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

by Field, Catherine Clare

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Among the philanthropic groups created by the Coptic laity, the Benevolent Coptic Society was
founded in 1881 to promote education and public health; while the Jami‘yyat Thamarat al-Tawfiq
Society begain in 1891 and focused on free education to the poor and opened a professional school
in Cairo in 1906. 59 The societies and professional groupings that sprang from the lay
ogranisations, among them Jam'iyyat Asdiqā 'al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas (Friends of the Holy Bible
Society) and the al-Jam'iyyat al-Iman al-Khayriyyah (Iman Benevolent Society), funded schools
and training colleges across the country and opened to students of all faiths. 60

According to the Ministry of Education, around 92 percent of Egyptian children today attend staterun
schools, which follow the national curriculum. Overall, 95.4 percent of all 6-18 year olds are
enrolled in school. Just over 96 percent of boys attend school, compared with 94.7 percent for girls,
according to UNICEF. 61 Whether these figures are credible, though, is an open question. In 2010,
the UNDP reported that as many as 20 percent of children never go to school, many of them in poor
areas, and 81 percent of those are girls. 62

Similarly, questions arise about the quality and neutrality of education in state schools. In state
schools, all students are required to memorize parts of the Qur’ān in their Arabic studies class and
values such as social justice and equality are taught as religious concepts. One eighth-grade
textbook (13-14 year olds), quotes 3: 85 of the Qur’ān And whoever desires other than Islam as
religion — never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.”


59 IBRAHIM, Vivian The Copts of Egypt I.B. Tauris (G.B.) 2013, pp. 104.
60 ATIYA A.S. The Coptic Encyclopaedia Vol. II, Macmillian Published Company (U.S.A.) 1991, pp. 374.
61 UNICEF Egypt Report
62 United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2010

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In the 2011 end-of-year examinations, students were faced with a compulsory question in which
they were instructed to write a letter to the SCAF, thanking the commanders of the armed forces for
their support in the January 25th uprising. 64

Christian history in state schools is taught up to the period of the Arab invasion and again during the
period of the Crusades. Primary school textbooks include references to Eastern Orthodox
Christians who 'deviated' from the teachings of Jesus. The broader teaching of Coptic history is left
to the Church, where it is treated as a religious subject rather than one of national history.

Religious education in Egypt today neither contributes to acceptance, respect, and mutual
understanding between faiths nor helps students develop a more profound understanding of their
own faith or themselves,” says Muhammad Faoui, Carnegie Endowment Middle East Centre. 65

In the state universities, Coptic complaints of discrimination are more marked, focussing on access
to places and jobs, allocation of resources and islamisation, a trend that began in 1977 when the
ministry of education incorporated Islamic culture in the universal curriculum at Cairo University.

In the early XXth century, Egypt had five religious (Qur'ānic) schools with about 3,000 students,
some of whom would ultimately join al-Azhar Mosque/University to become imams. By 2005, the
number of Qur'ānic schools had ballooned to 7,000, with more than 1.5 million students. Even
considering Egypt's population growth, this is still a huge proportional increase, most of it taking
place since the mid-1980s. 66 Students leaving these institutions tend to have few vocational
qualifications, which affects their employability and thus forces them to work in religion in some
capacity – an example of how a sub-culture of dependency, with its risks of tribalism and
clientelism, can develop.

66 GUINDY, Adel The Islamization of Egypt, Gloria Center, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya
Volume 10, No. 3, Article 7/10 - September 2006.

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According to the Egyptian statistical agency CAPMAS, the country has 17 public universities
under centralized authority. Each has a director and three of four deputies, plus around 274 deans in
Egyptian faculties. In 1972, a law gave the government authority to appoint university presidents
and deans of departments. The law was initially intended to keep Islamists from taking over key
posts in the universities; now it is widely seen as a means of keeping Coptic professors from such
Of nearly 700 president, dean, or vice dean positions in the country’s public university system,
Christians rarely fill more than one or two,” according to the US State Department. 67

“(...) [I]n Egypt there are no Coptic university rectors, faculty deans or security corps officers.
Such partiality fuels fanaticism, particularly in the administrative organs and in state bureaucracy
when it comes to legislation,” notes Coptic Catholic priest Father Rafiq Greiche. 68

Far-reaching reforms are needed if Egypt is to develop a system of education where inequalities and
political interference are removed. In higher education, there is a specific need to reassess courses
and internationalise the curriculum.

67 United States of America : Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2012
68 GREICHE Rafiq, One Year After the Nag Hammadi Massacre, Oasis Foundation, Milan (Italy)
December 2010. egyptiancopts-one-year-after-the-nag-hammadi-massacre

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The revolution has in some respects exacerbated the problems of Egypt's Copts. Yet the upheaval
has also provided the service of bringing these problems into the light of day, where through social
media they can be examined and debated rather than masked, and stirred discussion about how to
build tolerance and pluralism.

The constitutional path

Copts have closely followed the drafting of the post-revolutionary constitution, given its importance
in articulating Egypt's values and form of government, and the country's long history of
disappointment with previous charters.

The constitutions of 1923, 1956, 1971 included promises of upholding 'social justice' but many of
the clauses failed to come to fruition. In the drafting and approval process for the 1923 constitution,
a clause made Islam the religion of state, but it was incorporated with few objections as other
articles guaranteed equality for all. 69 The 1971 constitution set down the creation of an
independent Supreme Constitutional Council (SCC) to oversee the interpretation and enforcement
of its clauses. De facto, it was a rubber stamp for Mubārak, who appointed its members. 70

In December 2012, President Morsi signed into law a constitution to replace the 1971 document.
The new constitution was approved in a national referendum by 64 percent despite criticism that it
was divisive. Morsi's constitution maintained Article 2, a controversial feature of a constitutional
amendment introduced by Sadat in 1980, which states “Islam is the Religion of the state. Arabic is
its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharī'a).”

69 HASAN S. S. Christian Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt Oxford University Press (U.S.A.) 2003,
pp. 39.
70 Texas International Law Journal, Texas Law School on the Egyptian Constitution Vol 47; Issue I. 2011.

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This tenet was strengthened by a new article, 219, which declared that “the principles of Islamic
Sharī'a include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence and credible sources
accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.” 71

Suspicious of creeping Islamisation, many Copts felt these clauses boosted Islam's role in society
and restricted freedom of speech and assembly. Instead of seeing it as a unifying factor for the
country, they perceived it as attempt to drive them into a 'neo-dhimmi' status, marginalising them
and burdening them with new inequalities.

The military suspended the constitution in mid-2013 and set up a new constitutional committee of
50 mostly secular-leaning delegates from a range of social and political groupings to start a
redrafting process. The wider mix of representatives raised hopes that, this time around, the
constitutional process will reflect consensus and include clauses that protect against the abuses of
majority rule. As post-apartheid South Africa has shown, a drafting process that is inclusive and
transparent and harnesses the competing dynamics helps to lessen ancient tensions and encourage

Outside organisations and monitoring groups such as the United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights, Amnesty International and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom
remain cautious. They say that any charter needs to be backed by laws that implement international
covenants on religious worship and freedom that the country has already ratified. 72

71 Egypt Government Information Services website
72 US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) March 2013.

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Grassroots Initiatives

While some activists see a secular constitution as the best hopes for tolerance, others advocate a
bottom-up approach to improved sectarian relations. The 'Al-Ikha’ al-dini' religious fraternity,
formally recognised in 1978 but with origins dating back to the late 1930s, has long pioneered
dialogue between Christians and Muslims through meetings and seminars. Since early 2011, a
number of citizens' initiatives have also sprung up with a similar goal of weaving contacts across
the sectarian divide. 73

The 1 January 2011 bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria which left at least 21 people
dead and more than 70 injured was a trigger to launch numerous projects to promote understanding
between Christians and Muslims. Six days after the attack, thousands of Muslims turned out to act
as human shields as Christians gathered to celebrate Coptic Christmas Eve.

We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a
Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night,
and who has been credited with first floating the 'human shield' idea.” 74

Also present that day as a human shield was a charismatic Muslim television preacher Amr Khaled.
Khaled who subsequently launched the 'Internet Free of Sectarian Strife' forum, an initiative to
counter rumours disseminated on the Web.

73 FITZGERALD M.L. Fr. Interreligious Relations in Egypt : Possibilities and Limitations, Speech
given Alexandria (Egypt) 15 April 2010.
74 Al-Ahram Online 7 Jan. 2011 Egypt's Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as "human

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Among the suggestions : “Do not use blanket generalizations, foul language, or promote rumours
without credible sources. Do not use sarcasm or videos that could heighten tensions or encourage
violent opinions. Rather, Christians and Muslims ought to foster peace, compassion, and respect
for others' faith. We may disagree on teachings, but we must respect each other. And one final,
simple, wise counsel: never post an opinion while angry.” 75

In July 2011, Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest seat of Sunni Islam, launched the 'Egyptian Family House'
initiative, led by the Coptic Patriach and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The aim is to bring together
Muslim and Christian scholars, develop awareness campaigns and initiate dialogue between local
priests, imams, police and local officials. “The committee will be a voice of Al-Azhar and the
Church to show Islam’s tolerance towards Christians and Christianity’s tolerance towards non-
Christians,” said Sheik al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. 76

Among the groups operating at grassroots rather than institutional level is Taha Hussein Association
for Civic Education which operates a network of programmes in schools. There is also the 'Salafyo
Costa,' an inter-faith initiative bringing together Egyptians of different religions, sects and political
orientations. The group, comprising a third Christians, a third Salafi and third secular Muslims, was
set up in central Cairo's Costa coffee shop. It has around 130 core members, but claims an online
following of 21,000. It organises community-based initiatives such as health camps, sports matches
and conflict mediation; it also distributes food and blankets to the needy. In March 2011, the group
organised a football match between Salafists and Christians in the town of Qena, 60 kilometres
from Luxor; a year later it organised Salafi-Copt football match in Cairo. 77


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Other initiatives include the 'Tolerance Train,' which was partly funded by the Friedrich Naumann
Foundation in Germany. The Tolerance Train involves two young Egyptian men – one a Muslim,
one a Christian – travelling through Egypt by public transport and visiting places of importance to
each religion. The two blog on their travels and hold round-table discussions with communities
along their journey.

Community based organisations such as Taha Hussein Association for Civic Education, Tolerance
Train and Salafyo Costa are useful tools in nuturing social awareness and enhancing the individual's

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Towards a secular state?

In the 1950s, the notion of a separation of religion and politics was a hallmark of Arab modernity
and the Pan-Arab movement. President Gamal Abdel Nasser actively courted an educated elite who
had no appetite for an Islamic caliphate and allowed them to promote a secular vision of Egypt.
Crucially, during that period, secularism was used as a notion of the state and as a vehicle for
national unity and not, as we see in 2013, the idea of the composition of society.

The concept of a separation of politics and religion faded in Egypt after Nasser's death and efforts to
foster a sustained large-scale organised political movement to champion secularism were never
successful. During the Mubārak era, those promoters of the secular state who commanded
significant support, such as the sociologist Sa'ad Eddīn Ibrāhīm and the politician Ayman Nour,
were subjected to harassment and imprisonment by the authorities.

“The Arab nationalism of Nasser left a strong sense of Egypt as an Arab country; the surge in
Islamic feeling has compelled the state to assert its deep commitment to Islam,” notes Mark Purcell
“When different imaginations of national territory share and lay claim to the same physical space,
conflict is the likely result.” 78

On 8 June 1992 one of Egypt's most outspoken secularists, the author Farag Fouda, was
assassinated by members of the militant group al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya. In his writings, Fouda had
accused the government of yielding to religious demagoguery, such as allowing offices in
government buildings to be used for prayers or discussions on the Qur'ān. Only secularism could
protect personal and religious freedoms, he argued in one of his most famous works, 'The Absent
Truth.' 79

78 PURCELL, Mark A Place for the Copts : Imagined Territory and Spatial Conflict in Egypt, Ecumene
1998 5 (4), pp.438 & 433.
79 FOUDA Farag. Al-Haqiqa al-Gha'iba (The Absent Truth) Dar al-Fikr, (Egypt), 1988.

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Throughout the Mubārak era, many Copts had become accustomed to being treated as second-class
Egyptians, almost entirely excluded from what passed for political life.

The legal but hopelessly small opposition parties, notably the Hizb Al-Wafd Al-Jadīd and Hizb el-
Ghad, provided some scope for a few Copts to engage in a simulacrum of politics, but Mubārak’s
National Democratic Party scarcely ever fielded Copt candidates. The handful of Copts in
Parliament were almost always there by presidential appointment; only three of the 444 members of
the People’s Assembly elected in 2000 were Copts. Instead, the government treated the Copts as a
politically undifferentiated religious community whose ‘party’ was the Coptic Church and whose
political leader and representative was the Coptic pope. 80 The result, say some historians, is that
the religion has become intertwined with the country's political institutions and sense of identity,
which makes any transition to a secular state particularly difficult.

Even though Egyptians flirted with secular notions of citizenship in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, cultural and legal constructions of who is Egyptian have been persistently based on
confessional lines, elevating the parochial concerns of one faction instead of fostering collective
interests. Celebrated symbols of national unity — like the crescent alongside the cross — have
preserved religious markers as the epitome of patriotism,” says Febe Armanios. 81

“[T]he type of secularism that the Egyptian authorities want to institute is not one where there is a
sharp separation between the state and religion, or even politics and religion. But it may very well
be one where there is a clear distinction between political parties and religion,” says H.A. Hellyer,
of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. 82

80 London Review of Books The Revolution That Wasn't Vol. 35 No. 17 September 2013.

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