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Egypt's Copts: Will the Region’s Largest Non-Muslim Religious Community Simply Disappear?

Nina Shea

In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood . [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”

The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt todaynamely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the countryan event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.

In 2008, anti-Copt sentiments spiked following the Bishop’s presentation because his main pointthat the Copts are true Egyptianshad hit a nerve. Coptic Orthodoxy is a two thousand year old church native to Egypt that traces its origins to the Apostle Mark. The name “Copt,” Bishop Thomas explained, is derived from the root of the ancient Greek word for Egypt, Aegyptos. When the Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 AD, for linguistic reasons they pronounced the “gy” as a “ka.“ 

The Arabs brought to Egypt their religion, as well as their language. The Bishop stated that the Coptic identity centers on Egypt, its land, language and culture, while Egyptians who converted to Islam shifted their cultural identity toward Arabia. He gave examples of how this cultural shift was advanced under Mubarak, 1,400 years after it began, through, for example, a ban on teaching the Coptic language in public schools, the relabelling of Coptic crafts, art, and architecture as “Islamic,” and the requirement that Coptic students celebrate the Arab invasion of 639 and memorize parts of the Qur’an.

For many in contemporary Egypt, the bishop’s assertion was heresy. Islamistsand those wanting their political supportview the Copts not as real Egyptians, but, because they are religious holdouts, as second-class citizens or even a fifth column within the state. They are treated accordingly. Copts are officially discriminated against by an Ottoman-era law that restricts their ability to build or even repair their ancient and crumbling churches and monasteries. When they suffer violent assaults by Muslims, they are typically denied justice, with trial judges instead presiding over “reconciliation” sessions, with the victimized Copt being forced to shake hands with his Muslim aggressor. As a rule, Copts have been excluded from government appointments and, in this spring’s recent referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood backed a successful constitutional amendment making it official that Copts (and women) are ineligible for the presidency.

In recent decades, Egyptian extremists and security forces have periodically attacked Copts in what the international media mislabels as “sectarian clashes,” but which can more accurately be described as pogroms and acts of terror. Prominent examples are the 2011 New Year’s Eve bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria and the 2010 massacre of worshippers at the Orthodox Christmas mass in Nag Hamadi. These assaults have only escalated in the current period following Egypt’s revolution, as Islamist extremists, freed from Mubarak’s repression, vie for power and conduct cultural cleansing. 

For example, this February saw separate brutal attacks by armed forces using heavy machine-gun fire against two Coptic monasteries, ostensibly to address zoning problems stemming from the dhimmi laws restricting church construction. In order to destroy a wall the monks had built to defend their property from raiders, the forces shot and wounded one monk and six church workers at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun, 110 kilometers north of Cairo. On the same day, in a similar incident, the army attacked the Anba Makarious Al Sakandarie Monastery in Al Fayoum, 130 kilometers southwest of Cairo.

On March 4, several thousand men chanting “Allahu Akbar” burned the Coptic Church of St. Mina and St. Georgeand its irreplaceable relicsin the village of Soul, about 30 kilometers from Cairo. What had aroused their ire was a romance between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, which sharia law forbids, and the refusal of the woman’s father to kill her to restore the community’s “honor.”

On March 8, a mob armed with guns, clubs, and Molotov cocktails violently beset a vastly outnumbered group of Copts who were demonstrating against the Soul church burning in front of the state television broadcasting building on the outskirts of Cairo. Coptic youth responded with sticks and stones. The Egyptian army, called in to restore order, instead applied more violence, shooting with live ammunition. About 13 people were killed and over 100 wounded. The attacks began near St. Simon the Tanner Monastery, in the large Christian neighborhood on the east side of Cairo popularly known as “Garbage City,” so named because its residents are mostly garbage collectors (who survive by picking through the garbage they collect and reselling what is salvageable). Throughout that night, roving gangs torched Coptic homes and garbage recycling plants and trucks.

Under pressure from the international community, and with the encouragement of the Grand Imam of the Islamic University of Al Azhar, the army rebuilt the church in Soul. But, on May 7, two more churches were attacked. At least 12 people were killed and more than 200 people were wounded in the poor, heavily Christian neighborhood of Imbaba, in northwest Cairo, when Islamists, incited by a rumor of a Muslim woman held captive by Copts, stormed the St. Mina Church, burned the Church of the Virgin Mary to the ground, looted and vandalized several Christian-owned shops, and threw Molotov cocktails at an apartment building.

Three years ago, Bishop Thomas concluded his lecture with an appeal to help the Copts remain in their homeland: “We are worried about the large number of immigrants that are leaving Egypt, like all the Middle East; we are worried that the Christians are leaving this area.” Following the revolution, which many Copts supported, Islamists now seem poised to assume power. Fear among Copts that the recent escalation in violence and discrimination is only likely to worsen following Islamist victories at the polls this fall makes their mass exodus, similar to the one that took place in Iraq, seem nearly inevitable.

As Egypt’s largest non-Muslim community, the Copts are also the largest of such communities in the entire Muslim Middle East. And if the Copts do leave, this vast region, historically known as the great multicultural crossroads of civilizations, would see the end of an old and important experience of religious pluralism. This does not bode well for peaceful coexistence with either Israel or the West. We should heed the Bishop’s cry for help before it’s too late.

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