Document Text (Pages 11-20) Back to Document

The Coptic Orthodox Church : Challenges and Opportunities following the Arab Spring

by Field, Catherine Clare

Page 11

Constantinople's siege mentality worsened and theological quarrels intensified, prompting Copts to
feel little compunction to aid their distant, beleaguered cousin church. “Christian communities
which had rejected the Council of Chalcedon played no part in the Byzantine vision of the orthodox
world but even the Chalcedonian communities in east and west were gradually alienated from
Constantinople.” 10

Coptic leaders' reluctance to accept religious instructions from emperors brought harsh retributions.
Pope Benjamin was forced to abandon the chair and clergy were pressed into denying their faith.
The violence of this early epoch and the throwing off of Roman and Byzantine rule is known as
'The Great Tribulations.'

For some historians, Copts initially benefited from the mid-VIIth century Arab Conquest of Egypt.

Some attribute the early initial favourable intentions of the first Muslim leaders towards the Copts
to links between the Prophet Muhammad and Heraclius, the Muqawqis of Alexandria and Egypt. 11
Some Arabists, among them A.F.L. Beeston, challenge the authenticity of the contents of the

correspondence between Heraclius and the Prophet, although there were links between the two. 12
The Prophet's envoy, Hatib ibn Abi Baltaah, returned from Egypt around 627 and 629 CE with a

present of two slave-girls, one of whom, a Copt named Māriyah, became Muhammad's concubine
and bore him a son who died at a young age. 13 The Prophet is said to have ordered the future
Caliph 'Umar Ibn Al-khattab to respect and protect Egyptians.

As Islamic rule became more established and successive Caliphs sought to stamp their mark on
Egyptian society, Copts were forced to decide between maintaining their faith in the face of hostility
and punitive taxes or converting to Islam. Many chose to pay the jizya, a tax imposed on the Ahl al-
Kitāb, but others yielded. 14

10 WHITTOW M. The Making of Orthodox Byzantium 600-1025, Palgrave Macmillan (G.B)
1996, pp.163.
11 CANNUYER, C. Les Coptes Editions Brepols (Belgique) 1990, pp.37.
12 BEESTON A.F.L. Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyard Period Cambridge University Press
(G.B) 2010, pp. 141.
13 MONTGOMERY WATT W. Muhammad Prophet and Statesman Oxford University Press (G.B.)
1961, pp.195.
14 Ahl al-Kitāb = People of the Book. Religionists such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians who are
possessors of divine books (i.e.,the Torah, the Gospel, and the Avesta).

Page 12

“[Arabs] increased the taxes... And now many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians
denied the holy orthodox faith and lifegiving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Moslem, the
enemies of God, ” John, Bishop of Nikiu, wrote in the VIIth century. 15

By 800, as a result of conversions and intimidation, Copts represented barely more than 20 percent
of Egypt's total population. 16

The financial pressure increased as 'dhimmi,' the specific status ascribed to non-Muslims, was
enforced more and more rigorously. Social restrictions forced Christians and Jews to wear different
clothes from Muslims, and limits on the construction and repair of places of worship were

One of the tools of enforcement was the 'Covenant of 'Umar,' a VIIth-century document whose
authorship remains contested by some historians such as A.S Tritton. 17 Codifying the status of
Christians and Jews in Muslim lands, it was used to restrict the progress of non-Muslims in society,
forcing them into segregation out of fear for their safety.

The policies of discrimination imposed by Caliph al-Hākim (996-1021) were some of the harshest
in Coptic history. They included destruction of churches and monasteries and confiscation of
property. Even so, in common with other Muslim territories at the time, the enforcement of these
laws was not uniform.

“Laws were made, observed for a time, and then forgotten till something brought them to the
remembrance of the authorities. There is no constitutional growth; events move in irregular curves,
not in a straight line. One feels that if events had been governed by logic, Islam would have
swallowed up the subject religions; but they survive, vigorous though battered.” 18

15 JOHN, BISHOP OF NIKIU, The Chronicle of Williams & Norgate (G.B.) 1916, pp.201.
16 CANNUYER C. The Christians of the Nile Thames & Hudson, (G.B.) 2001, pp.63.
17 TRITTON A.S. Calpihs and Their non-Muslim Subjects. A Critical Study of the Covenant of 'Umar
Oxford University Press (G.B.) 1930, pp.233.
18 TRITTON A.S. Calpihs and Their non-Muslim Subjects. A Critical Study of the Covenant of 'Umar
Oxford University Press (G.B.) 1930, pp.233.

Page 13

These small openings led to periods of relative freedom, yet none was ever long enough nor
sufficiently entrenched to give Coptic communities lasting stability.

This Arabisation of Egypt further chipped away at the Copts' identity. The Copts had generally used
Greek and Coptic but by the Xth century Arabic had become the 'lingua theologica' though the
Coptic language still retained its importance for ligurgical purposes. 19 A landmark came in the Xth
century when Sāwirus Ibn al-Mukaffa', a leading Coptic theologian, began writing in Arabic,
claiming few Christians could now understand Coptic.

A series of disputes between Fātimid caliphs and Byzantine emperors prompted sporadic
crackdowns and discriminatory measures towards Copts. During the rule of Wazir al-Yazuri (1050-
1058), more than 1,000 churches were closed, the Patriarch was arrested and taxes on Christians
were increased.

Less than a century later the tide turned once more, and we find Pope Macarius (1102-1128)
expressing his loyalty to the Fātimid rulers who had allowed the church to reopen and even expand
its monasteries. 20 Despite the excesses, the Fātimid caliphs (969-1171) “were generally well
disposed to the Christians” and allowed their art to flourish. 21

In the Crusader period of the XIIth and XIIIth centuries – an era which bred animosities beyond the
Middle East and endure today – the Copts found themselves in the cruellest of positions,
sandwiched between the Franks and Islam.

The Copts refused to support the Crusaders, and the Crusaders themselves felt little goodwill
towards the Copts. Coptic historian Aziz S. Atiya notes that five centuries had elapsed since the
great break at Chalcedon and wonders if many western Christians were even aware of the existence
of co-religionists in Muslim countries – and if those who did know were able to distinguish between
Copts and Muslims. 22

19 MEINARDUS Otto.F.A. Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity The American University in
Cairo Press (Egypt) 1999, pp.56.
20 SAWIRUS ibn al-Mukaffa' History of the Patriarch of the Egyptian Church Vol. III Part 1 La Société
d'archéologie Orientale (Egypt) 1968, pp.35,36.
21 SWANSON M.N. The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt (641-1517) The American University in Cairo
Press (Egypt) 2010, pp.48.
22 ATIYA A.S. The Coptic Encyclopedia Vol. 3 Macmillan Publishing Company (U.S.A.) 1991, pp.663.

Page 14

The Copts, meanwhile, became scapegoats for the actions of the Crusaders. According to Atiyah,
much of the violence against Copts was in the larger towns, where many worked in the
administration, and mobs destroyed churches and seized monasteries. 23

One of the most notable acts of revenge was the destruction by Muslim mobs in 1219 of the church
of St. Mark in Alexandria, the former home of the patriarchal seat. The Copts were also victims in
what became known as 'the last convulsion' of the Crusades in Egypt : the sacking of Alexandria in

The Copts “were pillaged by the Franks no less than were their Moslem neighbours” and at times
fought side by side with Muslims against the invaders. Yet the Crusaders' rampage was an
intolerable blow to the prestige of the Bahrī Mamlūks (1250-1382). The rulers turned their wrath
on the Copts, imposing new taxes and stepping up persecution. 24

Despite this bleak period, an incident occurred in the Fifth Crusade (1217-21) that offers an
intriguing example of reconciliation.

In 1219, as Christian armies besieged Damietta, Francis of Assisi left the Crusaders' camp and
undertook a mission of peace, travelling for an audience with Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil which lasted
around three weeks. To this day, Francis' mission is held up as a template for inter-religious
dialogue; from the Copts' perspective it is doubly symbolic, as it took place in Egypt at a time of
inter-faith confrontation.

The end of the Burjī Mamlūk's reign (1382-1517) and Egypt's incorporation in the Ottoman Empire
(1517-1798) brought important changes across the region, including improvements across many
aspects of day-to-day Coptic life.

23 ATIYA A.S. The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages, Kraus Reprint (U.S.A.) 1970, pp.275.
24 HITTI, Philip Khuri The Impact of the Crusades on Moslem Lands A History of the Crusades : The
Impact of the Crusades on the Near East The University of Wisconsin Press,(U.S.A.) 1985, pp 55.

Page 15

Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) integrated Christian groups into the empire's administration. In his
Egypt, Christians and Jews benefited thanks to their centuries-long reputation as skilled scribes and
took up posts in the civil service.

The promulgation of the 'tanzimat' reforms in the XIXth century, secularised the empire and
introduced the notion of citizenship regardless of religion. 25 It was a move that would turn out to
be a double-edged sword. Mahmud included Christians in a system known as the 'millets,'
which granted non-Muslim communities limited autonomy under the overall supremacy of the
Ottoman administration; the constraints were political rather than cultural. 26

Historians say these changes were a mixed blessing. According to some opinions, the 'millet'
system gave Christians an escape from the 'dhimmī,' but the 'tanzimat' prevented full integration of
non-Muslims into a national life that had become more Islamised. 27 The 'tanzimat' imposed
restraints such as limits on the building of new churches and regulations that Christians could not
bear arms.

Modernisation and social changes introduced by the Ottoman Sultan's viceroy, Muhammad
'Alī (1805-1848), ushered in a new era for the Christians – Copts, Greeks and Armenians – in
Egypt. The dismantling of the 'millet' system enabled Christians to rise to positions of authority in
the civil service.

Although Copts had been present in the administration for centuries, under Muhammad 'Ali they
formed its backbone, occupying 45 percent of posts. 28 Sa'īd Pasha (1854-1863), a successor to
'Ali, abolished restrictive laws, opening the way for Copts to be appointed to high-ranking positions
in the local governorates. In 1855 Sa'īd Pasha ruled that Christians were no longer excluded from
military service and the 'jizya' was abolished.

25 Tanzimat = Turkish : reorganization. Reforms to effectuate fundamental change from the system
based on theocratic principles to that of a European state.
26 Millet = Turkish :system of establishing populations on the basis of religious confession rather than
ethnic origin.
27 Dhimmi = Arabic : People of the Book.
28 IBRAHIM, Vivian The Copts of Egypt, I.B. Tauris (G.B.) 2013, pp. 45.

Page 16

Beyond the administration, Copts also began developing skills in finance and commerce.

“Christian subjects could serve in government courts alongside Muslims in districts where
Christians were part of the population. There was to be no distinction, Sa'īd Pasha declared,
between his Muslim and Christian subjects.” 29

Within the Coptic Church, a reform movement was set in motion in the mid-XVIIIth century by
Pope Kyrillos IV (1854-1861) to counter European evangelists. Kyrillos oversaw various reforms,
including the introduction of sermons, opening seminaries, building educational facilities and the
purchase of a printing press. In 1874, a lay council, the Majlis al-Milli was set up to represent the
Coptic community. 30

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire sowed the seeds of Arab nationalism. Under the early years
of British rule (1882-1914), the Copts remained well represented in the civil service as they had a
higher level of education thanks to newly-established Coptic schools. In the early XXth century,
with Egypt a British protectorate, the Copts' quasi-monopoly on jobs within the bureaucracy came
to an end.

On the one hand, education had become more accessible to the general public and Muslims began
taking positions that Coptic and Jewish scribes had held for centuries; on the other, Britain's
imperial pro-consul at the turn of the XXth century, Lord Cromer, doubted the Copts' loyalty to
British rule, as well as their ability to adapt to a Europeanised civil service. The British also wanted
overall staff numbers to be “more closely proportionate to the population-ratio of Copts to Muslims
in Egypt.” 31

29 Viceregal order, 29 Rab. II 1274/17 Nov. 1857 in Sami, 3/1, p.262. 35. Sami, 3/1, Viceroy/Majlis al-
Ahkam, 4 Dhu al-Qa'da 1274/16 June 1858, pp.283-5; 3/2, Viceroy/al-Maliyya, 6 Shawwal 1286/10
Jan.1870, p.847; Viceroy/Nazir al-Jihadiyya, 28 Shawwal 1286/31 Jan. 1870, p.849. Footnotes of
State-Society Relations in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Years of Transition, 1848-79, F. Robert
Hunter, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp.145-159.
30 MEINDARDUS, Otto F.A. Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity, The American University in
Cairo Press (Egypt) 1999, pp 73.
31 IBRAHIM, Vivian The Copts of Egypt. I.B. Tauris (G.B.) 2013, pp.76.

Page 17

Lord Cromer, noted: “[T]he only difference between the Copt and the Moslem is that the former is
an Egyptian who worships in a Christian Church, whilst the latter is an Egyptian who worships in a
Mohammedan Mosque.” 32

The change prompted many Copts to switch towards professional careers, indirectly creating a
confident Coptic intelligentsia that was not shy to express political views.

In 1918, the 'Al-wafd Al-misrī' (Egyptian Delegation) led by Sa'd Zaghlūl, emerged as the vanguard
for Egyptian nationalism and the fight against the British. Some commentators have painted
the Egyptian National Movement as a glorious era in which all Egyptians mustered behind the
Wafd's political flag.

“The events in 1919 were truly an interreligious collaboration. Muslim preachers were coming
into churches to mobilize Christians, and Christian leaders spoke to Muslim audiences,” notes Febe
Armanios, author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt. “The unified spirit was one of religious
collaboration and support, and among the Copts, both church and lay representatives strongly
believed in mobilization against the British occupation.” 33

Yet not all Copts were happy with its aims, and many doubted the Wafd would nurture ideological
diversity. Their hope was for a secular party, along Montesquieuan lines, in which civil laws should
not serve as a tool for enforcing religious norms.

Some academics point to the period since the toppling of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 as the
starting point of Coptic social and political marginalisation.

32 CROMER, Modern Egypt, Vol. II 206; quoted by The Copts of Egypt Ibrahim V. I.B.Tauris (G.B)
2011, pp.43.
33 ARMANIOS Febe, Interview with Egypt Independent 20 March 2012

Page 18

By 1957, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had issued a decree enforcing the teaching of Islam as a
basic subject in the curricula, including in Christian schools, and then seized the Coptic educational
endowments. 34 Many Copts had much of their land confiscated. Nationalisation laws in 1961
placed factories, banks and other companies under government control.

In 1971 nationalism gave way to Islamic nationalism and Nasser was replaced as president by
Anwar Sadat. Sadat's 'infitāh' economic opening policy allowed Christians to participate in private
business, but this coincided with a worsening economic climate. 35 Christine Chaillot sees the
increase in sectarian violence which began in the early 1970s as a marker for a new phase in Coptic
history. 36 Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany also points out that sectarian strife in Egypt emerges
during these periods of 'national frustration.' 37

In 1971, the first wave of communal violence erupted since the 1952 Revolution. The following
year, in the town of Al-Khanka, a church and the homes of several Copts were attacked, claiming
the lives of 21 Christians and one Muslim.

Sadat commissioned a People's Assembly (Egyptian Parliament) report into the incidents, headed by
the legislature's deputy speaker, Gamal al-Oteifi. The investigators noted the violence had
coincided with public debate on changing the constitution, notably an article identifying Sharī'ah as
the inspirational source of law-making. 38

“Unless we address the roots of the problem, probe the factors that lead to it and come up with a
remedy, the follow-up efforts will stop when things calm down,” their report said.

34 FARGUES Philippe, “Demographic Islamization: Non-Muslims in Muslim Countries.” SAIS Review,
Volume 21, Number 2, Summer-Fall 2001, pp 112.
35 Infitāh = Arabic : opening. A program of economic liberalization to encourage capitalist investment by
domestic and foreign investors.
36 CHAILLOT Christine Les coptes d'Egypt discriminations et persécutions 1970-2011 L'oeuvre
Editions (France) 2011.
37 ASWANY, Alaa On the State of Egypt, Canongate (G.B.) 2011, pp 128.
38 Sharī'ah = Arabic : the path leading to the watering place. Law constituting a divinely ordained
path of conduct.

Page 19

The assessment was accepted by the People’s Assembly on 26 November 1972, but not a single
recommendation for improving relations between the communities was carried out. 39

By the decade's close, Egypt had made further moves towards an Islamised state. In a speech on 14
May 1980, Sadat declared: “I am the Muslim President of a Muslim country.” Shortly afterwards,
Sadat introduced a new tenet into the constitution: Article 2, which stated Islam was Egypt's official
religion and Sharī'ah the inspiration for the country's laws.

By the 1990s, militant Islamism proliferated under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubārak,
fuelled by entrenched poverty and inequality. Reports proliferated of attacks on Coptic churches
and homes and of families targeted for the 'jizya.'

Instability worsened followed the ouster of President Hosnī Mubārak in February 2011 and the
army's removal of his successor, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013.

39 IBRAHIM Sa'd al-Din The road of thorns from Al-Khanka 1972 to Al-Kosheh 2000 Waṭani Feb 2000.

Page 20


Egypt's shifting internal dynamics and the disastrous state of its economy have bred uncertainty
and frustration across most of its population, a brew in which the Coptic community has become an
easy target.

For many Copts, everyday fears have been compounded by a sense of creeping islamisation. “It is
a ... naked struggle for power to assert and impose the supremacy of the Brotherhood's
fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam and wipe out other versions,” the international Catholic
weekly The Tablet said in an editorial. “Copts (have) feared that if there was no room for more
moderate interpreations of Islam, what chance did an alternative religion stand?” 40

An escalating wave of attacks, which began in the final years of Mubārak's 30-year rule (1981-
2011) and amplified after the Muslim Brotherhood was thrown from power, has prompted many
Copts into a painful reassessment of their relationship with Egyptians of other religions and, indeed,
of their place in Egypt.

At least 15 major assaults on Copts were recorded by Amnesty International during Mubārak's
reign. One of the most brutal was on the Nag Hammadi church in Upper Egypt in January 2010,
when gunmen killed six Copts and one Muslim security guard as worshippers were leaving after
midnight mass. At the time, it was described as Egypt's worst sectarian attack in a decade.

A year later, on 1 January 2011, a suicide bomber attacked the Coptic Orthodox church of the Two
Saints in Alexandria killing 23 worshippers and injuring more than 100 others. Archbishop Arweis
of Alexandria, denounced a 'lack of protection' from police at a time when the church had been
receiving many threats.

40 The Tablet In the Eye of the Storm 24 August 2013.

© 2009 All Rights Reserved.