Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Plight of the Largest Native Christian Minority
in the Muslim World:  The Copts of Egypt.

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

On Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, the Arab daily online Elaph reported the disappearance about one month ago, of Sarah Isaac, a 14-year old Coptic girl.  The family lived in a small village near Marsa Matrouh, in Northwest Egypt. It turned out that she was abducted, forced to Islamize, and marry a Muslim man. The Coptic priest of the parish, Anba Machomius, explained in an article published in the Egyptian press, that the law does not allow any girl at that young age to be married. Details of the story may be accessed in the original Arabic at this page.

Incidents of abduction of young Coptic girl have become a frequent and painful problem for the Copts of Egypt. They point to the sufferings of a community that has been in Egypt for more than 2000 years. Their plight has worsened after the fall of President Mubarak, and the election of President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  

Reflecting on the continuing hardships and sufferings of Egypt’s Christian population reminded me of a paper I read at the 1978 Convention of the International Society for Reformed Faith and Action, held at the Chapel of Reformed Bible College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The following is the text of my lecture of 34 years ago, with the hope that it would help the reader to understand and sympathize with the serious plight of our brothers and sisters in the Land of the Nile.

The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt. They are the descendants of the peoples who had lived in that land prior to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Since they form the largest Christian minority within the Muslim World, it is very instructive to pay a special attention to their status within Egypt. In many ways they typify the plight of most Christian communities living under Islam.

My sources are threefold:

1: Private communications received from Egyptian Christians. All such documents were unsolicited, and came to me as responses to my daily radio ministry of the Word of God over international radio stations that beamed their programs in the direction of the Middle East, from 1958 - 1994.

2. References made to the status of Egyptian Christians in the international press.

3. A scholarly research published in 1963: “A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts.”

The author, Edward Wakin, was a journalist who showed unusual sympathy for the Copts. Even though almost two decades have passed since the appearance of the book, yet its findings are just as accurate now, as when they appeared in the early 1960s.

While Copts have always had their difficult times under the various regimes that ruled Egypt since the Arab conquest, yet the advent of the republican regime in 1952 marked the beginning of a new phase of subtle and unrelenting persecution. Even though Nasser was perceived by many Arabs as a great nationalistic hero, yet he was at heart a strong Pan-Islamist leader and did very little to make the Christians of Egypt feel at ease.

One must look hard in Arabic newspapers and magazines to find a reference to the national Christians be they Copts or otherwise. Recently, I was surprised by the frank discussion of the problem in an international weekly magazine published in Paris, Al-Mostakbal (The Future). The writer was commenting on the dilemma that faces Middle East Christians who, no matter how hard they try, are not fully accepted by the Muslim majority. As an example, he cited the case of Dr. Butros Butros Ghali. At the time, he was the only Copt with an important position in the Egyptian government. He was serving as under-secretary in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Egypt. After the late President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the accord of Camp David, both the prime minister and the foreign minister of Egypt resigned. President Sadat appointed Dr. Ghali as acting foreign minister. The writer asked the rhetorical question why not a full foreign minister? Well, Dr. Ghali was a Copt. How could he be fully entrusted with the foreign affairs of Egypt? Later on, during the 1990s, he did serve as Secretary General of the Security Council of the United Nations!

The columnist remembered a similar incident that had taken place during the Nasser regime. Between 1958 and 1961, Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic. During one of Nasser’s visits to the northern province of the UAR (Syria), he attended the maneuvers of some Syrian army units. He noticed that several officers had names like Michael, George and John. He asked: "How come you have so many Copts holding key positions in the army?" "Your Excellency,” replied a local senior army officer, "we have no Copts in Syria. These men are native Syrian Christians."

Such references to discrimination that Christians suffer in the Middle East are important and they remind us that the problem is not simply a thing of the past. It is a bitter present reality. According to Edward Wakin, the study of the status of the Copts today is extremely important, for as he puts it:

“Viewed today from the West, the Copts are a major test of modern coexistence between a large Christian minority and a Moslem majority. In the Middle East, the Copts constitute the largest body of Christians in that part of the world where Christianity was born. For Egypt which is trying to mobilize all its human resources into a modern state, the test may be decisive. For a mosaic of minorities in the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, the Coptic story can be read as handwriting on the wall. For the Christians of Lebanon, who are maintaining an uneasy dominance in a country evenly divided between Christians and Moslems, their prospects in Moslem Arab hegemony can be deciphered from the Coptic situation in Egypt. It is a problem echoed nearby in the tenuous Greek-Turkish partnership of Christian and Moslem in the island republic of Cyprus. Involved, besides the Western values for which the Copts stand, is the fate of tolerance and respect for the individual in the vast self-centered world community of 400 million Moslems. On an even larger stage, the Copts share the dream of the world's minorities, ranging from the recent sufferings of Jews and Armenians to such current problems as Jews in Russia, Protestants in Spain.”  P. 4

How prophetic these words have become. July 1974 witnessed the invasion of Cyprus by the Turkish army using NATO supplied arms paid for by the American taxpayer! Two hundred thousand Greek Cypriots were made homeless overnight. No one seemed to care for the human rights of these natives of Cyprus. They had been living in their island for more than two millennia. Turkey must be appeased at any cost, since it occupied such a strategic position near the borders of the USSR! It is a very sad fact that in the analysis of the problems of the Christian in a Muslim society today, no emphasis is placed on the religious nature of his plight. Christians are described in ethnic or hard to recognize terms such as: Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Maronites, etc. While this classification is valid up to a certain extent, the true nature of the problems that these ethnic groups face is not due to their ethnicity but to the faith of their community. This is why Wakin's book is so important. Coming from a secularized culture in the USA, yet he did not allow that factor to forget or minimize the religious nature of the plight of minorities living under Islam. In the final analysis, Middle East Christians are considered as second-class citizens, and sometimes persecuted, because they belong to a community that in Arabic is known as the Messianic minority.

Many things have happened in Egypt since the death of president Nasser in the early seventies. Under President Sadat, socialism was completely discarded; a new policy was adopted allowing many international companies to compete openly in bidding for projects related to the renewal of the economy of Egypt. The terrible defeat in the war of 1967 was avenged by the partial victory of the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) war that resulted in the eventual withdrawal of Israel from Sinai. But one thing has not changed: the Muslim’s attitude to the Copt. The latter is still despised, persecuted, and at times brutally murdered by radical Islamists. Whether the Copt is an ordinary layman or Pope Shenuda, the head of the Orthodox Coptic Church, Muslims look upon him with derision or suspicion. This is why the Copt has identified with the cross, a symbol of suffering more than any other Christian community.

Edward Wakin described this facet of the Copt’s life in a chapter entitled: THE PEOPLE'S CHURCH.

“The cross suits this cruel culture of poverty and persecution, both as identification and an outlet for the Copts. It is their brand and their balm; it gives a meaning to life when there are only blind nature and inexplicable misfortune. If Western Christianity gives prime glory to Easter, the day of Resurrection, deliverance and confirmation of Christ's divinity --- Good Friday is more appropriate psychologically to the Copts. On this day when the cross was born as a universal Christian symbol, modern Copts say "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy upon us) 400 times at home, 100 times in each direction, and flock to their churches.”  P. 136

“While the Copts share the cross with the rest of Christianity, with no other group is its presence so obsessive. This ranges from the Patriarch, who holds the cross in front of himself as though it were both a shield and a weapon, to the ragged village children who run after strangers, with crude blue tattoos of the cross on the inside of their right wrists and crosses around their necks. Whenever the Patriarch appears, Copts rush forward to kiss his cross. The fixation is symbolized at baptism when the infant is anointed 36 times all over his body.”  P. 137

“Crosses are painted over the doors of Coptic houses in towns and villages or formed in bas- relief in mud over the openings of mud homes. Sometimes the house and cross are brick. The Copts, who are fond of reading the family Bible at home, are aware of Exodus 12:13 and the significance of a sign in order to escape the wrath of the Lord: "And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.”  P. 138

“Both Egypt and Islam, like all other countries and ways of life in the modern world, must meet the test of toleration. For Islam it is a moral challenge spread over its proverbial range from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Citing its theoretical toleration does not silence the cry of its minorities. For a Moslem nation, it is the practical problem of using human resources. The Copts themselves, within the microcosm of their history and its manifestations in church, community, nation and minority, present everyman's tale of dream and nightmare, fulfillment and frustration in a world not of their making. Insofar as the Copts have received their due -- without ignoring their blemishes -- this modern story of Egypt’s Copts is an account of the human condition.

At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny wherever it stands, even when the tyranny is elusive and unannounced, even unintended. It begins with labeling injustice long before shop windows are smashed, icons broken, and families torn apart. This labeling is an antidote to the danger of dulled sensibilities in our time and while the Copts can be accused of hypersensitivity, their problem is by no means imaginary. They are feeling pressures that inflict suffering without mutilating, that intimidate relentlessly without exploding sporadically that wound without bloodshed.”

“The Copts are numbed and helpless as well as anxious as their historic cycles of acceptance and rejection, their recurring stages of toleration, discrimination, and persecution move inexorably in the direction of rejection. Persecution is still the nightmare, discrimination the reality in the latest chapter of a long story of a people. They are there in Egypt and there they remain, the "true Egyptians," the "original Christians," the four million Copts of the Nile Valley, that troubled, enduring, lonely minority.”  Pp. 175 and 176

For further information on Edward Wakin, see Fordham University’s obituary or memorial page, University Mourns Edward Wakin, Former Communications Professor (1927 – 2009)

[First published: 9 November 2012]
[Last updated: 12 November 2012]