In December 2016 an explosion killed 25 persons inside the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo. Easter 2017, two blasts left 61 dead. This is nothing new, though. The history of persecution of the Coptic Christians reaches back to the 3rd century.
The Copts love to tell the story that St. Mark preached the Gospel in Alexandria in 50 – 60 AD. However, the first evidence of a Christian community in Egypt consists of a fragment of papyri dating from c. 120. in spite of this ancient pedigree, the Copts do not date the birth of their church before the period of the persecutions of Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century and the concomittant establishment of the desert monasteries at the same time.
Also, the Copts did not come into their own until they declared their independence from the Byzantine church after the Council of Chalcedon. Here the Patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople agreed on the formulation that two natures coexisted in Christ, while the Egyptians rejected this formulation opting for a belief that Christ had only one nature. The became Monophysites. At this point, the Egyptians elected their own Patriarch (Cyril). Later, in the 7th century, Egypt was repeatedly at the centre of wars between the Persians and the Byzantines, and in 631 – 639, the Copts were persecuted for their anti-Chalcedonian beliefs.
At first, after the Arabs conquered Egypt 639 – 642, a religious and cultural truce was established. However, after 720, churches and Christian icons were systematically destructed, and segregation was initiated and strictly policed. This increased dramatically after the last Coptic revolt in 832. Now Copts were obliged to wear black clothes and have crosses bound around their necks. Later Copts were forbidden by Saladin to wear silk, ride, or engage Muslims as servants. Mob violence, persecution and conversion was intermittently the rule, not least at the turn of the first millennium (996 – 1021)
No wonder, Copts slowly adopted Arabic as their language, while Coptic slowly died out. But they never turned into Arabs in a cultural sense. Dhimmitude secured this. Even the name is Arabic. The term “Copt” derives from “quibt”, an Arabic transliteration of the Greek word for the people living in Egypt, “aigyptoi”. Later this came to mean, Christians as opposed to Muslims.
From Napoleon and until 1952, however, persecution ended and schools, monasteries, churches and cultural institutions blossomed, while poll taxes and other discriminatory practices were abolished. Nevertheless, religious tensions continued to play a role, for instance in 1910 when a Muslim from the Nationalist party murdered Butros Ghali, the Coptic Prime Minister of Egypt.
After the abdication of Farouk in 1952 and the takeover of Nasser (1952 – 1970), the climate changed. Now, wealthy Coptic families had their property confiscated, and land reforms favoured the Muslims. Under the regime of Sadat, conditions worsened, leading to bloody riots and the torching of churches (Cairo 1981). Since then, the situation has only moved from bad to worse.
From time immemorial, Copts has thus been the target of Islamic persecution. Despite academic endeavours to establish an alternative myth equal to that of the Spanish “Convivencia”, the evidence is overwhelming
Initially, the Egyptian Christians invested in the Arab Spring, hoping for a more secular and open society. Soon, however, the revolution unravelled and brought Islamists to power. This led to several years of harsh persecution, which has not abated after the military coup in 2013. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place, as Christians have been blamed for the fall from power of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the direct aftermath, over 47 churches were attacked, and an Islamic mob torched a Franciscan school and paraded nuns in the streets as “prisoners of wars”. Two other female teachers were sexually harassed. Thus, the tragic events on Palm Sunday 2017, are just the latest horrifying events in a continuously worsening situation, some of which are also structural.
- When legal transgressions are committed by Copts (violence or theft) the whole family, and sometimes the whole community is more often than not judged liable and has to play “blood-money”. Communal justice robs the Christians of their legal rights.
- Copts are invisible in the cultural sphere – in films, broadcasting, publications. Literature.
- Houses and homes of Christians are regularly vandalised by graffiti like e.g. “Tawadros is a dog” (Tawadros being the Coptic Pope) or more generally “boycott Christians”.
- Fatwas are increasingly published which normalise Jihadist terror against the Christians. For instance, according to one fatwa, Muslims were “allowed” to attack Coptic jewellers and seize their property to donate it to Jihadist groups.
- After a Church has been torched, rebuilding is only allowed with the direct permit of the president; which is often withheld.
- Even when violent mobs are on the rampage, the police or the army seldom intervenes.
- Copts are regularly barred from positions of local leadership
Coptic persecution – an official taboo
The population of Egypt is to a large extent homogeneous. The majority are Sunni Arabs. However, the country also hosts the largest Christian Community of any Arab land, between 10 – 20%. Of these, a significant majority are Copts. The exact number, though, is not known, as the government is not interested in spotlighting the demographic significance of any minority. The official propaganda is foremost nationalist. Most official commentators thus adopt a total denial as regards the need to deal with the persecution of this minority. The official standpoint is that fanatics or Islamists (ISIS or Daesh) are responsible for any persecution, which takes place. The public and agreed opinion – the official rhetoric – is that the Copts are not a minority, neither are they threatened. The unmasked reality is that the Egyptian State is doing nothing to prevent persecution while fostering a legislative praxis which favours Islam as the de-facto state religion. To some extent, the government is thus even aiding and abetting. At the same time, the Copts are increasingly rebelling against the official quietist attitude of their church, establishing new ways of asserting their identity as both Egyptians and Copts. As an example can be mentioned the controversies which surround the regulations concerning the broadcasting of religious services. While weekly Muslim Friday prayers are transmitted, Coptic religious celebrations are limited to the special religious occasions (Christmas, Easter, etc.). New technologies, however, have broken this monopoly and raised awareness of the Coptic church in the general media landscape. Many are afraid, though, that such visibility will lead to even more widespread violence.
The A to Z of the Coptic Church.
By Gawdat Gabra.
Scarecrow Press 2009
Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church
By Jill Kamil
Eastern Minorities: The Impact of the Arab Spring.
By Ibrahim Zabad:
Violece against Copts in Egypt
Carnegie. Endowment for International Peace 2013
Beyond the Cross and the Crescent.
By Vivian Ibrahim
In: Ethnic and Racial Studies (2015) Vol 38, No 14. pp. 2584-2597