The Coptic Orthodox Church under Islam[i]

The Arab Conquest

In Egypt, the last years of Byzantine rule were characterised by inter-Christian strife arising from the continuing rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (451) by the Coptic majority. Having just regained Egypt from Persian occupation (618-628) the Emperor Heraclius (610-641), appointed Kyros, Bishop of Phasis in Kolchis, as Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria in 631. In order to achieve religious unity within the Empire, Patriarch Kyros was also appointed Dioiketes (effectively viceroy) of Egypt giving him almost absolute power to impose his will on the non-  Chalcedonian Copts.

The vigour with which he did this led to ferocious persecution. His Arabic sobriquet Al-Mukaukas, is still a byword for brutality. The Coptic Patriarch Benjamin I (622-661) was forced to flee into the desert and his brother, Mina, having been tortured in an effort to discover his hiding place was drowned in the Nile in a sack filled with stones. For ten years the persecution raged under the tyranny of Kyros who was likened to “a wolf devouring the flock and never satiated.”

It is against this background that the Arab invasion (639-643) took place. Following the capture of Jerusalem and the ongoing conquest of Syria, the Muslim general Amr ibn al-Asi turned his attentions to the wealth of Egypt, which the recent Persian conquest had shown to be vulnerable. In December 639, with a force of only 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers, Amr secretly entered Egypt and within a few weeks had captured Pelusium, the city guarding the eastern edge of the Delta. Without reinforcements he might have easily been driven back by the Imperial army but he was able to advance towards the strongly fortified fortress of Babylon meeting little resistance until Heliopolis, where he won a decisive victory.

The siege of Babylon lasted seven months and was successfully holding up Amr’s wider plans for conquest when Kyros proposed acceptance of a shameful treaty, which involved the surrender of the fortress and payment of tribute in return for the evacuation of the Imperial garrison and their safe passage to Alexandria. Permitted to leave the fortress to seek the Emperor’s ratification, Kyrosreturned to Alexandria before being summoned to an angry reception in Constantinople. The rejection of the treaty by the Emperor Heraclius and the exile of Kyros brought the truce to an end and assaults on the besieged citadel were resumed. Weakened by plague and unsure whether reinforcements had been despatched or not, the final blow to the defender’s morale came with news of the Emperor’s untimely death and the resultant chaos in the struggle for the succession. The defenders held on for a further month before accepting even less favourable terms than those previously proffered, whereby they retired by river carrying only a few days’ subsistence whilst their treasure and arms were to be surrendered to the Arabs. However, before they left Babylon following the Paschal celebrations, they found time to scourge and mutilate those Copts still languishing in their dungeons.

Having secured the strategically important apex of the Delta, the Arabs soon began their advance northwards, defeating imperial forces at Terenouti and moving against the fortified city of Nikiou. The cowardly and weak commander Domentianus (who was married to Kyros’ sister) fled for his life and when the Arabs arrived they found the panic-stricken garrison in chaotic retreat. Having slaughtered the helpless defenders they took the city unopposed and celebrated their victory by a cruel massacre of all its inhabitants.

Over the next weeks the Arabs steadily advanced towards Alexandria, engaging in battle with imperial forces at several stages but each time pushing them back as they moved relentlessly forwards. Although both armies would have received reinforcements, the numerical advantage was still with the defenders. At Alexandria Amr failed to take the city and faced another long siege without all the paraphernalia of siege engines and other necessary equipment of destruction. In September 641, however, Kyros returned to Egypt, charged by the Empress Martina with reaching terms with the invaders. He was joyfully received by the dispirited Alexandrians and one of his first acts was to resume the persecution of the Copts, which had somewhat relaxed during his absence.

Travelling to Babylon in November he concluded a secret treaty with Amr which effectively surrendered the province without a battle. It provided for an eleven-month armistice during which both armies would maintain their positions but all military operations would cease. This period would enable the garrison at Alexandria and all troops there to depart by sea, taking their possessions and treasures with them. Soldiers departing by land would be subject to a monthly tribute on their journey and no Roman army would return or attempt the recovery of Egypt. The Jews were to remain in Alexandria, a fixed tribute was imposed and hostages were provided by the Romans to ensure the terms of the treaty. The only concession extracted from the Arabs was that they would refrain from seizing churches or interfering in any way with the religious affairs of the Christians.

The first that the general populace knew of what had been agreed was when an Arab force appeared before the walls of Alexandria, having come to collect the first instalment of the promised tribute. Kyros died the following March leaving a legacy of bitterness and betrayal. His policies contributed in no small measure to the loss of Christian Egypt. In September 641 Amr, at the head of his army, took possession of the city and inaugurated Islamic rule.

The accusation that the Copts had aided the Arab invaders was long ago exploded by A.J. Butler in his study The Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902). They were in fact too weakened by persecution and lacking in leadership to play any significant communal rôle at this stage, whilst the ineptness and cowardice of the Byzantine administration was the Arab’s greatest asset.

Pope Benjamin I was still in hiding and had to be recalled by Amr, who promised him “safety and fearlessness.”  Impressed with his dignity as a ‘man of God’, Amr authorised him to “freely administer the affairs of his Church and people.” Although Christians were now counted as dhimmis, subject but protected people, by comparison with the last years of Byzantine rule, this was a time of peace and safety. They were free to practise their religion and in those early years churches were built and restored without any difficulty.

The Years of dhimmitude

The new rulers were anxious to secure their latest conquest as well as finance their standing army through regular taxation and this was best achieved by maintaining the social stability of the Coptic majority. The Copts therefore enjoyed considerable freedom in the administration of their internal affairs and the incidence of conversion was remarkably low in the first centuries under Islam. The imposition of the jizyah (literally meaning ‘penalty’) or poll tax, payable by all non-Muslims, was at first no worse than the high taxes imposed previously. The hegemony of an Arab élite meant that even those who converted were still of inferior status and until the time of Umar II (717-720) converts to Islam continued to pay the jizyah, so there was little incentive to abandon both faith and community. As a military government, the day to day administration was entrusted to Coptic officials and notables.

Under the first caliphs and their successors of the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-868) dynasties, Egypt was ruled as a province by ethnic Arab governors appointed by the caliphs in Damascus or Baghdad. A turnover of 108 governors during this period was hardly conducive to either imaginative or creative rule. Their interest in Egypt was largely fiscal: the rich income deriving from agricultural taxation as well as the poll tax on the dhimma.

It was not too long before the social disabilities and humiliations began to bite as the reality ofdhimmitude began to be felt. Only gradually did its burdens become greater as corrupt and greedy officials steadily squeezed more and more from the legendary riches of Egypt. If Amr began his rule justly, his master, the Caliph Umar (634-644 showed little gratitude for the great prize he had been given, accusing Amr of “protecting Egyptians” and slyly implying that this was done for his own profit rather than his master’s.

The assurance that the Coptic Pope could “freely administer the affairs of his Church and people” was soon betrayed. When Pope Isaac (686-689) was discovered to have arbitrated in a dispute between his spiritual subjects, the emperor of Ethiopia and Nubia’s king, the Arab governor was so infuriated by his “meddling” that the Pope was placed under house arrest and churches despoiled of all crosses, especially those made of silver and gold. He ordered large posters to be fixed to the gates of churches declaring Mohammed to be the apostle of Allah whilst Jesus was only a prophet of God and not his son.

Arab governors were notoriously mercurial in their dealings with the Church. The same ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan who imprisoned Pope Isaac also executed a sorcerer who tried to poison Pope Simon I (689-701) and granted him land to build churches and monasteries. It was when he was succeeded as governor by his son, al-Asbagh, that the full scale of Coptic subjection seriously began to be felt. An insatiable thirst for money, abetted by a Coptic quisling named Benjamin who revealed all places where Copts had concealed their wealth, led to extraordinary taxation, confiscation of treasure and the extension of the jizyah to monks. A levy of 2,000 dinars was imposed onto the existing land tax (kharaj) for all bishops. This heavy imposition led to the first serious wave of conversions by Coptic notables anxious to escape such burdens. Yet finance was not al-Asbagh’s only motivation as it is recorded that he reviled Christ and spat at the ikon of Our Lady when it was carried in procession at Helwan.

When the Copts complained to the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) he arrested their spokesmen, confiscated their wealth and sent an even more disastrous governor. On going to greet him, Pope Alexander II (705-730) was abruptly arrested and a ransom of 3,000 dinars set for his release. Churches and monasteries were pillaged, sacred vessels despoiled and monks carried away as slaves to either serve in the Caliph’s navy or to erect palaces for his governors. Those who did not convert fled their homes to avoid the crippling taxes but were brutally treated when apprehended, being flogged and branded, returned in chains, their limbs amputated and property subject to confiscation. The heirs of those who died were disinherited. Even short periods of respite under moderate caliphs were cut short by the rapacity of local governors anxious both to enrich themselves and gratify the caliph during their brief tenure of office. Outbreaks of plague and ruinous taxes to finance the war with Byzantium brought Egypt to the verge of ruin. The Copts had profound grievances but a number of Muslims were also among the rebels.

Insurrection was inevitable and between 725 and 832 Copts rose against their oppressors on several occasions but were speedily crushed. Only in al-Bashmur, in the marshlands of the northern Delta, were they able to resist pacification and engage in periodic attacks on the Muslim army. In 749 the last Umayyad Caliph Marwan II (744-750) brought an army to support the forces already engaged under his governor and carried away in irons Pope Kha’il I (744-767) to Rashid (Rosetta) as a hostage. Undaunted the Copts defeated his forces and destroyed Rashid. In the resulting chaos of the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyads the caliph fled and the Pope and other imprisoned clergy gained their freedom. In 767 an expedition against the rebels was defeated and the government retreated. It was not until 830 that the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) despatched an army under al-Afshin to subdued them and sought the assurance of Pope Yusab I (830-849) that he would act as a mediator for peace. His efforts were to no avail and a further army under the caliph himself finally prevailed amidst great slaughter, wholesale deportations and wasting of entire villages. Describing the Copts, the Muslim historian al-Makrizi wrote:

“From that time they were in subjection throughout the Egyptian territory, and their power was definitely crushed. None of them had the power to revolt or even resist the government; the Muslims were in the majority in the villages.”

The Church was now weakened both economically and socially. An incident during the papacy of Pope Mina I (767-774) records that their churches had only glass and wooden utensils for sacramental use, and that they possessed no gold or silver vessels since they had already been plundered by former governors in times of persecution. Pope Kha’il III (880-907) found himself imprisoned by the governor Ahmad ibn Tulun (868-884) who was misled into believing that he had great hidden wealth. When nothing was forthcoming the Pope was freed on the stipulation that he would pay 10,000 dinars within the month and a further 10,000 within four months. The first instalment was raised from ten bishops but the second sum was never needed as ibn Tulun was struck down in battle.

Direct conversion to Islam as well as intermarriage became the way of joining the new ruling class. It is said that in 744 some 24,000 Copts embraced Islam when the governor promised them relief from thejizyah, which was periodically rescinded. For the first time since the Conquest the Copts were now the minority.

In the time of Pope Cosmas II (851-858) a periodic wave of oppression went beyond increasing taxation and extended to an assault on religious observances. Crosses and bells were smashed; the sale of wine prohibited; churches destroyed and others desecrated with mocking graffiti of the devil and pigs; Copts were prohibited from riding horses and a law was introduced requiring them to dress in black. All Copts were dismissed from the administration and their places were to be taken by Muslims or Islamicised Copts. Once again, considerable numbers of Copts converted to Islam. However, the loss of so many experienced and skilled administrators brought the administration close to economic collapse and many Copts were reinstated.

The Fatimids (969-1171) were a Shi’ite dynasty, whilst the majority of Muslims in Egypt remained Sunni, so during their time the Copts and Jews enjoyed significant positions in their administration, as well as the essential positions as clerks, accountants and scribes.

With the exception of the rule of the mad tyrant al-Hakim (996-1021), when Muslims as well as Jews and Christians were persecuted, the Church hierarchy enjoyed a rare interval of religious tolerance. Caliphs even participated in Christian festivals. Pope Abraham (975-978), in whose pontificate the celebrated Mokhattam miracle occurred, enjoyed close relations with the Caliph Al-Mu‘izz (969-975) when old churches were renovated and new ones constructed. More remarkably those who had converted to Islam under compulsion were allowed to revert to their original faith; a recently restored church in Minyat-Zifta converted to a mosque by an anti-Coptic mob was later restored and Muslim converts to Christianity were not always punished.

Yet their very success with the rulers led to the envious hatred of the lower class Muslims for what they regarded as dhimmis who had over-reached themselves. During the reign of the Armenian vizier of the caliph al-Hafiz (1132-1149) the position of Christians were so comfortable that it was feared that some Islamicised Copts might revert. This may have been a factor in the rebellion of al-Hafiz’s son and the caliph’s brief deposition when Pope Gabriel II (1131-1145) was imprisoned and restrictive measures against the employment of Christians in the administration introduced. However, such measures were unenforceable and a Copt continued as chief scribe with his fourteen assistants comprising twelve Christians and two Muslims. Nevertheless there was a steady increase in the financial burden imposed on the Copts. State intervention in an internal church squabble, which led to the arrest of Pope Christodoulos (1047-1077) and the seizure of his 6,000 dinar fortune, resulted in his prompt release but not the reimbursement of his coins. Under his successor, Cyril II (1078-1092) the kharaj cost the church 4,000 dinars a year whilst the jizyah and other taxes rose and under Pope Gabriel II the jizyah was doubled to appease the mob.

As Fatimid rule began to disintegrate and a general anarchy developed the mob once again showed its dislike for the Christians. Churches were destroyed and monks executed if they refused to accept Islam. The restoration of order brought about by the triumph of Salah ad-Din and the establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty (1169-1252) brought an end to Coptic dominance of public services. Suspicious that the Copts might act as third columnists in the war against the Frankish crusaders, laws were enacted forbidding them from holding office and enacting the sort of petty humiliations which had been introduced briefly under al-Hakim. Bells and crosses were to be taken down from churches, whose walls were to be painted black, and religious processions were banned. Riding horses was forbidden to Copts and ridiculous sumptuary laws introduced. However, once Salah ad-Din had decisively defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in 1187 we find the Copts returning to prominence. The Cairo Citadel was built by Coptic builders, Copts and Jews were allowed to practice as doctors and punitive taxes were either reduced or abolished. Copts were distinguished for their skilled workmanship and records exist of Coptic architects and shipbuilders as well as officials managing the estates and finances of their masters.

Pope John VI (1189-1216) was previously a much travelled and wealthy merchant of the Karimi Guild and his candidacy was urged as much by Muslims as by Copts. His position reflects the relaxed spirit of this period when the social differences between Copts, Arabs and Jews were insignificant. Through the close contacts between the Sultan and the Ethiopian emperors the Coptic Pope was treated with high respect. Yet a curious incident during his papacy indicates the ambivalence of the Muslim authorities. When the monk Abuna Yuhanna al-Makary converted to Islam he was rewarded with the lucrative post of tax collector in the city of Mit-Ghamr. After three years he approached Sultan al-Kamil (1218-1238) clutching a shroud, asking to revert or suffer the penalty of execution. The sultan not only agreed but even issued a decree granting him protection against Muslim fanatics. However, when another Islamicised Copt requested the same treatment, the sultan, fearing he had established a dangerous precedent, sent a messenger to Abuna Yuhanna offering him Islamicisation or decapitation. Not being martyr material he rapidly resumed his former position as tax collector.

Although Arabic had been designated the official language for the administration as early as 706 it was slower to take root among rural Copts. However, as even Coptic peasants were forced to use Arabic for economic survival its spread was inexorable. If it enabled the differences between Christians and Muslims to be blurred it also facilitated conversions. It was during this period that Coptic began to give way to Arabic. Previously Arabic-Coptic dictionaries and Coptic grammars in Arabic had been compiled to preserve the vernacular, but now Arabic was being used for Christian purposes and use of Coptic declined.

A nineteen-year interregnum (1216-1235) coincided with the decline of Ayyubid rule. When Cyril III ibn Laqlaq (1235-1243) finally secured the papacy it was by the appointment of the sultan as a result of his friendship with ibn al-Miqat, the Coptic chief Scribe. The standing of the papacy suffered badly with widespread simony. Attempts by a Church Council to address these issues led to sharp criticism of the Pope but 12,000 dinars artfully distributed as bribes ensured an acceptable verdict. Another interregnum of seven years (1243-1250) was followed by the papacy of Athanasios III (1250-1261) under whom the Mamluks began their long oppressive rule (1250-1517). In the six centuries since the Conquest the number of Coptic dioceses had shrunk from one hundred down to forty and the trend was not going to change.

The Mamluks ruled according to a feudal system and therefore needed traditional Coptic skills in administration and finance. A Copt was appointed vizier in the early years of the Mamluk sultans. Although they appeased public resentment to Coptic dominance in these areas by the traditional face-saving wholesale dismissal of Copts, in reality they were essential to their own control of society and were soon surreptitiously reinstated. Eight times they resorted to this subterfuge! There is no doubt that the sight of rich Copts aroused deep resentment against Christians. An incident in 1293 began when a well-dressed Copt was seen mounted on his horse and leading a Muslim debtor behind him bound with a rope. The crowd erupted and murdered the Copt before setting out on a general massacre of Copts with looting and destruction of their homes. Such outbreaks recurred regularly: in 1301 the Sultan ordered all churches to be closed because of the fear that they were accumulating wealth through the purchase of land and in 1321 some sixty churches and many monasteries were destroyed. A threat by the Ethiopian emperor to come to the defence of the Copts during the papacy of Pope Benjamin II (1327-1339) brought a period of calm when churches could be restored but in 1354 another Coptic administrator was lynched by a rampaging mob. In 1365 the Sultan, needing additional finance for a war in Cyprus, confiscated church properties; in 1389 a number of Copts who had nominally adopted Islam, were publicly executed for reverting to their Christian faith. It is hardly surprising that conversions to Islam became a flood.

When Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) brought Egypt under Ottoman rule in 1517 the Copts had already become a marginalised minority. A modern historian observes, “Recorded Coptic history came to an end by the fourteenth century. This means that between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries we are dependent largely on occasional references by Muslim authors or observations by Western pilgrims and travellers.”[ii]

Modern times

During the brief but notable French occupation of Egypt (1798-1801) Copts played a significant rôle and inevitably one served as minister of finance. Although Bonaparte had declared himself a Muslim to curry favour with his new subjects, Christians were given prominence and Copts undoubtedly hoped that their circumstances would change. As usual, once the French had departed and Ottoman rule was restored, the Copts were accused of collaboration with the invaders and Christian homes and churches attacked. However, what might have been false hope of a new dawn for Copts in reality turned out to be the beginning of crucial and beneficial change as it was the catalyst for the destruction of the Mamluks and Mohammed Ali’s assumption of power.

The new dynasty which ruled Egypt from 1805-1952 not only saw the modernisation of Egypt but the lifting of the worst burdens of dhimmitude, although there was always obvious Islamic ascendancy. The testimony of a dhimmi against a Muslim was inadmissible in court and this led to much injustice. In 1844 Sidhom Bishay, a government clerk in the port of Damiette, was falsely accused of cursing Islam and offered the options of either forsaking Christianity or suffering death. Refusing to abandon his faith he was flogged before being martyred in molten tar.[iii] It is reported that the Khedive ‘Abbas Hilmi (1849-1854) actually contemplated the idea of transporting the Copts en masse to the Sudan and Ethiopia, thereby rendering Egypt completely Muslim. When informed of this project the Islamic authorities issued a fatwa rejecting it and reminding the Khedive that the Copts were the original inhabitants of Egypt whose deportation would be both wrong and impractical.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Copts were described as “the surveyors, the scribes, the arithmeticians, the measurers, the clerks, in a word, the learned men of the land. They are to the counting house and the pen what the fellah is to the field and the plough.”[iv] The dismantling of the Ottoman millet system, whereby each religious community was administered internally, helped in opening up new career opportunities for Copts. The experience of the Copts stood them in good stead in the expanding civil service, although under the British occupation (1882-1936) many Copts were purged, obliging them to find new openings in the professions. The only Copt to become Prime Minister was Butros Ghali, who was assassinated by a Muslim nationalist in February 1910.

The Copts feared Pan-Islamic tendencies of the nationalist movement and at a Coptic Congress at Assiout in March 1910 called for an end to discrimination & full equality. This was not immediately forthcoming but as the movement for independence became truly nationalist it had the effect of uniting Christians and Muslims in a way never known before. The Wafd Party founded in 1919 under Sa’ad Zaghlul (c.1850-1927) for a brief period enabled sectarian barriers to be transcended. The cross and the crescent side by side became the symbol of this short-lived unity. Coptic clergy spoke in mosques and mullahs stood in Coptic pulpits.

The 1952 Revolution promised the abolition of all discrimination based on race, language or religion and at the outset it cultivated good relations with the Coptic authorities. The Nationalist spirit was re-ignited and in the face of the British invasion over Suez, religious leaders proclaimed an “Islamic-Christian union.” The Church authorities voiced no objections to Nasser’s socialist alliances and vigorously adopted a patriotic stand over Egypt’s championship of justice for the Palestinians. In 1954 an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge the new government led to their suppression, although this merely drove them underground and led to their infiltration of the armed forces.

In 1970 Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981) became President. He had been the liaison officer between the officers who had brought about the 1952 Revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood. As he result he regarded the Brotherhood not only as “a useful ally to our revolutionary movement” but also felt that “the dogmas of Islam must be inculcated into all branches of the Army.”[v] A year later Pope Shenouda III became the head of the Coptic Church and energetically encouraged the spiritual renewal, which had begun, under his predecessor, Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-1971). Attacks on Coptic churches by Islamic extremists were growing and Sadat’s reversal of Nasser’s pro-Soviet position in favour of closer links with conservative Arab states meant that Islamic groups proscribed under Nasser were now fêted. In 1977 the Coptic Church spoke out strongly against a Ministry of Justice proposed Islamicisation Bill which would have imposed sharia law. Faced with serious economic and domestic unrest at home Sadat pursued a policy of disengagement from conflict with Israel, culminating in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in March 1979, although this alienated the Islamacists he had previously been courting. In 1980 an amendment (Part 1, article 2) to the Constitution was introduced stating that “the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” Inter-communal strife persisted with Coptic properties throughout Egypt being bombed and awareness that the government was not actively protecting Copts. In 1981 three days of religious riots left at least seventeen Copts and Muslims dead and more than a hundred injured. When the Coptic Holy Synod protested by cancelling the traditional festivities associated with Easter and American Copts vociferously demonstrated during Sadat’s visit to the USA in May, he responded by intemperately accusing the Pope of wanting to erect a separatist Coptic state in Upper Egypt. Eventually Sadat was forced to clamp down on religious extremists and in September 1981 a number of groups were dissolved, the Muslim Brotherhood proscribed and over 1,500 people arrested. These included Coptic bishops and priests and, most notably, Pope Shenouda, who was placed under house arrest at Saint Bishoy’s monastery in the Wadi al-Na’trun. A month later Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists who felt he had betrayed them.

Over the next few years international pressure was brought to bear on the Egyptian government and on 2 January 1985 Pope Shenouda was freed without having made any form of concession or deals to achieve this. He returned to Cairo in time for the Christmas festivities and received a rapturous reception. His treatment and his dignified behaviour throughout had immeasurably enhanced his standing in the world and in the Coptic community. Under Hosni Mubarak, who became Sadat’s successor, Pope Shenouda has re-established a sound relationship with the state as well as maintaining excellent contacts with moderate religious leaders, especially the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Tantawi. At the recent celebrations to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his enthronement Pope Shenouda said, “Love generates love and separation generates separation. Seek to love everyone, everywhere and on every occasion.”

Restoration of churches and construction of new ones has continued at a steady pace in the last two decades but the growing needs of the Coptic community have been frustrated by the antiquated administrative procedures required before even the most trivial repair can be authorised. Under the Ottoman Hamayoni Decree of 1856, as amplified by a Ministerial Rule of 1934, Christian congregations are required to submit petitions for any form of building, repair or renovation of church buildings to the head of state, the Egyptian President. As such rules do not apply to the erection of mosques it is clearly a discriminatory law. Eventually, widespread criticism of this law and the derisory images conjured up at the thought of a head of state concerning himself with such administrative trivia, resulted in President Mubarak delegating this responsibility to provincial governors. Although intended to go some way towards resolving the issue, this was not viewed as especially satisfactory as some governors are seen as hostile to Christians.

Equally, the Egyptian government’s attempts to suppress fanatical Muslims intent on undermining the state have not always left Copts confident that their security is an equal priority. Since 1990 Islamic extremists, who have imposed an unofficial jizyah in some villages, have murdered many Copts. The British Coptic Association has published details of some 85 Copts who were murdered for non-payment between September 1994 and November 1997.[vi] Elsewhere random shootings of Copts are recorded in Nobareia, Alexandria (May 1990); Dayrut, Manshiyat Nassir (May 1992); Al-Moharak Monastery (March 1994); Mere village, El-Joseaa (October 1994), Badari, Ezbat Al-Aqbat (February 1996), Tahta (August 1996), Abu-Quorqas (February 1997), Kafr Zuhair (March 1997), Mahjoura, Nag Hamadi (March 1997), Al-Minya (April 1997) and account for a further 62 Copts killed.

In August 1998 in the village of El-Kosheh in Upper Egypt, where 70% of the population are Christian, two young Copts were murdered. Although the identity of the murderers was common knowledge the local police force rounded up large numbers of local people and subjected them to brutal interrogation and torture. Instead of apprehending the criminals the local Coptic bishop was charged with sedition. To calm the rising communal tension Pope Shenouda issued a simple declaration calling for prudence and expressing faith in the legal investigations, which the government had promised. Unfortunately when it transpired that the police officers against whom charges of brutality were brought, were not only exonerated but also promoted, confidence in the government’s resolve was shaken. It was little wonder, therefore, that on New Year’s eve 1999, a further outbreak of violence in the same village left 21 people brutally murdered (19 Christians and two Muslims), 33 wounded and 81 shops and homes destroyed in an orgy of looting and fire bombing. The local police not only failed to intervene promptly but the local Security forces even apprehended the Pope’s secretary on his way to attend the victims’ funeral and accused him of bringing weapons to arm the Christians. He was eventually rescued by a different contingent of police officers. Once again the police tried to blame the local clergy and a priest was charged with “attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, leading a gang that attacked a number of residents and planned destruction of property.”

This time the Pope was not content merely to say that he had confidence in the authorities in Cairo. A special edition of El Keraza, the church’s official journal, clearly coming from the pen of the Pope himself, spoke of “Our Martyrs in El-Kosheh” and left no-one in any doubt as to his views, “The problem will not be resolved by covering-up, or by painting the victims as criminals !” He called for truth and declared that true reconciliation could only take place “after the blood of these victims receives justice.”[vii]

However, in recent months there have been some encouraging signs. In July 2001 President Mubarak received Pope Shenouda at Ras El-Tin Palace in Alexandria where they had “a constructive and frank meeting”. The Pope thanked the president for condemning a scandalous attack on the Coptic Church, which had appeared the previous month in a gutter press newspaper, Al-Nabaa. Three weeks later the Egyptian Supreme Court intervened to overturn the verdict of the court in Sohag concerning the violence in El-Kosheh.  Commenting on the decision, Bishop Wissa of El-Balyana said, “We think justice can now prevail. There were killers and there were victims and we only want to know who was who.”

In October 2001, Pope Shenouda flew to Al-Tour in South Sinai to lay the foundation stone of the firstofficial Coptic Church in the area. Although there are several major cities in South Sinai, local Copts were forced to travel about 280 kilometres to their nearest church. Requests to build a church had met with repeated refusals. Eventually a small church was erected on top of a cafeteria in Al-Tour owned by the church but in February 2000, only hours after Pope John Paul II had left Sinai, this was stormed by the police, its altar destroyed, the vessels and vestments confiscated and it was forcibly closed. Twenty months later the presidential decree was forthcoming and the governor himself assisted Pope Shenouda in the stone-laying ceremonies.

Today the Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering more than ten million and comprising about 16% of the Egyptian population. Their very survival is a remarkable testimony of fidelity to their Faith. The manner in which the Coptic Church has responded to oppression has only enhanced its moral standing in the world. A government that can redress the injustice of centuries by enabling Copts to stand equally with their Muslim brothers would be a wise one indeed.


[i] This article originally appeared in Byzantine Christianity and Islam: Historical and Pastoral Reflections on the Relationship of Islam and Christians of the East. Copies of this book can be obtained from Eastern Christian Publications, P.O. Box 146, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA ( ISBN: 1-892278-18-9.

[ii] Otto F. A. Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (American University in Cairo Press 1999), pp. 65-66.

[iii] His relics are preserved in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Damiette.

[iv] Lord Cromer, Modern Egypt (London 1908), vol. II, p. 208.

[v] Felipe Fernandez-Armest, Sadat and his Statecraft (1983), p. 50

[vi] The Coptic Voice, Volume I:2 (May 1998)

[vii] The Glastonbury Review (London), No. 102 (May 2000), pp. 181-188.

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