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Recently clashes between Egyptian Christians (the Copts) and Muslims in Alexandria have brought the simmering religious tension to the front of national and international discussion. The following analysis explains some of the background to these clashes, and the significance of the Egyptian Coptic community to the peace process in the Middle East .

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

By Khairi Abaza and Mark Nakhla

In the third week of October, Egypt saw some of its most significant sectarian clashes in the last five years. Violence broke out as police forces protected a church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria against Muslims protesting a play that was staged inside the church and that they considered offensive to Islam. Sporadic tensions are an expression of Egypt ’s general political malaise.

In this climate, the second annual Conference of Coptic Emigrants (Aqbat al-Mahgar) will take place November 16–18 in Washington . The conference comes amid extensive and controversial media coverage in Egypt , where local voices accuse the conference organizers of being supported by foreign powers seeking to interfere in Egypt ’s internal affairs and tarnish its reputation. The conference organizers maintain that it is a conference for all Egyptians active in demands for more civil liberties and equality for all citizens.

Christians in Egypt are a main component in the social fabric of the country, and the role they play in politics has considerable implications for the country.

Background

Christians make up 10–20 percent of Egypt ’s population of seventy-seven million, though precise estimates of the number of Copts vary widely. By any account, they represent by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East .

Around 90 percent of Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church; other Egyptian Christians are affiliated with Roman Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and other, smaller denominations. There are an additional 1.5 million Coptic emigrants and expatriates in North America, Australia , Europe, and the Arab world, as well as a longstanding Coptic community in Sudan and throughout Africa .

The name Coptic, derived from the Greek word Aigyptos, for Egyptian, emphasizes the national character of the Coptic Church. Its roots date to the origin of Christianity; Copts hold that their church was founded in Alexandria by the apostle Mark in AD 57, making it one of the oldest churches in the world.

The Copts have maintained a strong religious identity throughout Egyptian history, and pride themselves for their contributions to the Egyptian nation and the Arab world. Indeed, they had important contributions in all aspects of Egyptian life—political, cultural, social, and economic. Since the early nineteenth century, Christians worked side by side with Muslims in the creation of modern Egypt . In the 1919 uprising against British occupation, Coptic priests were preaching in mosques—including Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar Mosque—and imams were preaching in churches as a symbol of national unity. The trend continued until the 1950s, when authoritarianism marginalized some segments of Egyptian society.

Today, Copts are still considered critical players in Egyptian society. There are no ethnic or linguistic differences between Egyptian Copts and Muslims; both communities are found in all social classes and in all of Egypt ’s provinces. There is no Coptic province per se, but there are provinces with a larger or smaller Coptic population.

The Turning Point for Coptic Participation

Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup was a turning point for the Copts. Prior to 1952, there had been two Christian prime ministers, several ministers of foreign affairs, and others in key positions of the Egyptian state. Egypt ’s post-coup military leaders marginalized the Coptic presence in the political and administrative systems. No Copt was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, the body that ruled Egypt from 1952 to 1956. Since then, no Christian has held the key cabinet portfolios of interior, defense, or foreign affairs, let alone the offices of prime minister or speaker of the Legislative Assembly. In addition, Copts are underrepresented in parliament, and there exist no Coptic provincial governors (governors are appointed, not elected). In academia, there are almost no Coptic deans in the major state universities, despite the fact that many Copts are highly respected scholars.

As a result, Coptic activists started to articulate demands in order to enhance their situation. Some of their demands include:

•More representation in the political system

•More equality in promotions in academia, the public sector, and the state bureaucracy, including the police and the military

•Removal of religious identification from government issued documents where religion is not relevant

•More straightforward licensing procedures for church construction and equal treatment with the construction of mosques

•More rigorous enforcement of the constitution’s guarantee of equality to all Egyptian citizens in rights and duties

•Greater emphasis on the Coptic heritage and history in school curricula, as well as teaching the values of tolerance and pluralism

•Less interference of the state security apparatus in issues related to the Christian faith

The Egyptian government maintains that there is no targeted persecution against Copts; there are always Christian members of parliament, cabinet ministers, and ambassadors. The state also claims that it does not differentiate between Egyptian citizens on the basis of faith and that there are no laws discriminating against Christians…[Go To Full Story]