By Dr. Henry Srebrnik – Summerside Journal-Pioneer, June 11, 2018, p. A4 –
The Copts of Egypt are over 10 million strong and have lived in the country as Christians for two millennia. They are the largest Christian and largest non-Muslim community in the Middle East.
The history of Egyptian Christianity predates that of Islam. Coptic Orthodox Christianity started in the first century when the first church was established in the city of Alexandria. By the fourth century, Alexandria and its popes had emerged as one of the leading pillars of Christendom.
After the seventh century Islamic conquest, however, Egypt has become Islamized and Arabized and Arabic gradually replaced the Coptic language. Slowly the country lost its Christian majority as Copts converted to Islam.
In the eleventh century, Pope Christodolos was forced to move the seat of the papacy to Cairo, which had eclipsed Alexandria as Egypt’s largest city.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is today led by Pope Tawadros II, elected in November 2012. The 118th Coptic pope, he succeeded the late Pope Shenouda III.
Egyptians who have remained Christians today consider themselves the original Egyptians with Pharaonic origin. Thus some Coptic intellectuals argue that Coptic culture is largely derived from pre-Christian culture, and precedes not just Islam but Christianity as well. It gives the Copts a claim to a deep heritage in Egyptian history and culture.
Nonetheless, Christian religious symbols are a means of identity expression for Copts, and the cultural development that distinguishes them from Egyptian Muslims has constructed a Coptic ethnicity.
Some ethnic Copts participated in the Egyptian national movement for independence and occupied many influential positions in the late 19th century. Many became prominent in business.
However, things took a turn for the worse after Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy ad established a socialist republic after 1952.
Copts were severely affected by Nasser’s nationalization policies, and his pan-Arab ideology undermined the Copts’ strong attachment to Egypt and their sense of identity as pre-Arab Egyptians.
Discriminatory state policies and political violence have historically marginalized Copts, particularly in many cities of Upper Egypt and in the Nile Delta area.
In August 2013, following the army coup that unseated the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, there were widespread attacks on Coptic churches and institutions in Egypt, amid clashes between the military and Morsi supporters.
Egyptian human-rights organizations strongly condemned “rhetoric employed by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies which includes clear incitement to violence and religious hatred in order to achieve political gains.”
Samuel Tadros, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, described these assaults as the worst against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.
The violence unleashed on Egypt’s Christians, which in recent years has left hundreds dead, is just the tip of a much more troubling iceberg.
The average Copt suffers from systematic forms of persecution and institutionalized discrimination emanating from all levels and segments of society, including at all levels of education.
Copts have not only been significantly underrepresented in politics but also have had limited opportunities for employment and promotions, compared to the Muslim majority.
Attempts to address this are usually met with denial by Egyptian media and government are underreported. Sometimes Copts drawing attention to these injustices are portrayed as agitators out to tarnish Egypt’s image.
The 2014 Egyptian Constitution defines Islam as the state religion. While it is the duty of the state to protect the religious freedom of Copts in constructing and renovating church buildings, establishing churches has at times elicited violence against Copts in several towns in Upper Egypt.
Like many other Middle East Christians, Copts have a large diaspora in the west. Tadros estimates that over 18 per cent of ethnic Copts now live outside of Egypt.
Gaining converts in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia has proven particularly exciting.
“For 2,000 years, we were the official Church of Egypt,” Tadros said. “Today, we are in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, Sweden, Fiji, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Ghana — we have invaded the world.”
In the past decade, dozens of Americanized Coptic churches have opened across the United States, concentrated in Texas, California, and along the East Coast. There are now at least 450,000 Copts in the U.S. and over 250 Coptic churches in the country.
Canada and Australia are estimated to have at least 50,000 Coptic Egyptians each. Toronto has the largest concentration in this country, while the same holds for Sydney in Australia.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Photo Credit: By Mary Yostos of a visit to the Monastery of S.t Mary and St. Moses in Texas, US