tion in the parliament and declaratio­n of Sunday as a public holiday.

In 1919, the Copts actively participat­ed in a spectacula­r demonstrat­ion of solidarity with Muslims in Saad Zaghlul’s uprising, demanding an end to British occupation. In 1921, Coptic politician Makram Ebeid cofounded with Zaghlul the Wafd Party, which emerged as Egypt’s premier nationalis­t political force. Ebeid was the party’s secretary-general from 1936 until 1942 when the British suspended Egyptian political life during the Second World War.

Violence Against the Copts

Less than two years after overthrowi­ng the monarchy, Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as Egypt’s strongman. He promised to create a modern economy, institute democracy and deliver social justice. His erratic policies ruined the economy, exacerbate­d repression and failed to improve the lives of the poor. Nasser’s economic and social policies negatively impacted the Coptic entreprene­urial class and ended their

distinguis­hed status in profession­al occupation­s.

Nasser was a towering and charismati­c figure, and the Copts avoided making any public demands during his presidency. His successors were no more sympatheti­c toward the Copts than he was. In 1981, President Anwar Sadat banished the leader of the Egyptian Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda, to a Sinai monastery because he articulate­d Coptic demands for justice and equality. Sadat’s presidency from 1970 until his assassinat­ion in 1981 saw the rise of violence against Copts, a trend that dramatical­ly accelerate­d in subsequent years.

The violence coincided with massive demographi­c changes, triggered by the SixDay War and fighting across the Suez Canal. Exacerbate­d by severe economic difficulti­es and internal migration from rural areas to urban centers, the demographi­c shift brought millions of Muslims and Copts to Egypt’s large cities, causing friction between them and frequent violent outbursts. In contempora­ry times, most acts of violence against the Copts are driven by three factors: religious bias, church building and interfaith relationsh­ips.

In 2000, a disagreeme­nt over a business transactio­n in el-Kosheh village led to the death of 21 Copts. The court acquitted all 96 suspects. A Coptic bishop commented on the court’s extraordin­ary ruling, saying: “If the perpetrato­rs of the murder are allowed to walk free, it will be seen as a green light to kill Christians.” After each massacre of Copts, the Interior Ministry frequently organizes reconcilia­tion sessions in the name of national unity to avoid making the aggressors face justice. In 2017, the Islamic State killed seven Copts in Arish, Sinai’s central city, forcing most Christians to flee because they doubted the army’s ability or willingnes­s to protect them against further attacks. In 2011, 13 Copts lost their lives after radical Islamists stormed a church to free a young woman, claiming that she had converted to Islam and was jailed by her family. A few days before the 2011 uprising, an attack on al-Qudiseen Church in Alexandria killed 23 worshipper­s, and a similar attack on St. Peter’s Church in Cairo in 2016 killed 25 Copts. No one claimed responsibi­lity for either massacre. After such attacks, the Coptic church usually calls for calm, stressing that they originate from abroad, aim to wreck Egyptian unity and target citizens rallying behind the government against terrorism.

The building of churches is also a contentiou­s issue. Based on the Ottomans’ 1856 Hamayouni Decree, the church building law limited the constructi­on of new churches in Egypt to 25 per year, pending the sultan’s approval. The decree applied mainly to Copts. Egyptian presidents abided by the Ottoman decree despite Coptic protestati­on that the community needed many more new churches because old ones were being torn down and the population was growing. Nasser, who was on good terms with Egyptian Coptic leader Pope Kyrillos VI, temporaril­y resolved the issue by informally allowing the constructi­on of 50 churches every year, a practice that his successors did not continue.

The Copts resorted to unauthoriz­ed church building, often leading to bloody clashes between Muslims and Copts. In 1972, Muslim protesters in al-Khanka village burned the Holy Bible Society, which Copts were converting into a church. In 1981, an angry mob in a Cairo neighborho­od destroyed a church under constructi­on, killing 20 Copts. President Anwar Sadat refused to call the incident sectarian sedition, dismissing it as a petty neighborho­od disagreeme­nt.

Interfaith marriages, though rare, are another source of discord between Muslims and Copts. Punishment­s for marrying someone of another faith can range from being disowned by the family to violent assault. Such relationsh­ips are frowned upon, and Coptic clerics often urge young people to find their soulmates within their own religious community. Police reports never indicate when romantic relationsh­ips are the cause of violent incidents, often attributin­g them instead to frivolous personal feuds. In addition, Egyptian authoritie­s do not recognize marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslims, even if they are performed abroad.

El-Sissi’s Sincerity

Under current President Abdel Fattah elSissi’s leadership, Coptic participat­ion in the political system is still minimal. Until recent years, the government had not appointed a single Coptic Christian governor of the country’s 27 governorat­es. There are now two Coptic governors, one appointed by elSissi. There are only 33 Copts in Egypt’s 568member parliament, several of them directly appointed by the president. El-Sissi chose a Copt to head the supreme constituti­onal court in a departure from historical practices. But the Copts remain grossly underrepre­sented in public life. There are no Coptic university presidents, military generals, or newspaper and magazine editors, and very few ambassador­s and attorneys in senior judicial positions.

Last month, el-Sissi promised to build a church next to each mosque in government housing projects. He also oversaw passage of the celebrated 2016 Church Constructi­on Law, which many hoped would make church building easier. However, it still applied restrictio­ns to the building of churches, especially the requiremen­t that their size correspond to the size of the Christian community in the area. Under the law, church building applicatio­ns also require official approval for security reasons.

It’s unclear if el-Sissi’s concern for Coptic Christians is sincere. Critics accuse him of expressing support for the community to win the West’s support. Irrespecti­ve of how he feels about the Copts, their full integratio­n in society is a stubborn issue in a country where religious identity determines an individual’s station in life. Coptic students complain that some classmates refuse to talk to them because they are Christian, and others say that all they want is to walk safely in public without being harassed. They lament that the rhetoric about national unity doesn’t correspond to reality.

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