Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Copts are the largest minority in Egypt, though their exact numbers remain uncertain. Figures range between 4.7 and 7.1 million, comprising between six and nine per cent of the population, though some estimates put the proportion at as much as 10 to 20 per cent.
Egyptian Copts are the biggest Christian community in the Arab world. Estimates of their numbers vary, but generally range between 4.7 and 7.1 million. They are proportionately most numerous in Upper Egypt. Most Copts are working class peasants and labourers, although there is a Coptic business upper class and a middle class of urban professionals and small landowners. Copts are present in most institutions of the state, and there are Coptic members of all registered political parties.
Copts believe themselves to be the descendants of Egypt’s ancient Pharaonic people. They were first converted to Christianity with the arrival of St Mark in Egypt in 62 CE. Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 CE, and the Egyptian Church was separated from the Christian community in 451. The Muslims arrived in 641 CE, but did not constitute a majority until about three centuries later, mostly due to the conversion of the Egyptian populace. From the ninth century onwards the Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers, in turn Arab, Circassian and Ottoman. Churches were destroyed, books burnt and elders imprisoned. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882, Copts had been reduced to one-tenth of the population, mainly as a result of centuries of conversion to Islam.
Arab Muslims governed Christians and Jews according to the rules of Islamic Sharia. According to Islamic law, they were viewed as dhimmi, i.e. non-Muslims granted a special status in return for paying a heavy poll tax. They had to wear different colours and clothes from Muslims, could not build new places of worship or repair old ones without permission, or construct them in such a way as to overshadow those of Muslims. With the Arabization of governmental positions, Coptic clerks sought to study Arabic and teach it to their children, given the tradition of inheriting jobs. There was a gradual change to the use of Arabic, with the Coptic language being abandoned except as a liturgical language, and many Copts converted to Islam.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Pasha, viceroy of Egypt under the Ottomans, who became hereditary ruler of Egypt in 1841 after a political settlement with the sultan, reconstructed the administration, modernized industry and created a modern education system. Copts were employed in financial and accounting positions and were appointed rulers in a number of local governorates.
They had rights of land ownership, and a large financial and commercial bourgeoisie developed. A lay council, the Majlis al-Milli was created in 1874 to represent the Coptic community. Religious freedom and equality in employment were guaranteed. The peak of Coptic integration was in the liberal period from the 1919 ‘revolution’ to 1952.
Christians united with Muslims in their fight for independence against the British colonialists. There were two Coptic prime ministers during this period and widespread political participation as MPs and in the media. The British tried to separate Copts and Muslims, attempting to isolate Copts from the nationalist movement by inciting sectarian strife. Copts opposed British interference in the Egyptian Constitution and did not call for rights for religious minorities in the 1923 Constitution.
The revolution in 1952 brought in nationalization and agricultural reform. Middle and lower class Copts benefited, as did their Muslim counterparts. However, the Coptic elite lost 75 per cent of their property through nationalization; hitherto they had controlled a major share of transportation, industry, banking and agricultural land. Nasser also issued two decrees which had implications for Copts: one enforcing religion as a basic subject in the curricula rather than complementary to it, and a second in which Al Azhar University was confined to Muslim students.
Copts sided with Arabs in the conflict with Israel in the 1940s, but when Arabs demonstrated violently against Jewish settlement in Palestine, Copts were often victims of political abuse and physical assault. The dissolution of political parties with significant Coptic membership, such as the Wafd Party, the seizure of Coptic endowments in 1957 and the limitation of landholding to 200 acres, created an atmosphere of tension and led to increased emigration of Copts.
At the onset of the Sadat era in 1971 the dissolution of economic centralization benefited upper class Copts. However, as social frustrations mounted in the 1970s with the rise of Islamic radical movements, strikes and protests, Sadat initially flirted with the Islamists, politicizing religion and using Muslims as new allies in confrontation with the left. Old scapegoats were sought out. In 1972 Coptic churches, houses and shops were burnt. Islamic groups became increasingly organized and violent, until the government began to confront the militants, arresting thousands.
Copts demanded the annulment of discriminatory laws and protested the use of Sharia law as the basic source of legislation. Numerous confrontations took place in 1978 and 1979 between Muslims and Copts in Upper Egypt. In 1980 Sadat tried to implicate Pope Shenouda III in a plan to undermine state security: the Pope was stripped of authority and exiled to a desert monastery, while lay activists were arrested, Coptic associations banned and all Coptic publishing concerns closed down. The Pope was kept under house arrest for four years until his re-appointment in 1985.
Sadat’s assassination in 1981 left behind a divided nation. As economic recession deepened, violence against Copts again erupted in the second half of the 1980s, continuing sporadically up to the present. Other Coptic concerns included restrictions on the building and repair of churches – which limited their freedom of worship and often caused sectarian confrontation – and the educational curriculum, which distinguished between Copts and Muslims and ignored Coptic culture in general. Furthermore, some elements of the mass media were accused of frequently promoting hatred and division.
Copts under Mubarak continued to face state discrimination in such areas as university admissions, public spending, military promotions, and official requirements for the building or repair of churches. Up until 2005, presidential approval was required for repairing churches. Although since then the decision rested with the regional authorities, in practice many Copts complained of continued obstruction and difficulties.
In response to the growing number of violent incidents in the last decade of the Mubarak regime, in June 2008 Coptic diaspora groups organized demonstrations in Europe and the United States, accusing the government of ignoring the rising insecurity. These concerns were confirmed by a spate of deadly attacks against the Coptic community in 2010-2011, the worst of which resulted in the death of 21 Coptic Christians attending a New Years service in Alexandria. It was the worst violence against the Coptic Christian community in over a decade.
Despite the apparent unity of different groups against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, the post-revolution era has witnessed a continuation of many of the same negative trends for Copts and other minorities. This included the drafting under President Morsi of the 2012 Constitution, a document that was boycotted by Christian representatives who saw it as replicating the restrictions of its 1971 predecessor.
Sectarian violence also became an increasingly prominent issue in post-revolutionary Egypt. In the first two years after Mubarak, until January 2013, almost 100 Copts died in sectarian violence – more than in the entire previous decade. This included a clash between Muslims and Christians in March 2011 following the burning of a church, with 13 dead and 140 injured, as well as a military assault on a Coptic demonstration in October 2011that led to 28 deaths and 212 injured.
The situation of Copts remained fragile after the election of President Morsi, with another major outbreak of sectarian violence occurring in El-Khosous in April 2013. After 3 July 2013, when Morsi was forcibly removed from office by the military, there were several attacks on Copts, in which churches and homes of Copts were burnt and several people killed. As before, security forces were criticized for failing to prevent these incidents.
The anger of Morsi supporters after his ousting was reinforced by the army’s violent crackdown on sit-ins in mid-August 2013 where protesters were calling for Morsi’s reinstatement, at least 800 of whom, but probably more than 1,000, lost their lives at the hands of Egyptian security personnel. This resulted in an escalation of attacks against Copts for their perceived support of the military’s actions. Levels of violence peaked in August 2013, with repeated attacks against priests, abductions of Copts (including women and children) and frequent assaults on Coptic churches, houses and shops. Instances of local imams inciting violence against Coptic inhabitants were also reported. Reports of the death toll varied from four to seven people killed.
A continued crackdown by the Sisi regime on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other political opposition, involving arbitrary arrests, indefinite detention and killings, has alienated a significant portion of the population and, by extension, has put Copts and other
religious minorities at increasing risk of attack. In January 2015, Coptic leaders in Minya were forced to cancel Christmas celebrations after two policemen were gunned down while guarding a Coptic church. The mass execution of 21 Coptic Egyptians in neighbouring Libya by ISIS the next month was a painful reminder of the community’s continued vulnerability. Media investigations revealed that many of the victims came from Upper Egypt villages and had left their homes to financially support their families. The government was criticized by some activists for its failure to ensure their protection.
However, Copts have in some ways appeared to have benefited under Sisi. For example, Egypt’s national elections in October 2015 saw Coptic Christians win 36 parliamentary seats, 6 per cent of the total – an unprecedented achievement. This has been accompanied by Sisi’s apparent efforts to engage the Coptic church leadership, highlighted by his attendance of Coptic Christmas Eve mass in January 2015 – the first time a head of state has done so. Sisi has repeated this gesture in the following years, and indeed since he led the overthrow of Morsi and later became President, Sisi and his government have received support from the Coptic Orthodox Church under Pope Tawadros II. Yet many Egyptian Copts hold opinions at odds with the church leadership, as evidenced by a joint statement issued in September 2016 by 800 prominent Coptic figures insisting the church’s growing closeness with the regime has only hurt the community.
Despite symbolic gestures by the regime, Coptic Egyptians have faced discrimination by state institutions and ongoing risks of sectarian violence. One area where the state has failed in its protection of the community is the continued barriers to constructing houses of worship. Particularly in Upper Egypt, this has long contributed to the targeting of Coptic congregations and their religious practices.
While authorities have reportedly objected less to church construction and renovations since Sisi took power, the community has still faced tremendous difficulties in securing official approval and support. In numerous cases where attempts have been made to renovate or reconstruct churches, such efforts have been blocked by local Muslims – the Coptic community has then been forced amid rising sectarian tensions to make concessions, such as building without a bell or tower – a typical outcome of coercive reconciliation processes backed by local authorities. Security personnel such as police have also raided prayer houses, such as near Maghagha and Abu Qurqas in 2015, confiscating religious paraphernalia and preventing people from praying in properties deemed illegal, without official permission. The passing of a new law on church construction in August 2016, while welcomed by Pope Tawadros II, has received widespread criticism from activists and other community members who see it as perpetuating existing patterns of discrimination.
Disputes and tensions around church construction have played a major role in encouraging the outbreak of sectarian violence – a frequent occurrence that, while not receiving the same coverage as attacks by ISIS, remains a serious threat for the Coptic community, particularly in Minya governorate. In July 2016, after rumours emerged that a house would be converted into a church in the village of Tahna al-Gabal, the cousin of a priest was stabbed to death and three other family members were injured. In August, due to similar accusations, several Coptic-owned houses in Nazlet Abu Yakoub and Koum al-Loufy were attacked by hundreds of villagers, in the latter case forcing an extended family of 24 to flee to Cairo for fear of their lives. Egyptian authorities routinely fail to protect the rights of Christian citizens, and in lieu of judicial investigations, local disputes tend to be addressed through informal ‘reconciliation’ councils disadvantaging the victims.
Such an atmosphere of intolerance and impunity has figured in other acts of violence against Copts. In June 2016 in el-Arish, north Sinai, a Coptic priest was shot dead while walking down the street by an unknown assailant. The same month, in a village near Alexandria, a mob assaulted Copts and attacked a building they identified as Christian. In May 2016, in the Minya village of al-Karm, a group of Muslim residents stripped an elderly Coptic woman naked and paraded her in the street following a rumour that her son had a romantic relationship with a divorced Muslim woman. A number of houses owned by local Copts were also looted and destroyed. But in early 2017 prosecutors threw out the case against several members of the mob, citing lack of sufficient evidence and raising questions about the state’s willingness to hold perpetrators to account.
On 11 December 2016, a bomb struck St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, next to the seat of Pope Tawadros II in Cairo, killing 29 people and wounding dozens more. In February 2017, ISIS released a statement claiming responsibility for the December attack and threatening to escalate a deadly campaign of assassinations and intimidation against Copts in North Sinai, which caused hundreds of families to flee to other governorates that month. ISIS then bombed two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday in April 2017, first in the city of Tanta and then Alexandria, killing nearly 50 people and leaving more than 100 wounded. This was followed by an attack in May 2017 on a busload of Coptic pilgrims in Minya that left 29 dead. Through striking ‘soft targets’, the series of attacks, the deadliest violence against Christians in Egypt in decades, was widely regarded by observers to have been aimed at both harming Copts themselves while at the same time highlighting the state’s failure to protect its citizens.
Updated: October 2017.
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