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Investigating the rift between Copts and Muslims in Egypt

The Copts, by Abdel Latif El-Menawy.
The Egyptian regime since Gamal Abdel Nasser has remained steadfast in underplaying sectarian incidents and emphasizing national unity among all Egyptians, despite the occurrence of violent incidents, according to “The Copts” by veteran journalist Abdel Latif El-Menawy.
Author of “Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak,” El-Menawy’s latest book examines the rifts between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. El-Menawy, who was a senior member of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, tackles a very sensitive subject in a remarkably objective and unbiased manner.
“Egypt was fertile ground for Christianity,” El-Menawy writes. In the 14th century, Pharaoh Akhanatun declared an early form of monotheism as the state religion. According to scholars, Christianity was spread among the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, before moving onwards to North Africa.
The name Copt stems from the old name for Egypt, “Aigyptos,” which became “Gyptios” in the native Coptic language. The Arabic word “qubd” is the root of the English word, Copt.
The Romans oppressed the Christians in Egypt, especially under the reign of Diocletian (245-313). The Roman persecution of Christians in Egypt continued even after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. After the Romans came the Persians in 619 and ten years later, the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Heraclius who took over Egypt and reinstated Roman rule.
The Muslims reached Damascus in September, 635. Three years later, in 638, Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab arrived victoriously in Jerusalem. When he entered the Church of the Resurrection, it was time for the afternoon prayer. However, Omar ibn Al-Khattab did not want to pray inside the church and prevented his soldiers from doing so “because it might have sent a precedent for Muslims to begin laying claim to churches as mosques” explains El-Menawy. Therefore, the caliph and his army prayed outside.
A year later, Amr ibn Al-Aas and his small army of about 4,000 soldiers reached Egypt. The Muslim armies were considered to be more courteous than the Byzantine forces and the Roman legions, according to the book.
According to the Coptic historian Severus Ibn Al-Muqafa, “Amr wrote a note to Egypt’s people saying: The position of Benjamin as the Patriarch of Christians is protected by our pledge, safety and security granted by God. He may come in peace to his followers… When Amr saw Benjamin, he indulged him and said to his companions: ‘In all the places we have conquered so far, I never saw a man who looked like this. Then Amr turned to him and said: “Manage all your possessions and all your men and handle their affairs.”
The Arabization of Egypt did not take much time. Within a century, Arabic became the country’s official language and the Coptic language, derived from the Ancient Egyptian language known as “Late Egyptian,” stopped being spoken in the 13th century.
Writer Hasseinein Heikal remarks that Roman and Hellenistic rule governed Egypt for years and yet was unable to enter into the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people.
When the Crusaders arrived in the region, the Copts did not welcome them, despite their common religion. The Crusaders belonged to a sect of Christianity known locally as the “Western Church,” whose beliefs were different to those of Eastern Christians.
This put the Copts in a difficult position because their shared religion with the invaders subjected them to increased taxes in order to finance the Muslim defense of Egypt. Also, because the Coptic community was a natural ally of the Muslims, they were killed along with the Muslims when the Frankish king of Cyprus invaded Alexandria.
By the end of the Crusades, the Copts had proved their loyalty to their Muslim rulers and this formed the basis of a period of co-existence that lasted six centuries. During the Mamluk era, the Copts were limited to tax collection, financial activity and business. From then, the Copts became known for their business and financial know-how. “The Copts were the rock upon which Egypt built its administrative affairs,” El-Menawy writes.
During the British occupation of Egypt, which began in 1882, the British made every effort to attract Copts and they portrayed themselves as the protectors of the Christian minority. However, within a few years, Egyptians of all religions could no longer be subdued by the occupying forces.
“Despite the fact that the Copts only represented some 10 percent of the population, Coptic aspirations were enmeshed with those of their fellow Muslims. Both camps realized that attempts at divisions could not succeed. Crossing communities, the sheikhs of Al-Azhar called for revolution in the churches and the priests preached uprising in the mosques,” El-Menawy writes.
Then, independence was declared in 1922 and, later on, a coup was staged by the Free Officers in 1952.
During the ensuing rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Christians’ citizenship rights were respected. However, when he implemented his nationalization policies, these laws mostly affected the Egyptian bourgeoisie. Although he managed to maintain unity between different religious groups, a decline in the influence of the traditional Coptic elite was clearly visible as many wealthy Copts decided to emigrate abroad.
From the very beginning of his rule, Anwar Sadat had a difficult relationship with Pope Shenouda III, which ended with the latter’s house arrest. Sadat’s lenient attitude toward Islamists increased sectarian clashes between Muslims and Copts. He used Islam to consolidate his power, but was eventually killed by the very people he had tolerated. His assassination was planned by the Islamists he had released from prison. While President Sadat used “surprise, confrontation and a degree of provocation,” Hosni Mubarak was known for analyzing and evaluating his decisions. “He would not rock the system. In practice, this meant dealing with crises and disasters by seeking stability. It also meant the avoidance of unrest by provocation. Change was gradual…rather than through any kind of sudden redirection” writes El-Menawy.
Although Mubarak’s government was more tolerant toward the Copts, his National Democratic Party stopped nominating Copts for roles in parliament and local councils. The Copts also did not benefit from equal representation in state institutions and were not given top jobs in government.
For his part, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has denounced Islamist extremism, spoken in defense of Copts and even had the government rebuild some destroyed churches. However, the author feels that not enough is being done. The Copts, whose cultural heritage predates the 7th century Arab invasion, complain that they are being treated like second class citizens. Some Copts are choosing to emigrate, but many are deeply attached to their ancestral land and refuse to leave Egypt.
The Coptic question needs to be resolved. The state, with the support of the Egyptian people, should play a more active, impartial role.

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