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

by Field, Catherine Clare

Abstract (Summary)
Egypt's Copts are one of the most ancient communities in Christendom and one of the largest in the Middle East.  The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria claims an unbroken line of patriarchal succession to the See of Alexandria founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist, a Christian group who turned the deserts of Egypt into a heartland of monastic life.   The word Copt stems from the Arabic Qibt, a word based on the the Greek name Aigyptios, meaning Egyptians. Its etymology stretches back to the word Hak-Ka-Ptah which means spirit of Ptah, a deity in Egyptian mythology. Copts make up only a small proportion -- 4-10% today, depending on the source -- of the Egyptian population. They have witnessed Biblical civilisations, Roman conquerors, Byzantine emperors, Christian crusaders and Muslim caliphs, times of plenty and times of hunger, freedom and oppression.    In 2013, the future of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the continuing Coptic presence in Egypt became an acute question, brought into focus by the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist governments.  As it heads towards its third anniversary, the revolution in Egypt has swung from consensus and unity to confusion and uncertainty.  The Coptic Church has been interwined with each phase.   In the early days of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, Christians and Muslims prayed together in the Makram Mosque in Cairo's Tahrir Square. On 6 February 2011 Christians and Muslims joined in a Sunday mass and Salat al-Ghaeb (prayer for the absent) in honour of martyrs who had fallen in the fight.   Yet on 3 July 2013 Pope Tawadros II and Grand Sheik of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayeb, head of Egypt's highest Sunni Islam institution, flanked Egypt's defence minister, Lt.-Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, when he appeared on national television to announce the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, the champion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tawadros's public show of support for Sissi and the military's legal moves to restrict the Muslim Brotherhood coincided with an alarming surge in violence, targeted in particular at church buildings and Coptic worshippers. In this polarising environment, Copts face disgruntled extremists who promote Shariah and who regard non-Muslims, as well as Sufis, as interlopers.   What are the risks for this small, ancient community? What are its options? Can it survive and even thrive, in the new Egypt?     These questions go beyond the borders of Egypt, for they touch at the heart of pluralism and tolerance in the Middle East.   In seeking to answer them, I will look into Egypt's unresolved issue of national identity, the Copts' response to past periods of religious tension; the factors that are helping to drive the country's turbulence; and whether laws or a special status for Copts offer the best prospects for rights and freedoms.
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Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:Henri de La Hogue

School:Institut catholique de Paris

School Location:France

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:Egypt, Coptic Church, Catherine Field, Patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Coptic Orthodox Church

ISBN:

Date of Publication:11/01/2013

Document Text (Pages 1-10)

Mémoire de
Diplôme Supérieur de science et de théologie des religions

The Coptic Orthodox Church : Challenges and
Opportunities following

the Arab Spring

Catherine FIELD

Novembre / November 2013
Institut de Science et de Théologie des Religions
Faculté de Théologie et de Sciences Religieuses
Institut Catholique de Paris
Paris


Page 2

INDEX

PAGE NO.

INTRODUCTION 1
WHO ARE THE COPTS? 3
A HISTORY OF PERSECUTION 8
THREATS AND GRIEVANCES 18
Poverty and Demographic Pressure 22
Church Property 26
Education 28
PROBLEM RESOLUTION : LAW VS. GRASSROOTS 32
The Constitutional path 32
Grassroots Initiatives 34
Towards A Secular State-Society 37
The Coptic Leadership 40
CONCLUSION 43
BIBLIOGRAPHY 47
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 50


Page 3

INTRODUCTION

Egypt's Copts are one of the most ancient communities in Christendom and one of the largest in the
Middle East. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria claims an unbroken line of patriarchal
succession to the See of Alexandria founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist, a Christian group who
turned the deserts of Egypt into a heartland of monastic life.

The word Copt stems from the Arabic Qibt, a word based on the the Greek name Aigyptios,
meaning Egyptians. Its etymology stretches back to the word Hak-Ka-Ptah which means spirit of
Ptah, a deity in Egyptian mythology.

Copts make up only a small proportion -- 4-10% today, depending on the source -- of the Egyptian
population. They have witnessed Biblical civilisations, Roman conquerors, Byzantine emperors,
Christian crusaders and Muslim caliphs, times of plenty and times of hunger, freedom and
oppression.

Milad Hanna, a Coptic writer, says the Copts are one of many cultures that have accreted
in Egypt over millennia. In 'The Seven Pillars of Egyptian Identity,' he describes Egypt as a
collection of 'compounded identities' of Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic, Arab,
Mediterranean and African. Egypt's Islam, he says, has “a Sunni face, Shi'ite blood, Coptic heart,
and Pharaonic bones.” 1

In 2013, the future of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the continuing Coptic presence in Egypt
became an acute question, brought into focus by the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist
governments.

As it heads towards its third anniversary, the revolution in Egypt has swung from consensus and
unity to confusion and uncertainty. The Coptic Church has been interwined with each phase.

1 HANNA Milad The Seven Pillars of the Egyptian Identity Cairo : General Egyptian Book
Organisation (Egypt) 1994, pp.13.


Page 4

In the early days of the uprising against President Hosni Mubārak, Christians and Muslims prayed
together in the Makram Mosque in Cairo's Tahrir Square. On 6 February 2011 Christians and
Muslims joined in a Sunday mass and Salât al-Ghaeb (prayer for the absent) in honour of martyrs
who had fallen in the fight.

Yet on 3 July 2013 Pope Tawadros II and Grand Sheik of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayeb, head of
Egypt's highest Sunni Islam institution, flanked Egypt's defence minister, Lt.-Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-
Sissi, when he appeared on national television to announce the removal of President Mohamed
Morsi, the champion of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tawadros's public show of support for Sissi and the military's legal moves to restrict the Muslim
Brotherhood coincided with an alarming surge in violence, targeted in particular at church buildings
and Coptic worshippers. In this polarising environment, Copts face disgruntled extremists who
promote Sharī'ah and who regard non-Muslims, as well as Sufis, as interlopers.

What are the risks for this small, ancient community? What are its options? Can it survive and
even thrive, in the new Egypt?

These questions go beyond the borders of Egypt, for they touch at the heart of pluralism and
tolerance in the Middle East.

In seeking to answer them, I will look into Egypt's unresolved issue of national identity, the Copts'
response to past periods of religious tension; the factors that are helping to drive the country's
turbulence; and whether laws or a special status for Copts offer the best prospects for rights and
freedoms.


Page 5

WHO ARE THE COPTS?

The story of the Copts has been interlaced with that of Egypt for nearly 2,000 years; they have one
of the oldest continual ancestral claims on the country.

Copts are important figures at many levels, and stud the educated and business elite. Prominent
Copts include former prime ministers Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Youssef Wahba; the writers
Salama Moussa and Lewis 'Awad; the British-based heart surgeon Magdi Habib Yacoub; and
billionaire businessmen Naguib and Nassef Sawiris.

The size of the Coptic population is hard to establish accurately. In 1927, the official census put
them at 8.34% of the total population; it declined to 7.33% by 1960 and to 5.50% by 2000,
according to official figures. In contrast, the Church says the figure is at least 10 percent of the
population, a claim based on baptisms and marriages registered at each diocese.

The remarkably diverse range of estimates also points to different attitudes to the Coptic
community. On the one hand, there are those who inflate figures to highlight the Copts' status and
under-representation in political and civil arenas; on the other, those who want to diminish the
Copts' importance.

A neutral estimate is provided by a U.S. institution, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion
and Public Life, which in 2011 tallied census and survey data rather than religion databases, and
found the Coptic Orthodox community numbered 3.8 million, or 4.8 percent of the 82.5 million
population. 2

What is certain, though, is Copts now represent a smaller percentage of the overall population of
Egypt than before. The causes -- again, poorly researched -- are likely to be lower fertility among
Christians compared to Muslim families, and emigration.

2 Pew Research Center forum on Religion and Public Life Global Christianity: A report on the Size and
Distribution of the World's Christian Population, December 19, 2011.
http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/


Page 6

Copts are clustered especially in the governates along the Nile from Minya to Aswan; in Alexandria;
and in Cairo, particularly in the districts of Shoubra, Heliopolis and Zeitoun. The Coptic population
abroad numbers between one and four million, according to conflicting sources. They are clustered
especially in the United States, where there are 60 official churches, two theological colleges and a
monastery, and in Canada, where there are 15 churches. In Europe, there are 41 Coptic churches in
11 countries. 3

The community's distinctive identity lies not with ethnicity but in its faith. The Copts form one of
the early Christian communities outside the Holy Land, tracing their connection to Jesus through the
flight of the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Egypt. To Copts, the liturgical hymnody acts as a
bridge between Heaven and Earth and carries them from birth to the afterlife. Self-sacrifice and
devotion to the divine mysteries are other cornerstones of the faith: observant Copts fast for more
than 210 days of the year.

3 The Coptic Orthodox Church Centre UK
http://copticcentre.com/ViewPages.aspx?MID=33


Page 7

The Coptic Church was founded by St Mark the Evangelist, who is said to have travelled to
Alexandria for the first time around 43 CE from Palestine and converted some Jews there; he
returned around 60 CE and was martyred around 68 CE.

Alexandria was an opportune choice. At that time, it was one of the major port cities of the classical
world, a hub for trade between Asia, Africa and Europe and a centre of intellectual and religious
scholarship.

“Indian sadhus wandered its streets, debating with Greek philosophers, Jewish exegetes and
Roman architects. It was here ... that a great team of seventy-two Hellenistic Jews produced the
Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament.” 4

In early Christianity, Alexandria became home to the world's first catechetical school, the
Didascalia, and grew into one of the chief sees of the Roman empire. The city's important role in
the infant religion – and its fierce theological rivalry with Antioch -- gave Copts a direct line to the
'faith of the fathers' of the Christian church.

In the late IIIrd century, St. Anthony of Egypt pioneered ascetic monasticism and by the early IVth
century St. Pachomius was establishing cenobitic monasticism. Monasticism remains a pillar of the
Coptic faith and has spread to the wider Christian church. Ironically, Anthony retreated to the caves
of the desert to escape the fervour of the Graeco-Romans who travelled to Alexandria to marvel at
his asceticism.

The Coptic Church is one of five that make up the ’Oriental Orthodox’ group alongside the Syrian,
Armenian, Ethiopian and Malankara Christians who do not accept the Chalcedon Council of 451,
which defined Christ as possessing two natures, divine and human, joined in one person.

4 DALRYMPLE, William. From the Holy Mountain, Flamingo (G.B.) 1998, p.385.


Page 8

“Copts believe Jesus Christ is fully man, fully God, without separation in one nature of God the
word incarnate.” 5 The Oriental Orthodox adhere to the teachings of the first three ecumenical
councils.

Others contend the split with Rome was less theological, and more a break from Alexandria's new
rival, Constantinople, and an assertion of Egyptian national pride. “Egypt's refusal to endorse the
doctrinal decrees tabled at Chalcedon was a nationalistic statement of cultural independence from
foreign occupation,” notes Jill Kamil. 6

According to religious historian Mark N. Swanson, the split allowed the Coptic faith to develop “a
specifically Egyptian church, freed from increasingly problematic ties to Constantinople, creating
its distinctive forms of life and witness within the ‘new Islamic world order.’” 7

The head of the Church is the Patriarch, whose official title is Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of
the See of St. Mark. He is generally expected to be a monk. He is both a spiritual and civil leader,
drawing on canon law and tradition for his authority as head of the Coptic community. The
Patriarchate moved from Alexandria to Cairo in the early XIth century. Some scholars say this
move, shortly after the establishment of the Shī‘a Fātimid Caliphate in Cairo, hastened the
Arabisation of the Church.

The Patriarch has enormous importance in the minds of Copts. He gives the Church an identity, a
sense of belonging and security. He is seen as the father of the community and the symbol of the
faith. Yet Patriarchs are not regarded as infallible on doctrinal matters; on civil issues, too,
Patriarchs have become used to wading into the murkier world of politics, often with consequences
that directly affect the Church. In 1981, the then president Anwar Sadat revoked the powers of
Pope Shenouda III and exiled him to a desert monastery.

5 Bishop Angaelos General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom interview
with Churches Together in England, August 2013.
6 KAMIL J. Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs : the Coptic Orthodox Church The American
University in Cairo Press (Egypt) 2002, pp.190.
7 SWANSON, Mark N. The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt 641-1517, The American University in
Cairo Press (Egypt) 2010, pp.2.


Page 9

The Holy Synod is the Church's highest ecclesiastical body. The Church has a strong structure with
religious observance and social structure intertwined. The Church cares for the spiritual aspect of
life and assiduously plans and incorporates the community into its mission.

Populist traditions are strong, so lay involvement in Church affairs runs deep. The Church engages
in almost every aspect of its parishioners lives : pastoral, official, religious and social development.

The Coptic Orthodox Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services, a social development
agency, has an extensive network of Community Development Centers to help the poor and
unemployed regardless of their religion; it runs rural development, healthcare, and literarcy
programmes; as well as vocational training in trades such as carpentry and plumbing. It works
alongside many foreign aid organisations, such as Christian Aid in the UK.


Page 10

A HISTORY OF PERSECUTION

If Copts feel their history is one of being buffeted by alternate periods of suffering and martyrdom,
that sentiment is largely rooted in fact. As early as the IIIrd century, Roman emperor Diocletian
issued edicts ordering the killing of between 140,000 and 800,000 men, women, and children for
their faith, removed all Christians working in state offices, ordered the closure of churches and
destruction of Christian literature. The Coptic Church calendar starts in the year 284, the
commencement of his reign. It is known as 'Anno Martyrum' or 'Era of the Martyrs.'

A turning point came in 313 with the Edict of Milan, which established religious tolerance in the
Roman empire and placed Christianity on equal footing with paganism. This establishment of
Christianity as 'religio licita' opened a door that enabled Christianity and paganism to flourish side
by side in Alexandria. 8 The Coptic faith coalesced further around the great port city and began
nurturing an independent spirit. Church theologians such as Athanasius and Origen began shaping
their doctrines.

From 395 onwards began a period that became known by some as the Copts' Golden Era. Egypt
was incorporated into the Byzantine empire, and Alexandria thrived on the lucrative grain trade with
Constantinople. The city's power as a trading hub and food source and its distance from
Constantinople allowed Egyptians to be generally freed from the empire's economic demands. 9

This freedom also allowed Copts the space to diversify into artistic areas such as textiles, paintings
and sculpture. The period of peace proved to be short-lived.

8 Religio licita = permitted religion
9 Copts in Egypt: A Christian Minority Under Siege : Papers Presented at the First International Coptic
Symposium, Zurich, (Switzerland) September 23-25, 2004 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht pp.15.

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