Christians of the Orient: Egypt and the Future of the Copts

Hosni Mubarak had his first meeting with President George W Bush in Washington on 2 April, 2001. This was the usual time of year for the presidential visit to the United States, and the time of year for various groups of expatriate Copts to start noisy accusations of persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority. On 22 March Copts were “marching for justice in Washington DC on behalf of the persecuted Copts in Egypt,” according to The Pen vs The Sword (1). This year there has been much to march about. On 4 February a court ruling found none of 96 defendants guilty of murder during the worst sectarian clashes in the country’s recent history, when at least 20 Christians and one Muslim were killed in the small Upper Egyptian town of al-Khosheh early last year. The Prosecutor General announced that he would appeal against the verdict, possibly because of Coptic anger.

On 24 February, while that judicial storm was still resounding, the Coptic community was again furious because the authorities demolished a church building on the outskirts of Cairo because its bishop had failed to comply with a much-criticised law requiring presidential permission to build churches.

To cap it all, on 22 March a semi-governmental American body, the US Commission of International Religious Freedom, arrived in Cairo to investigate religious discrimination, causing uproar on both sides: what right had the US to be meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs? Was there not enough discrimination within America itself to keep it busy? It was not helpful that the commission was headed by former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams who has written admiringly of Ariel Sharon.

All this invited the intervention of the Coptic Patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, a highly intelligent man who learned early on in his office, when President Sadat confined him to his monastery for four years, how to play a shrewd political hand. Shenouda (along with Egypt’s chief Muslim cleric, Sheikh Tantawi of al-Azhar) was one of the few people who agreed to meet with the commission. In an open letter to the press (i), he also asked Coptic expatriates in the US to refrain from “ill-advised actions” that might compromise the presidential visit. He reminded Copts that the al-Khosheh verdict was a judicial one and had been referred to the country’s highest court of appeal: “We cannot ask the state for more than that”. He also spoke about the demolition of the church building at Shubra al-Kheima, one of the poorest areas of Greater Cairo. “I don’t deny there are problems,” he conceded, but “they are settled and resolved as soon as the president knows about them”.

The “Coptic question” is sensitive because of its international ramifications. There are large emigré communities, in particular in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. Although most confine their activities to their church communities, they often also protest publicly. On 10 April a group in Sydney, Australia, rallied 2,000 Copts to parade with 20 black coffins with pictures of the Khosheh martyrs under a banner “Stop the silent genocide”. There is, in addition, a small but powerful fringe of extremists in the US who promote anti-Muslim hate groups, such as Michael Meunier’s Pen vs The Sword and Shawki Karras, who has Zionist connections.

Such people are an embarrassment to Copts inside Egypt, especially at a time when the country is in shock because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians since the intifada, resulting in Cairo recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv. And when the problem of Islamic extremism still continues. After all, Copts inside Egypt know that they have to pay part of the price for the fight against the Islamists.

President Mubarak cannot be seen to be making too many concessions to the Copts when he has crushed the armed Islamists and is taking all possible measures to prevent their resurgence, as well as keeping the non-violent but politically dynamic Muslim Brotherhood in check through such repressive measures as arrests and trials before military courts. Reforms for Copts are part of a complex game between the Islamists and the government, but also between Israel, the US and Egypt, which must defend its regional position while depending on US aid.

Thus Pope Shenouda’s statement that he “would not visit Jerusalem so long as it remains under Israeli occupation” (i) resounded powerfully among Egypt’s Coptic community. For the Copts are, before all else, Egyptian: indeed, they are the original Egyptians, descendants of the Pharaohs. They are also the largest Christian community in the Middle East dating its origin to 42 AD when Saint Mark is believed to have founded the first church in Alexandria. Until the Arab conquest in 640 AD all Egyptians were known as “Copts” – derived from the Greek word for Egypt, Aegyptos. They belong to the minority of the population which chose not to convert to Islam and represent nearly 10% of the present population of 64m. Most follow the Coptic Orthodox church (2).

This history is as important as the part Copts played in the emergence of nationalism and the creation of the modern state. The Copts joined the 1919 Revolution, when the Wafd party unified the nation against British occupation, and they provided two prime ministers before the second world war. That was the Coptic golden age. Then Nasser and his Free Officers took power in July 1952. “Their slogan of Egyptianisation [aimed at the numerous foreign minorities, Italian, Greek, etc] made the Copts wary that their turn might be coming”, says Milad Hanna, a leading secular figure in the Coptic community. Nasser’s nationalisation policies affected Copts more than Muslims. In addition, religion was introduced as a compulsory school subject and, more significantly, Copts were not included in the regime. But still people lived together, ate together, went to each other’s weddings, funerals, feast days. Copts played down discrimination, and in that sense they were, and are, much like any minority anywhere.

But in the dust and sunshine of Egypt, “minority” is not a word that is used, rejected by both Copts and the Muslim establishment. Sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim discovered this to his cost when he organised a conference on minorities in 1994 (he is now on trial on various charges related to human rights activities). In Egypt, the word “minority” is felt to have ethnic or sectarian connotations – as though it somehow diminishes the Copts’ profoundly Egyptian identity.

The specificity of the Copts lies in that identity, which risks being compromised by the international dimension caused by waves of migration since Nasser. But it was above all his successor, Sadat, who shattered the existing implicit compact by defining Egypt as an Islamic country. It was a green light for the radical Islamist groups – and the consequent sectarian strife in the south (Upper Egypt) – but also for a flourishing of conservative Islam. As Muslims began to rally around the mosque, Copts rallied around the church. For Muslim and Christian children and teenagers, separate social clubs and sports centres organised by mosque and church replaced school as the common meeting ground. Just like the Islamists, the Christians became active in education, health and professional training. They also asserted their religious identity: as veils were donned and beards sprouted among the Muslims, small blue crosses were discreetly tattooed on a hand or a wrist and there was a flowering of Christian names.

There is no sign of any abatement in Muslim and Christian religious fervour. The churches are packed, women on the right, no fewer men on the left, some with their arms half-raised, hands half-open, lost in prayer. The churches often have a cupola above the altar painted brilliant blue and decorated with a giant head and outstretched arms of Christ. The singing and chanting in the Coptic language (3) mesmerise, as do the thick, dizzying clouds of incense. In Lent Copts fast until three in the afternoon, and do not eat meat, fish or dairy products.

They flock to the churches, rich and poor. But they flock in their hundreds to St Mark’s, the former cathedral, in Cairo to see Father Makari casting out demons on Friday evenings. And in their thousands to hear Father Saman on Thursday nights in his huge basilica carved into the sheer rockface of the Mokattam hills. They travel in buses – large, small, old, new – out of the city, past the acrid fumes of the shanty town of the zebelin (the Christians who collect all Cairo’s garbage and -among towering bags of rubbish – rescue and recycle riches from the trash, creating employment for upholsterers, leather-makers, tailors, dressmakers, earning them enough piastres for an evening visit to the barbers and a narguile).

“Faith-healing is part of our tradition,” says Mary Asad, a psychologist and a former deputy secretary-general at the World Council of Churches (Geneva). “So are charismatic priests; the Pope closes his eyes to Father Saman who invokes his work with the zebelin.”

Search for God

From last August to this January, in the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut, St Mark’s Church had its own apparition. “The Virgin Mary appeared night after night within a strange, bright light over the church, accompanied by flying doves,” explains Father Zakka. “We’ve been keeping medical records documenting miraculous cures reported by some of those who saw the vision. So many people came from all over the world that we had to section off the roads around to separate the women and men.”

The Reverent Girgis over the road at the (Protestant) First Evangelical Church does not believe in faith healing. “And I’m not commenting on the apparition,” he adds. His church runs a free clinic for 35,000 patients, staffed by volunteer doctors. The evangelical movement, introduced by foreign missionaries and concentrating on good works, has established itself within all the denominations and, like the rest of the Church, has been thriving since the 1970s. “It’s all part of the Egyptians’ search for God,” says Rafik Habib, author of two books on political Christianity. “It’s a direct parallel to the Islamic movement”.

“The most worrying problem in Egypt is the prejudice on both sides which has grown over the last 25 years and is still growing,” he continues. “But the Copts are the ones who feel it, because they’re the minority; and the government is unable to deal with it.” Nowhere is that plainer than in Upper Egypt’s largest city, Assiut (1.75m with a Christian majority). Assiut governorate borders that of Sohag in which the events of al-Khosheh took place. On 14 August 1998 two Copts were murdered in this small tribal town of 25,000 on the banks of the Nile. In an attempt to frame a Christian (thereby avoiding sectarian unrest), the police rounded up more than a thousand Copts and beat or even tortured them to secure confessions. Nothing was more likely to lead to further trouble. On 31 December 1999 riots developed after a Christian shopkeeper insulted a Muslim woman from the Hawara tribe.

The unsatisfactory February verdict on the second event has caused extreme tension in neighbouring Assiut. Security was already tight: the fear of a recurrence of the bad old days of Islamic militancy is evident. “For Copts, the problem is internalised because there’s no way of expressing it,” explains Hala, who is a Copt. “We’re a majority here, but at the same time we’re part of the overall minority. Since the violence in the 1980s Christians have started leaving, going to Cairo or Alexandria or leaving the country.” Then she adds in a whisper: “They sell their land to Muslims in secret – it’s a very sensitive subject”.

“In al-Khosheh,” she continues, “85% are Christian, they own everything, even the streets have Christian names; the Muslims just work the fields, that’s the problem. Sohag is a particular problem because it’s so tribal. But in general, relations are easier in villages where there’s a better demographic balance, a better economic balance – and less education. Muslim education teaches prejudice and hatred.” (It is clear, however, from talking to a number of Christian clerics, that Muslims have no monopoly on prejudice.)

“In Upper Egypt the Copts are sandwiched between two extremist forces, the Islamists, who blackmail them, and state security,” says Saadeddin Ibrahim. “They are dealt with by the department of security attached to the ministry of the interior, rather than by, say, the department of religious endowment. It’s a form of collective paranoia in which any call for reform is construed as an imminent danger to the state.”

How much need for reform is there? By most estimates the Copts account for approaching 10% of the nation, over 20% of the economy, but only 1.5% of public office. That is the main grievance: Copts are barred from the higher echelons of the army, police, intelligence, judiciary, governorates. In Assiut, a maths teacher earns 200 Egyptian pounds a month ($56): an officer in the security forces, no better qualified, earns 850 pounds a month. It is sometimes more of an invisible barrier, for instance in certain university departments. Although it is possible to seek redress through the courts, it is hard to enforce a ruling.

However, things are slowly changing. At Christmas and Easter the Coptic mass is now broadcast on television. Nearly 900 feddans of Coptic land taken by the Islamic waqf has been returned to the Coptic Church. The missing 600 years of pre-Islamic Coptic history is being added to the curriculum of children in primary (6-12) and preparatory school (12-15). Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic weekly Watani and a member of the Supreme Coptic Council, does not think the moment has yet come to push for its inclusion in secondary school (15-18): “Too much trouble already for the minister of education from the Islamists”, he says.

There are two further issues that he thinks are still too sensitive to campaign for as yet: removing religion from ID cards and ending the forced conversion of girls under 18 to Islam (this can happen if a girl falls for a Muslim boy). Although this concern is high on the expatriate agenda, he has only heard of three or four such cases in the last six years. As another observer remarks, in the reverse situation, a Muslim girl would be driven to crime or suicide.

’Time of flowers’

There is one significant change: the taboo on discussing the “Coptic question” has ended. That makes it easier to campaign for further reforms. The change began in the media in February 1999 with a ground-breaking issue of the English-language weekly Cairo Times devoted to the Copts. This winter TV viewers were riveted by a soap opera that, for the first time ever, explored the subject of mixed marriage -still a complete taboo for even the most sophisticated and secular Copts. In Time of Flowers Rose, a Christian girl, falls in love and marries a young Muslim diplomat (4). Their daughter Amal then marries a Muslim and that couple’s baby son is kidnapped. The two families are brought together by the drama.

Religious conservatives on both sides were duly outraged. But “the Pope met the cast and asked whether in the end Rose had regrets,” recounts the series’ (Muslim) author, Walid Hamid: “’Yes’, he was told; ’That’s all right then’, he replied”. Most people agree, with a smile, that it is indeed all right. But Ihab Gaurd, 25, a Copt from the village of Abu Tik in Upper Egypt, says that though he liked the series, “the story’s a bit far-fetched. People don’t intermarry here. And how am I supposed to imagine a Christian women teaching her child about Islam? They should have had a story about Christians and Muslims doing normal things together.” Hamid says that the minister of information readily agreed to the series and did not interfere at any stage; now several Copts have asked him to do a second series.

There remains the deeply-felt problem of the demolition of the church building in the poor Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Kheima, where 350,000 Christians live among 4m Muslims. While Muslims need no permit for opening a mosque, the president still has to approve new church building, although he has now passed decisions for permits for repairs and renewal down to the governorate level. Bishop Marcos, who has 28 churches in his diocese in the suburb, explains the difficulties: “More than a year ago I started a church building for social use (nursery, clinic, hall for social events)”. He admits it was illegal but: “I couldn’t ask for a permit because once the Muslims know what we’re doing, they immediately find a nearby apartment where they can set up a place of prayer without any permit. They do it to stop us because, once there’s a mosque in the area, you won’t get a permit for a church building. Furthermore, to get a licence for a new church building, you need a land certificate and mostly these just don’t exist.”

“On 19 February, once the building was finished,” he continues, “I applied for the permit in the normal way. Five days later the police and governorate came and pulled it down. I complained to the governor; then I appealed, via the Pope, to President Mubarak who ordered it to be rebuilt at the governor’s expense. Yes, it’s a victory, but would we have won it without the press? If the president receives the right information, he’ll take action. But who’s to make sure he gets it?” We adjourn to the evening service, its congregation summoned by discreet peal of a single church bell. On leaving, all sound is drowned by the call of the nearby muezzin.

What do the Copts see as their best way forward? Munir Fakhri Abdennour, a wealthy businessman and one of three Copts elected to parliament last year, thinks that “Copts need to get involved in the political and social life of the country. And to advocate Egyptian nationalism before Coptic issues.” If Copts are absent from political life, it is not just because the ruling National Democratic Party passes them over as candidates. Copts are reluctant to go into politics. A high percentage are educated, successful, affluent; they also have easy access to foreign visas and often enter professions open to them in any country. Although there are two Coptic ministers, Copts never reach the top jobs (Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali did not rise beyond minister of state for foreign affairs though he was the best qualified for the top ministerial post).

Most Copts in Egypt want dialogue, not confrontation. Some secular Copts like Youssef Sidhom want to “reduce the role of the Pope”; he cites the previous Patriarch, Cyril VI, “a pious man who did not involve himself in affairs between Coptic citizens and the state”. However, the charismatic Shenouda III is at present very much in charge. This much-admired “Pope of the Arabs” runs the Church much as Mubarak runs the state, and maintains an effective, if opaque, channel between church hierarchy and government. At the same time he allows the outspoken Bishop Wissa, a folk hero in Upper Egypt, to air his views.

The more radical element embodied by Wissa is echoed by lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla, who campaigns exclusively on Coptic issues through his Word Centre for Human Rights. He, like many of the emigré groups, calls for representation for Copts in every sphere, including politics, based on their percentage of the population. This is anathema to most Copts inside Egypt, who agree with Sidhom that “that would create hostility between Copts and Muslims and turn Egypt into another Lebanon”.

The quiet dialogue of the moderate Copts within Egypt is actually working. But when Bishop Wissa speaks of the injustices of Upper Egypt, the international Coptic communities listen. And, as many Copts within Egypt privately admit, because of the high-profile US connection, the government also listens.

Does the government have a policy regarding the Copts? Mostapha el-Feqqi, vice-chair of the parliamentary international relations committee and a former presidential aide, is one of the few officials prepared to speak about the Coptic question. He rightly points to the positive changes. But he also needs to explain that, having battled with Sadat’s Islamist legacy, the government cannot deal with the Copts except as a security issue linked to its policy for dealing with the Islamists. The results of that approach are felt most keenly in Upper Egypt. But there are younger elements coming to the fore within the establishment who perceive Egypt’s need to open up economically, politically and culturally, to reduce poverty, tackle ignorance and prejudice through better education. To that extent it is not just a Coptic question, it is an Egyptian question.


(i) Al-Ahram , Cairo, 27 March 2001, Al-Ahram Weekly, Cairo, 29 March-4 April 2001.

(i) Al-Mushahid Assiyasi, 26 March 2000, published in Mideast Mirror, London, 23 March 2000.

(2) There are also Protestants and Roman Catholics who together make up 15% of the Christian community. In the 7th century the Copts seceded from the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and established their own doctrine on the single nature of Christ.

(3) Descended from ancient Egyptian and written in 24 Greek letters with Coptic phonetic values and seven additional letters of Coptic form.

(4) By law she is not obliged to convert. In the reverse situation, a Christian man may not marry a Muslim woman and must therefore convert.

This essay originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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