The Copts are indigenous Egyptians who trace their roots back to the Pharaohs. Their presence in the country predates the Arabic and Islamic population, which entered Egypt in the mid-7th century. The word, “Copt,” in modern usage refers to Egyptian Christians, including members of the Coptic Orthodox church, the Coptic Catholic Church, the Coptic Protestant (Evangelical) Church, and any other Christian denomination in Egypt. There are an estimated 10-12 million Copts in Egypt today, or about 8-12% of the total population. This makes the Egyptian Coptic community the largest Christian population in any Middle Eastern or Arabic country.
The term, “Copt,” is derived from the Arabic word, “aqbat,” which was a translation of the Greek word, “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian. In addition to referring to Egypt’s Christians, “Coptic” also indicates the most recent stage of the Egyptian written language script, which descends directly from hieroglyphics. It also describes the distinct style of art and architecture that developed as an early expression of Christianity and continues to flourish in Egypt to this day.
Copts in Modern Egypt
Even though Copts and their ancestors have inhabited Egypt for around 5,000 years, the situation for Copts in modern-day Egypt is dire. While Egyptian Christians make up the largest minority population in the country, they are consistently and systematically deprived of basic human and civil rights. The Egyptian government denies discriminating against Christians, but over the years, many deliberate strategies have been put in place to deny Copts economic, educational and social opportunities, governmental representation, due process in legal matters and basic civil rights. Copts are rarely allowed to advance to top military and civilian posts, they are denied standing in the courts, they are not allowed to construct or even repair churches without express governmental permission and though they comprise 10% or more of the population, Copts hold less than 2% of parliamentary seats.
The Egyptian constitution states that all Egyptians are to be treated equally, but under the law Copts are denied standing in the court system. This unbalanced system results in outcomes like the El-Kosheh prosecutions. In early 2000, 21 Christians were massacred El-Kosheh during an outbreak of violence stemming from a disagreement between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer. In the end, not one person was held responsible for the murder of these 21 innocent victims and the crime went unpunished.
The educational system and the government-controlled media are structured to reinforce the idea that Copts are second-class citizens. There is no Coptic history taught in the public schools and when mentioned in texts, Copts are portrayed as infidels even in early educational materials. The state-run media promotes radicalism and discrimination against all non-Muslim groups, especially Coptic Christians, even though, as a U.S. State Department report rightly points out, “Egyptian Muslims and Christians share a common history and national identity. They also share the same ethnicity, race, culture and language. Christians are geographically dispersed throughout the country and Christians and Muslims live as neighbors.”
The promotion of these types of prejudicial attitudes through the country’s educational system and media guarantees that children will grown into adults participating in a system that denies Copts full participation in Egyptian society. Even though Copts and their Muslim brothers and sisters in Egypt have lived peacefully side by side for hundreds of years, the Egyptian government is actively encouraging a division between the two religions through its policies and practices. Through formal education and media bias, Egypt, a country that formerly treated the Coptic community with moderation and tolerance now has an atmosphere in which intolerance, prejudice and open anti-Coptic sentiments are prevalent.
As job opportunities continually dwindle and state-endorsed civil and human rights violations increase, the Coptic community in Egypt is in grave danger. It seems inconceivable that in the 21st century the Egyptian government is able to get away with this type of institutionalized discrimination against the Coptic community.
Egypt is arguably the most important country in the Middle East from political, economic and strategic standpoints. Its government should serve as a model of fair, democratic treatment of its citizens to others in the region. Instead, the Mubarak regime continues to practice systematic discrimination against significant portions of Egypt’s population.
The Coptic Association of America is dedicated to fighting these types of human rights abuses and to promoting a fair, just and equitable society in Egypt for all of Egypt’s citizens.
The early Coptic Church produced thousands of manuscripts of early Christian writings and the text of the Bible, which had been translated from Greek into the Coptic language in the second century. In the manuscripts that still remain after almost two thousand years are some of the oldest texts of the New Testament in existence. This makes them among the most important witnesses to the earliest text of the Christian Bible.
Another important contribution of the Coptic Church to Christianity was the birth of monasticism, which began in the late third century. Saint Paul was the first Christian anchorite, or religious hermit; Saint Anthony organized the first Christian monastic community around the year 300; and Saint Pachomius wrote the first monastic rule or guidebook. The “Desert Fathers,” as these early monks were called, inspired the foundation of monasteries and convents throughout the Christian world. Many of the hundreds of original monasteries in the Egyptian desert flourish to this day.
Another significant contribution of the Copts to worldwide Christianity was the Didascalia. This famous catechetical school in Alexandria provided some of the most important theologians in the early Church with a place to work out the complex relationships between logic, theology, philosophy and inspiration. Among its more illustrious scholars were Clement of Alexandria and Origen, both of whom had a significant and enduring influence on Christian thought.
The teachings of the Coptic Pope, Saint Athanasius (298-373), were responsible for inspiring perhaps the most important declaration of the Christian faith, the Nicene Creed, which has been recited and revered by Christians since it was adopted in the fourth century. Coptic theologians also played pivotal roles in councils of the early church that established Mary’s status as the mother of God. But the Coptic Church split into two factions after the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century, which led to persecution, torture and even martyrdom of one faction of Copts at the hands of their Christian brethren.
Significantly, Copts made these important contributions despite persecution that began in the earliest days of their religion. The founder of Egyptian Christianity and patron saint of the Copts, Saint Mark, was martyred on May 8, 68 A.D. by Roman soldiers who dragged him through the streets of Alexandria by his feet. Since that time, the Copts have been persecuted by almost every ruler of Egypt.
After the Arab invasion in 640-642 A.D., Muslims began to assimilate the indigenous Egyptian population through intermarriage, conversion and cultural ascendancy. Islamic influence grew along with its population, and later Arabic and Turkish dynasties, including the powerful Ottomans, imposed various restrictions on Christians. A tax called al-jizia was levied against Christians who wanted to marry within their religious group, and in 1856 the Ottomans instituted the famous Hamayouni decree that in essence banned church building and repair. In some cases, regimes deliberately tried to eradicate the language, culture and religion of the indigenous non-Arab Egyptians. An increase in the number policies that were unfriendly to Copts encouraged conversion and emigration, further reducing the Coptic population.
Despite these obstacles and the institutionalized discrimination against Copts in Egypt today, Christians and Muslims have co-existed relatively peacefully throughout the centuries. To this day, Copts and Muslims live in peace as neighbors and often show support for each other’s communities in times of trouble. The Egyptian government, however, is encouraging division between the two communities, especially in the public school system and through the state-controlled media. Growing radicalism and institutionalized discrimination make the situation for Christians in Egypt – and indeed throughout the Middle East – increasingly precarious.
Only through deliberate and focused action, advocacy, education and organization will the Coptic community be able to enjoy the civil and human rights protections that will allow them to participate fully and equally in Egyptian society. And because the Copts within Egypt are denied the power to make these changes for themselves, the Coptic Assembly of America aims to give them the voice and the vehicle by which to ensure the survival of their unique, ancient culture.