Innani a‘taytu ma abqaytu shay'an
(Give me my freedom/Let go of my hand/I have given and nothing remains)
Umm Kalthum, the famed Egyptian singer, in Al-Atlal
Egypt's Copts are an endangered minority. Exposed to continuous and subtle pressures, their numbers are dwindling. Thousands have emigrated; no official figures are available as to their numbers in the diaspora today, but reliable sources count two million living in the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and other countries of Europe.1
Thousands of those who are left behind convert to Islam every year to escape persecution; for example, between 1988 and 1990, 50,000 Coptic university graduates did so.2
Those who stay faithful to their religion in Egypt find themselves increasingly marginalized and alienated in their own country.
Coptic Christians are Egypt's largest religious minority, constituting at least 10 percent of the population, or about 6 million out of 64 million.3 Certain Coptic circles, based on church statistics, put their percentage of the population at 18 percent,4 which would mean they number almost 11 million.
Most Copts live in upper Egypt. They also tend to concentrate in bigger cities and towns, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Asyut, al-Minya, and Sohaj. They are represented in all social classes in Egypt, with a considerable number in the middle and upper classes, a result of their interest in education.5
Over 90 percent of the Copts follow the tenets of the Coptic Orthodox Church which was, according to ancient tradition, established by Saint Mark the evangelist who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century. Catholic and Orthodox denominations (e.g. Syriac) represent 9.5 percent of Christians in Egypt; Anglican Copts make up 0.5 percent.6
As with many problems in the Middle East, tension between Egyptian Copts and Muslims has long historical roots. Indeed, it goes back to the Arab invasion in A.D. 641 which first brought Islam to Egypt. Copts lived with dhimmi status, members of a protected minority but without full rights. Despite idealization of the dhimmi system by some modern writers, the dhimmi system was, in fact, a system of political exclusion, economic exploitation, religious persecution, and social degradation.
In the nineteenth century, the Copts' position began to improve under the stability and tolerance of the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty.7 The Western powers also began to pressure the Ottoman Empire and Egypt to improve the plight of their Christian subjects. As a result of the Crimean War (1853-56), the Copts saw the dawn of their emancipation. Their main mark of inferiority, the jizya tax, was lifted in 1855, and in the same year they were allowed to join the army. In 1856, Sultan ‘Abd al-Majid (r. 1839-1861) issued the Hatt-i Humayun decree, conceding in principle of equality before the law of all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire regardless of religion. In 1866, the Copts served in the inaugural session of the Consultative Council, establishing a process of Coptic integration into the Egyptian political system.8 Ensured of their political rights, and freed from all social restraints, the Copts flourished. This Coptic civil revival was accompanied by a religious awakening, triggered by their enlightened Patriarch, Cyril IV (1854-1861), and it had the effect of raising their moral and educational standards, and a kindling re-discovery of their distinct identity.
Despite this reawakening of Coptic identity, the twentieth century has seen distinct periods of extreme hostility between the Copts and the Muslim majority. The British high commissioner, Sir Eldon Gorst (1907-11), in an effort to placate the Muslim majority, introduced a system that effectively barred Copts from senior government positions.9 Muslims hardened their position against the Copts, adopting the idea that Egypt is a Muslim country and that it is scandalous for Copts to discuss their problems outside Egypt.10 In protest, the Copts convened an historic Congress in Asyut in 1911, demanding better representation; equal access to civil service positions; equal access to state education; provision of Christian religious instruction in state schools; and designation of Sunday as a holiday. The British occupation and the Muslim majority described the Coptic demands as "fabricated grievances"11 and rejected them all.
Things then improved with the 1919 Revolution, when Copts and Muslims, united against the British occupation, worked together to build a new political order and mutual relationship. Neither before or since has Egypt witnessed such an upsurge in fraternization between Copts and Muslims, the credit for which goes largely to two Muslims: Ahmad Lutfi as-Sayyid (1872-1963) was the enlightened father of Egyptian patriotism who emphasized that "Egypt is for the Egyptians," and that religion should have no role in Egyptian politics; he was, perhaps, the first Egyptian Muslim to suggest that the Egyptian character was built around a Pharoanic core, rather than an Arabic one.12 Sa‘d Zaghlul (1856-1927) was the leader of the revolution; "His tolerance and lack of any connection with pre-war communal tensions inspired the Copts to trust him and Muslims to welcome Coptic participation."13 When Copts joined the revolution with enthusiasm, they reaped the harvest of their good work in the 1920s and figured prominently in the post-revolutionary era. This proved to be the last peak of Coptic-Muslim relations.
By the 1930s, Islamist influence was on the increase, with the inevitable costs for Copts. "A natural accompaniment to the use of Islam was sectarian propaganda, which was aimed at the new role the Copts were attempting to play in the society and polity. This auxiliary weapon was potentially extremely damaging to both opponents and the political system."14 What appeared in Egypt in the 1930s was, however, more than the usual ethnic propaganda (unflattering statements, sporadic violence); "it was a more concerted and organized attempt to gain and keep power, in part by relying on prejudices. This new outlook threatened to upset the new and fragile political system."15
This dark period of the Coptic-Muslim relationship continued for more than two decades, ending only with the 1952 revolution. But the autocratic rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser merely suppressed the Islamic elements of discord in Egyptian society, without addressing the roots of the Coptic question – namely the exclusion of the Copts from the Egyptian polity. In retrospect, Abdel Nasser only complicated matters by adding a new political factor—Arab nationalism—into the Egyptian polity which further alienated the non-Arab Copts. Furthermore, his misguided nationalization policy, introduced in 1961, hit the Copts hard and led to the loss of 75 percent of their work and property.16 As a result, by the time of Abdel Nasser's death in 1970, the Copts found themselves in a much worse situation than just a decade earlier. Things then got even worse when Anwar as-Sadat followed and implemented policies friendly toward Islamism, as enshrined in the 1971 constitution that proclaimed "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic its official language, and the principles of the Islamic Shari‘a a principal source of legislation." (Article 2). The 1980 constitution went a step further and made the Shari‘a the principal source of legislation. This introduction of the Shari‘a as a principal source of legislation was entirely novel—and it alarmed Copts, who saw in it the transformation of Egypt from a secular-style state into an Islamic theocracy with a return to the dhimmi status, so deeply at odds with the modern concepts of equality, freedom, and fraternity.
Sectarian strife quickly re-ignited. On November 6, 1972, an Orthodox church in the Nile delta town of Khanka near Cairo was burned. When Christians held a special mass at the site of the badly damaged church on November 12, anti-Coptic riots erupted. The rioters destroyed homes and shops of local Christians.17
This incident marked the beginning of a series of anti-Coptic attacks, fueled primarily by the agitation of the militant Jama‘a Islamiya. Growing out of the Muslim Brethren organization, created in 1929, the attitude of the young militants, in the words of the journalist Mohamed Heikal, was quite simple:
If, as continually being told, religion was the basis of the state, they understood better than anyone else what this meant and how to implement it. But if, as seemed in fact to be the case, the basis of the government's policy was not Islam but an alliance with the Americans, peace with the Jews, and fraternization on equal terms with other religions, then they knew who was the real enemy.
Their attitude towards the Copts did nothing to foster religious peace. In their eyes they should be treated in the same way that certain privileged categories of non-Muslims used to be treated in the early days of the Arab empire—as dhimmi
In many cases the Egyptian police and security forces showed either incompetence in preventing the attacks, or even worse, collusion with the attackers.19 According to Baha' ad-Din Hasan of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, "There is only one priority for the security services, to defend the regime, but not to defend civil society against anti-democratic groups."20 Since 1981 more than thirty massacres of Copts have taken place,21 leading to the deaths of more than two hundred persons, as documented by human rights organizations.22 The attacks continue and are getting worse because they are no longer confined to terrorists. For example, on January 1-3, 2000, Muslim villagers of Al-Kosheh in upper Egypt killed twenty-one Coptic men, women, and children, and wounded scores of others.23 According to media reports, that violence resulted from a financial dispute between a Muslim and a Christian shopkeeper in the village. Three days of religiously motivated killing, rioting, and looting tore through the predominately Christian village and spread, without challenge from the Egyptian security forces, to nearby hamlets of Dar as-Salam and Awlad Tog Gareb.24 This police laxity and failure to accept responsibility drew criticism from Bishop Marcos, whom Pope Shenouda had sent to the area to investigate. "The local security forces could have prevented the sectarian violence from spinning out of control if police had acted quickly and decisively when the problem began on Friday (first day of rioting)," he said.25 The head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Hafiz Abu Sa‘da, concurred: "The police ought to have secured the village; instead they left it."26
Many Copts see the al-Kosheh massacre as the most pernicious and serious development in the relationship between ordinary Muslims and Christians in Egypt. More than any other incident, it epitomized the criminal negligence of the Egyptian administration, represented in its police force, when it comes to protecting Coptic lives and properties.
While the Copts do have recourse under international law, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequent agreements on minority rights, given the current weakness of the United Nations, these are unlikely to be activated and implemented in the Egyptian case by the international organization in the foreseeable future.
The real international force is not the United Nations but the United States, where a significant change in policy has recently occurred. In 1997, President Clinton proclaimed that the United States would "support the aspirations of ethnic and religious minorities in other nations as they strive for their own right to worship freely."27
In 1998, the United States government enacted the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, sponsored by Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Senator Arlen Spector (R-Pa.), proclaiming: "Governments have a primary responsibility to promote, encourage, and protect respect for the fundamental and internationally recognized right to freedom of religion."28 To aid the new U.S. policy, the act established a U.S. Commission on International Religious Persecution, which submits an annual report, starting in September 1999, with policy recommendations; it also created a new office in the White House, the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring to recommend sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution. The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act also empowered the president to prohibit all exports used to carry out acts of religious persecution29 or to prohibit financial assistance to the sanctioned country from the United States.30 The president can waive the sanctions for reasons of national security.
If it remains to be seen to what extent the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act will assist religious minorities worldwide, in the Egyptian case, it has already had an impact. Egypt has been defined as a "Category 2 Persecuting Country," meaning that persecution occurs there as a result of lack of protection. Partly because of U.S. pressure, the Egyptian government has embarked on reforming its policies towards its Coptic citizens.
The subject of Coptic religious freedom has been raised at all levels, including by the U.S. secretary of state, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, the U.S. ambassador, and other embassy officials. President Clinton raised the issue with President Mubarak during Mubarak's visit to the United States in mid-1999. In February 1999, the secretary of state's special representative for international religious freedom visited Egypt and met with official interlocutors and community activists. Other senior U.S. government officials, including the secretary of defense and the undersecretary of economics, business, and agricultural affairs, had also raised the issue.31
As a result of this pressure, three effects are noticeable. First, the Egyptian government more frequently permits dilapidated Coptic churches to be repaired. In 1998 President Mubarak delegated authority to governors to approve permits for repair of church facilities. A year later he issued a decree effectively placing churches and mosques on equal footing before the law, greatly facilitating church repairs. Secondly, a government crackdown on Islamist militants has benefited the Copts. In sharp contrast to the previous decade, 1999 witnessed no major terrorist activity directed against the Copts.32 Thirdly, since 1996, more than 800 acres of the approximately 1,500 acres of land seized in 1952 by the government from the Coptic Orthodox Church and granted to the Ministry of Awqaf (a government bureau that handles property belonging to Islamic institutions), has been returned to the church and the ministry is looking at ways to return the remaining property.
While credit must be given to Mubarak for pushing through these reforms, it is difficult to imagine that he would have acted in this way had he not been put under considerable international pressure. And many more areas of dispute remain. Attacks and massacres against the Copts recommenced in 2000 in al-Kosheh. Copts are still underrepresented politically and administratively at all levels. They are practically excluded from the judiciary. Discrimination in education and employment is still rife. The media and press in Egypt continue their anti-Coptic propaganda. The state refuses to acknowledge the existence of a unique Coptic identity, and consequently hinders the conditions required for the promotion of that identity.
Events of the past few years do show that Egypt responds to international pressure in matters of religious rights. It is important to realize that Egypt needs the support of the international community, or it will nosedive economically. With more international pressure and the lingering threats that political and financial cooperation will end, Egyptians are likely to abandon the dhimmi system.
In addition to welcoming U.S. pressure, Copts should welcome sensible alliances with Jewish organizations. If the Egyptian government and the Palestinians have recognized Israel, surely Copts need not stay aloof from Jews. There is much sympathy between the two peoples, whose suffering, sacrifices, and needs through the centuries have been similar. Dealing with Jews can be done in such a way that neither threatens Egyptian national interests nor entangles Copts in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a minority in need of international support, Copts can hardly ignore the Jewish voice. And yet, this cooperation should not lead the Copts to forget the non-violent nature of their struggle; neither should it emulate the Maronite model.
What the Copts Want
The Copts have initiated a non-violent civil rights movement in some ways comparable to that of American blacks in the 1950s and 1960s. While fighting the injustice inflicted upon Copts, it sticks to its Christian calling and avoids hatred and violence. The Copts, who have no territorial ambitions, believe in the possibility of eventual co-existence with the Muslims of Egypt. Their demands are moderate and legitimate, as they have been since 1911: equality and freedom within a united Egypt, plus cultural autonomy. They want equality before the law; safety for their lives; security for their property; full economic and social opportunity; and freedom to express their religion, language, and culture without hindrance. They want integration without assimilation. They seek accommodation without incurring loss in the distinctiveness of their identity.
The Coptic movement is concerned with the well-being of all Egyptians, whether Christian or Muslim. But Copts, being excluded and marginalized, cannot contribute fully in the national struggle to advance Egypt until their full emancipation. In turn, the realization of their dream of full equality and freedom in Egypt largely depends on the success of the overall Egyptian struggle for liberalism and democracy. The fight is between the forces of reaction and those of progress; in this battle are millions of enlightened Muslim Egyptians who could be counted as natural allies. The Copts must broaden the objectives of their struggle by fighting, with other Egyptians, for a modern, democratic and prosperous Egypt. The Muslim Egyptians, for their part, ought to welcome the continuing agitation of the Copts for equality and freedom; for religious liberty, once achieved, in Egypt will undoubtedly pave the way for wider respect of the fundamental freedoms of the population at large by an Egyptian state notorious for autocratic, irresponsible, and unaccountable behavior towards its citizens.
Thus is the situation of Copts in Egypt a litmus test for liberalism and democracy in that country, offering the best indicator of the relative strengths of the forces of bigotry and aggression versus those of progress and peace. A liberal and democratic Egypt that respects the human rights of its citizens is an Egypt that can become prosperous and stable. Further, an Egypt that respects international law internally is bound to abide by it externally.
The complete emancipation of Egypt's Copts will meet with resistance from Islamists, making yet more sacrifices and suffering necessary. Even if things do get worse before they get better, Egypt will surely make progress. Eventual freedom for Copts is in the works, and when it finally arrives, it will be a blessing for all Egyptians.
Imad Boles is chairman of the British Coptic Association.
Personal interviews with Coptic religious and civil rights leaders in the diaspora.
2 Stranglehold on Egypt's Christians (London: Jubilee Campaign, 1994), p. 3.
3 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000: Egypt (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2000) at http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/irf_egypt.html.
4 David B. Barret, ed. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 2740.
5 Saad Eddin Ibrahim, et al, The Copts of Egypt (London: Minority Rights Group International, 1996), p. 6.
6 Stranglehold on Egypt's Christians, p. 2.
7 Barbara L. Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics: 1918-1952 (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1986), p. 9.
8 Theodore Hall Patrick, Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Greensboro, N.C.: Fisher Park Press, 1999), p. 133.
9 Kyriakos Mikhail, Copts and Muslims under British Control (Egypt) (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1911), pp. 57-77.
10 Report by the Heliopolis Congress's Organizing Committee, quoted in Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p. 14.
11 Report by the Heliopolis Congress Organizing Committee, quoted in Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p. 14.
12 Salama Mousa, a Coptic intellectual of great stature, attributed in his book ‘Today and Tomorrow' the unprecedented unity, that was witnessed in the 1919 Revolution, between the Copts and Muslims, to Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid; rejecting the claim of some of the Copts that that unity was the result of the World War. See Mikhail, Copts and Muslims under British Control, p. 65.
13 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p. 65.
14 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p.17.
15 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p.17.
16 Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, p.16.
17 Christians in Egypt: Church under Siege (Zurich: The Institute for Religious Minorities in the Islamic World, 1993), p. 20.
18 Mohamed Heikal, Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat (London: Corgi Books, 1983), pp. 230-1.
19 Christians in Egypt: Church under Siege, p. 20.
20 Christians in Egypt: Church under Siege, p. 20.
21 Important ones included al-Zawia al-Hamra (1981), al-Minya (1989), Abu-Quorqas (1990), Samaloat (1991), Ain Shams (1991), Imbaba (1991), Alexandria (1991), Tama (1992), Asyut (1992), Manshyat Nassir (1992), Dayrout (1992), Quina (1993), Alexandria (1994), Quosia (1994), al-Minya (1994), Alexandria (1995), Malawi (1995), Asyut (1995), Quina (1995), Kafr Dimiana (1996), Ain Shams (1996), al-Fayum (1996), al-Minya (1996), Asyut (1996), Tama (1996), Tahta (1996), Abu-Quorqas (1997), Bahjoura (1997), Kafr Zubair (1997), al-Minya (1997), and al-Kosheh (2000).
22 Shawki F. Karas, The Copts since the Arab Invasion: Strangers in their Own Land (New Jersey: American, Canadian, and Australian Coptic Associations, 1986), pp. 107-156, 179-204; Christians in Egypt: Church under Siege; Egypt: Violation of Freedom of Religious Belief and Expression of the Christian Minority (New York: Human Rights Watch, Middle East, 1994), pp. 19-31; Stranglehold on Egypt's Christians, pp. 10-12; Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, pp. 17-21.
23 Al-Kiraza, Jan. 21, 2000.
24 "CNN Newsroom," Jan. 4, 2000.
25 "CNN Newsroom," Jan. 4, 2000.
26 "CNN Newsroom," Jan. 4, 2000.
27 The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 1997.
28 Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, Sect. 2: b, (H.R. 2431, 105 Congress, Second Session, May 8, 1998).
29 Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, Sect. 6: b, 2; 7: a, 1-2, 12.
30 Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, Sect. 7: b, c.
31Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Egypt (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Sept. 9, 1999) at http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/1999/irf_egypt99.html.
32 1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Egypt (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 1999) at http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/1999/irf_egypt99.html.