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

by Field, Catherine Clare

Page 21

In February 2011, Mubārak was removed from office and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
(SCAF) took power. Amidst the uncertainty and calls for retaliation, attacks on Coptic communities
increased dramatically, with scores killed and hundreds injured. Coptic homes and businesses were
fire-bombed, priests targetted and churches, the most obvious and vulnerable emblem of the Coptic
presence, attacked by mobs. For some Copts, to worship or perform a pilgrimage, once an
inconspicuous part of their lives, became an act of personal faith and courage.

Among the bloodiest incidents was on 7 May 2011 when a crowd attacked the Saint Mena church in
the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba, demanding a Christian woman they believed had converted to
Islam and being held there against her will to be freed. The clashes caused 15 deaths and over 200

On 9 October 2011, at least 27 Christians were killed and 300 injured when military and security
forced intervened to disperse a group of protesters in front of Cairo's Egyptian Television building,
the Maspero. The crowd had been protesting the failure of officials to investigate the burning of a
church in al-Merinab village in Aswan province. 41

On 7 April 2013, one person died when a mob attacked mourners with stones and petrol bombs
outside the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo following the funerals of four Copts killed in earlier violence.
Coptic officials said there was little police presence outside the Cathedral. The funeral was for
those killed after a dispute escalated into gun battles when inflammatory symbols were drawn on an
Islamic institute.

Between 14-21 August 2013, mobs attacked at least 42 churches, burning or damaging 37 of them,
as well as dozens of other Christian religious institutions in eight governorates. 42 The attacks were
reported as retaliation for the Egyptian army's killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters in Cairo.
That month, for the first time in 1,600 years, the Eucharist was not celebrated at the Coptic
Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Minya during the Virgin Mary fast.

41 Human Rights Watch Report November, 2011.
42 Human Rights Watch : Egypt : Mass attacks on Churches 22 August 2013.

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A common complaint runs through many of these incidents: the accusation by Copts that security
forces failed to protect them or failed to investigate attacks effectively and prosecute those

When he took office in June 2012, President Mohammed Morsi sought to allay fears he would
favour Islamic elements in the country. In a meeting with then interim Patriarch, Anba
Bakhomious, Morsi said he would not allow anyone to “condescend” to Egypt's Coptic Christians.
Rights groups say he failed.

“The Coptic Christians continue to be victims of attacks and harassment by not only radical
Islamists, but also the state. Christians were already being persecuted at the time of Mubarak, but
after the Jasmine Revolution and the rise the power of Islamists attacks against the minority have
increased,” according to Mina Magdy, 27, of the Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic advocacy group
that brings together Christians and Muslims. 43

Coptic researcher Suleiman Shafiq feels the problem lies as much in the lack of legal action in
response to violence and discrimination, with officials preferring reconciliation to judicial decisions.


Shafiq's views are echoed in a 2012 US Department of State International Religious Freedom
Report. “In Egypt, the government generally failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes
against members of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, which fostered a climate of
impunity. In some cases, authorities reacted slowly or with insufficient resolve when mobs attacked
Christians and their property.” 45

44 Al-Ahramonline 1 April 2013.
45 United States of America : Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2012

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The role of SCAF has also been questioned. On the one hand, the military command is viewed as
colluding with the members on the fringe of islamist groups; on the other, some experts say the
problem lies in the Army being a conscript force which draws its numbers from the general
population who have a prejudice against Christians.

In any case, the conclusion many Copts draw is that they cannot count on protection from the state
during times of social turbulence. The fatigue compounds a feeling of isolation and marginalisation
in a country their community has called home for 2,000 years.

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Poverty and demographic pressure

One must look beyond simply sectarian differences to explain the violence towards Copts and their
marginalisation. Poverty, unemployment, concern about rising food prices and lack of opportunities
are also powerful factors.

The protests which spread to Egypt on 25 January 2011 after being ignited in Tunisia the previous
month, occurred in a country that was in many ways a powder keg. In late 2013, more than two
years on, the social volatility which stirred the unrest has worsened.

The main cause, increasingly visible in contemporary analysis of the Middle East, is Egypt's
demographic growth. The population of Egypt increased from 27.9 million in 1960 to 44.9 million
in 1980; in 1990 it reached 57.8 million; increasing to 59 million in 1996; and by 2010 the
population reached 84.5 million, or roughly a third of all Arabs. 46

In August 2013, the state statistics body, the Central Agency for Mobilization and Stastistics
(CAPMAS) reported that Egypt's population had reached 85.2 million, of whom around 60 percent
were aged under 30. Between March and August 2013 alone the population increased by one

As a result, at least 750,000 people enter the labour market annually. 47 During the boom years in
Europe and the Gulf, Egypt could rely on expatriate jobs and tourism to act as a pressure valve for
this extraordinary growth. Tens of thousands of young people found employment abroad, sending
home remittances that were crucial to the economy.

46 United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2010

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In 2008, the financial crisis erupted. The following year saw the start of a contraction in domestic
tourism, foreign employment markets and lucrative export markets. Jobs abroad and money sent
home started to dry up. The state was increasingly unable to respond to the demands of the
population. Almost three-quarters of the national budget is spent on state salaries, subsidies and
interest payments. 48

The consequence, by 2011, was a vast pool of young people who had no employment, housing or
savings. This coincided with a surge in the price of grain, a dietary staple, after a poor harvest in
the United States and other exporting countries. Wheat prices are a sensitive issue in Egypt, where
bread is a staple diet and the bulk of the grain is imported. Poor households in Egypt were hit very
hard. The early slogans of the Tahrir movement were notably directed at hunger and inequality:
'Bread, freedom and justice' and 'Bread, freedom and national dignity.'

48 US Congress Report on Egypt 2013 Congressional Research Service (U.S.A.) 2013, pp 4.

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Unemployment rose from 11 percent in 2011 to 12.6 percent in 2012 and to 13.3 percent by the
second quarter of 2013, according to CAPMAS figures that many analysts see as a bad

In April 2013, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Morocco, Egypt and
Algeria were suffering the highest rates of youth unemployment of any region. Almost two-thirds
of all unemployed in Egypt are aged between 15 and 29 years. 49 In 2010, the unemployment
among those aged under 29 with tertiary-level education was 18.9 per cent, according to the ILO. 50

For any country, having a mass of under- or over-educated unemployed is a great challenge, but
especially so if they are young.

According to Coptic politician and activist Mona Makram-Ebeid, who served on Morsi's Shura
Council, of “the serious social ills, to my mind the most serious is youth unemployment.” 51

In 2011 the poverty rate -- those living on less than US$1.25 per day -- reached 25.2 percent.
CAPMAS figures for 2012 in rural Upper Egypt, which is home to just over a quarter of the
population, show 51 percent are 'income-poor,' meaning they have an income but the standard of
living is below the poverty line. Nationally, 51.3% of Egypt’s young people suffer from poverty,
which amounts to 19.4 million people. The tally of people officially categorised as living in slums
rose from around 12 million people in 2007 to more than 18 million in 2012.

A poll by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project released in early 2013 found 81% of
respondents described economic conditions as a very important priority. Nearly half said economic
progress was more important than democratic progress. 52

49 World Bank September 2013
50 International Labour Organization Global Employment Trends for Youth : 2013
51 Middle East Institute, Washington July 11, 2013.
52 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project (U.S.A.)

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Hardship, inequality and ineffective central government have provided the opening for the Muslim
Brotherhood, whose welfare arm, one of the best organised in the Middle East, has justifiably won it
substantial support among Egypt's millions of poor.

Resentment also provided the spark for protests against a corrupt, authoritarian regime. Yet it can
also be directed against minorities.

In March 2013, Ahmad al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar University, blamed underlying social
factors in both communities for poisoning relations and accentuating radicalism, declaring: “Islam
and Christianity are both religions of love, peace and forgiveness that don't result in the making of
extremists.” 53

53 Asia News 8.3.13.'s-grand-imam,-Christian-Muslimstrife-is-not-religious-in-nature-27337.html

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Church property

Ownership of land and buildings and their use for worship has been one of the Copts' longestrunning

In the mid-XIXth century, a mechanism for controlling Church property was introduced by Ottoman
Viceroy Sa'īd Pasha (1854-1863), a successor to Muhammad 'Ali, which is still partly in force

The 1856 Hamayouni Decree requires non-Muslims to obtain presidential approval from the head of
state to build or repair churches and synagogues. The El-Ezabi Decree of 1934 further regulated the
construction of churches. It set down ten conditions that regulate where churches can be built,
including the stipulation that a church and a mosque be separated by at least 100 metres. Building a
church in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods requires prior approval from the Muslim community
ahead of any formal application, which again must be submitted to the president for approval.

“For many militant Islamists, churches, as the quintessential symbol of a Christian presence in
Egypt, are difficult to accept. Extreme militants oppose both new churches and the repair of
existing churches, since no church should stand in Egypt. Churches establish an unmistakable
kafirun presence in the midst of dar al-Islam; they are out of place; they are an affront to Islam.” 54

The decree was introduced in a series of reforms that aimed at modernising Egypt and bringing
equality between Muslims and Copts. In reality, it means Coptic communities are dependent on the
Patriarch's relationship with the head of state to build or repair churches, and that in any case
approval may only be given after a range of technical and social hurdles are overcome.

By the end of 1957, as part of Nasser's agrarian reform laws, the Church had been forced to hand
over any land measuring over 200 feddans (4,200 square metres) in area, thus depriving it of
valuable revenue.

54 PURCELL, Mark A Place for the Copts : Imagined Territory and Spatial Conflict in Egypt Ecumene,
5 (4) 1998, pp.444.

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In a show of strength on 5 November 2012 Salafists illegally occupied a piece of land owned by the
Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, erecting a sign bearing the words 'Al-Rahma Mosque' and
performing Islamic prayers. The occupation was swiftly ended after the prosecutor general
intervened. 55

The thicket of rules can be seen as clear obstructions to building and repairing churches, and
maintenance of property. A procedural change in 2005, under presidential decree 291/2005, gave
the country’s 26 governors permission to allow Christian denominations to expand or renovate
existing churches, although it does not cover building new ones.

Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-1971) secured permission to build 25 churches each year, as well as a new
patriarchal cathedral in Cairo, in exchange for promoting loyalty to the government. His successor,
Shenouda III (1971-2012), had mixed fortunes. Between 1981 and 1990 only ten permits for new
Coptic Orthodox churches were granted, and 26 for repairs to existing structures; in 2001, 23
construction permits were issued; in 2002 nine applications were approved. No churches were
approved for new construction or repair in 2012, despite applications being submitted to governors,
as currently required. 56

By 2012, it was taking more than four years to get approval for repairs - a delay that is a major
concern, as some churches are more than 1,000 years old - and at least a decade to gain
authorisation for a new church. In 2011, the SCAF pledged it would work towards introducing a
Unified Places of Worship Law to amend the process for constructing and renovating places of
worship and eliminate discrimination, but this has yet to be turned into action. In April 2013, Pope
Tawadros II urged the bill be implemented.

The Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) licenses mosques and pays the the salaries of imams
who lead prayers in them. Many mosques, though are unlicensed. The government does not
contribute to the running costs of Christian churches or the clergy.

55 Asianews 11 July 2012.
56 United States of America : Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2012

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Education in Egypt is a potent force for economic and social development, yet it suffers from a long
tradition of being influenced by religion or segregated along religious lines. It was only in the
second half of the XXth century that free, state education became available to the population. In
many aspects the different emphasis placed on education by Christians and Muslims has contributed
to rivalries and sectarianism.

The Coptic Church and the secular elite were active in education from the earliest time to prepare
youngsters for careers as scribes and bureaucrats in the administration, a tradition that carried on for
centuries. In the late XVIIth century, Coptic elementary schools were teaching religion, good
manners, reading and writing of Arabic and Coptic, as well as geometry and arithmetic because
these two sciences are very useful and necessary on account of the overflowing of the Nile.” By
1848, at least 51 percent of Coptic males aged 5–14 years were enrolled in these schools. 57

By contrast, education in the Arab world was the preserve of the clergy through the Islamic
education 'maktab' schooling system. 58 These establishments operated alongside the Coptic
schools, catering to their specific focuses - memorising the Qur'ān and Arabic orthography -
and limited to only a small part of the public: just a third of the male Muslim population aged under

In the early XIXth century, Egypt's rulers brought in an education system based along French lines
to educate administrators and army officials. Lycées were established in 1816; preparatory schools
in 1825; and seven years later, primary schools. These schools were scaled back during the British
rule (1882-1922) and fees were introduced in state schools. In 1923 primary education was made
compulsory but it was not until 1957 that Nasser made education a priority and allowed free
education in schools and later extended this to universities.
57 HEYWORTH-DUNNE J An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt, Luzac & Co.
(G.B.) 1938, pp. 85.
58 Maktab = Arabic : muslim elementary school. Until the XXth century, maktab were the only means
of mass education. The teacher was not always highly qualified and had other religious duties, and the
equipment was often simple.

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