Egypt, the Copts and the politics of prejudice


Newsnet Scotland’s Middle-East Reporter

Due to the current situation in Egypt Newsnet Scotland has removed the personal details of our reporter.

The muddy track snaked upwards through alleys of overhanging, illegally-built tenements and ended abruptly at iron barriers flanking a store selling portraits of the Virgin.  Plain-clothes security waved handheld scanners over visitors and their baggage.  Black-clad police, rail-thin and moustachioed to a man, shouldered clinking automatic weapons.

Even on ordinary days St Simon’s monastery, carved out of a sheer cliff-face decked with gaudy Biblical murals, feels a world apart from the teeming, trash-filled upper streets of Moqattam, Cairo’s so-called Garbage City, which sits just beyond the walls.  But in the hours before Coptic Christmas eve mass on January 6th it – like many other churches across Egypt – was a virtual fortress.

Just five days earlier the bombing of a New Year’s Mass at Al-Qaddissen church in Alexandria had killed 23, wounded over 90, and reawakened Egyptians to their country’s stark sectarian divide.  Mubarak, now in the 30th year of his presidency, had addressed the nation soon after, urging national unity while blaming the massacre on a ‘foreign hand’.

Coptic Christians – who make up around 10% of Egypt’s 80 million population – weren’t buying it.  For four days they had been protesting in major cities along the Nile, from Alexandria to Cairo to Asyut, enraged by the state’s failure to protect them following November’s threat against Copts by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. But the protests also fed on decades of perceived inequalities and capped a tense 2010, marked by periodic clashes between Christians, Muslims and the state over church-building rights, village feuds and allegations of forced conversions.

Moqattam itself saw protests last week, its 40,000 inhabitants, mostly poor Copts still smarting from the loss to livelihood brought by 2009’s state-ordered culling of pigs to stem swine fever.  Calm had fallen by Christmas eve when low-key celebrations were going ahead behind tight security. The service at St Simon’s was a three-hour affair, rich in pageantry, incense and bowed, partly-extemporised prayer.  ‘Christians, Muslims – we are all Egyptians,’ declared Father Samaan to a defiant crowd that filled every booth in the deep-sunk chapel.

In this he hewed closely to the establishment line. Unity has been the buzzword since the bombing, filling headlines and banners alongside juxtaposed cross and crescent, the resurrected symbol of 1919‘s uprising against British rule.  While little has been revealed about the perpetrators – latest state-media reports have suggested an Egyptian bomber with foreign assistance – everyone, from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest, through still outlawed, political opposition, to the Sheikh of Azhar University, the country’s authority on Islamic law, had stepped forward to condemn the attack.

Coptic Pope Shenouda III’s televised Christmas mass counted politicians, Egyptian actors and notables within its multi-faith attendees while a campaign by Muslim arts tycoon Mohamed El-Sawy brought thousands of Muslims out for Christmas eve.  Some attended services, others held candlelight vigils nearby in a show of solidarity.

There’s little doubt that popular outrage at the bombing, though massaged by the media, was genuine.  Many Christians reported spontaneous acts of kindness, even apologies, from Muslim neighbours.  But you didn’t have to look far to find dissent; accusations of hypocrisy at those shocked into proclaiming the brotherhood of all Egyptians yet who helped build the atmosphere that made such an attack possible.

Hani Shukrallah, one of Egypt’s veteran journalists, fired some of the first shots – softened though they may have been by press censorship.  Taking aim at ‘the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims … who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced, inclusive and narrow minded with every passing year’, he also criticised ‘a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them’.  Others, comparing the state’s reaction to the previous Christmas, when six worshippers were gunned down outside a church in Nagi Hammadi, Upper Egypt, believed the unity campaign was simultaneously too late and meaningless without concrete educational and legal reforms.

The Copts – and indeed Egypt’s other Christian denominations – have been feeling the squeeze for decades, reduced to watchers on the sidelines in the careful dance between an autocratic government and its popular Islamic opposition.  Most observers dates the deepening Islamisation of Egyptian society to 1967 and its later adoption as government policy under Anwar as-Sadat, the ‘believer president’, who courted the support of radical Islamists against the left, taking the sharia as Egypt’s ‘principal source of law’ in 1980.  It backfired – Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist in 1981 after making peace with Israel – but his successor Mubarak took the hint and the shift towards cultural conservatism (and indeed ruthless, divisive capitalism) has continued, fed by wider trends: Saudi money and influence and a sense of besiegement linked to Israeli and American actions in the region.

Widely regarded as wealthy, Christians suffer discrimination when it comes to employment in the civil service and the professions and face restrictions in building places of worship, an issue that led to riots in Giza in December.  In a polarised climate, they too have taken solace in their religious identity.  Pope Shenouda’s role has long expanded from spiritual head of the church to political spokesman, something that chafes with Coptic secularists.  Meanwhile expressions of foreign support for Copts, such as from Pope Benedict this week which led to Egypt recalling its Vatican ambassador, are treated with suspicion, reinforcing widely-held views of Christians as a Trojan Horse for western powers.

Popular expressions of harmony between Egyptians often mask divisions.  ‘We say one thing, we talk politely and we don’t mention religion.  Then we move our chairs and talk to friends [of our own religion] and we say something else,’ says Samir Saad, a Christian from Upper Egypt, now living in Cairo.  It wasn’t always this way.  Older Cairenes talk of the 1950s and ’60s when religious identity, behaviour and appearance was a private matter, when only a name – or perhaps a tattoo (many Copts sport a small black cross on the left inside wrist) – might have suggested one’s faith.

Now, with Mubarak’s reign drawing to a close and his successor uncertain, the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose general guide Mahdi Akef said he would prefer Egypt’s president be a Malaysian Muslim rather an Egyptian Christian, has made Copts fearful of their future.  This was the state of play long before New Year’s bombing and Tuesday’s shooting of Christians on a train in Upper Egypt.  Few expect deep-rooted attitudes to change overnight and it’s resulted, until now, in grudging support by Copts for Mubarak and his National Democratic Party.  But the last week has shown a shift: it hasn’t been Egypt’s Muslims that have bore the brunt of Copt anger – instead it was the government.  It’s an intriguing development in what looks like being a tumultuous year for Egypt.


Who are the Copts?

The Coptic Church of Egypt is one of the oldest established Christian churches.  The Egyptian Coptic church split from the Greek Orthodox church in the year 451, when the Egyptian church refused to accept the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon in a dispute over the nature of Christ’s divinity.  Officially known as ti-Eklyseya en-Remenkimi en-Orthodoxos ‘the Egyptian Orthodox Church’, the name Coptic derives from the Greek word for Egypt.  Tradition claims the church was established by the Apostle St. Mark during the time of Nero’s reign as Roman emperor.  The church’s existence in Egypt predates Islam by several centuries, and it is regarded by Coptic Christians as the authentic heir to the ancient Egyptian civilisation.  The Coptic language, a direct descendant of the tongue of the pharaohs, is still used in the church’s mass and liturgy.  

The Coptic community in Egypt
Estimates of the size of Egypt’s Coptic population vary widely, the topic is highly politicised.  Most recent estimates cite the number of adherents of the faith at between 5 to 10 million out of a total Egyptian population of 80 million.  Coptic sources dispute these figures, and claim their numbers to be much higher, some estimate their number as high as 20 million or more.

Copts outside Egypt
Although today the Copts are found mainly in Egypt, there is a significant Coptic community in northern Sudan where they are estimated to number around 500,000.  This community dates to pre-Islamic times. Although an independent church, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia has strong ties to the Egyptian Coptic church and is regarded in church law as a daughter of the Egyptian church.  The Egyptian Orthodox patriarch held the right to appoint the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church until 1959.  The two churches remain in communion with one another. In more recent decades Coptic emigré communities have also become established in Europe and North America. In the USA the Coptic community has become highly organised and lobbies the US government on behalf of their Egyptian co-religionists.

Egypt was conquered by the Arabs in the year 641 and Islam has been present in the country ever since. The Copts are not ethnically distinct from Muslim Egyptians, Egypt’s Muslims by and large descend from Copts who converted to Islam.  The Islamic religion and the Arabic language spread slowly at first, but by the Middle Ages the majority of Egyptians had converted to Islam, and both Muslims and Christians had adopted Arabic as their everyday spoken language. For most of their history, Muslims and Christians have co-existed peacefully in Egypt.