by Natalie Milstein
The Coptic Church comprises about ten percent of Egypt’s population and is the largest Christian community in the Middle East. However, 1.5 million Egyptian Copts now call North America, Australia, Europe and Sudan their new home. Why are the Copts leaving their ancestral homeland and will the Arab Spring bring any respite for those who remain in Egypt?
The Coptic congregation traces its roots to the Apostle Mark, who founded the Church in Alexandria during the expansion of Christianity in the 1st century. Islam conquered the region in the 7th century making Egypt majority Muslim. Today there is no linguistic or ethnic difference between Coptic and Muslim Egyptians and both religious denominations contributed tremendously to the growth of Egyptian civil identity and politics.
In 1919, the Copts and the Muslims joined forces to overthrow the British occupation. To symbolize national unity, Coptic priests rallied support in mosques, including in renowned Al-Azhar institutions, while Imams mobilized the Christians in churches. And again in 2011, Christians and Muslims allied in opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
However, the revolution that brought down the dictator in favor of civil liberties only further entrenched disparity between the Christian and Muslim communities of Egypt. Though some argue that the relationship between the two religions has always been inherently imbalanced, a demarcated shift appeared with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. A Copt and a former ambassador to Egypt, Wahib El-Miniawy, asserts that deep-seated Muslim animosity towards Christians begins in elementary schools. He attributes such hateful curriculum to the ignorance of the education minister that Nasser first appointed.
Another schism emerged after the deterioration of the relations between President Anwar Sadat and Coptic Pope Shenouda III in the 1970s; the pope saw that the regime lacked proper channels of political expression and demands for the Copts and encouraged that they turn to the Church to meet their needs. Sporadic Muslim attacks on the Christian communities, often unstopped by the army, led to further Coptic withdrawal into isolation.
Coptic emigrants living in the diaspora began meeting annually in 2004 to demand equality for all citizens, indiscriminate of religion. Year after year they call for more equality in promotions in academia, the state bureaucracy, the police, the military and the public sector. They implore the Egyptian administration to remove sectarian affiliation from government-issued documents where religion is irrelevant. Such conferences evoke ire from locals in Egypt, who perceive the Copts as a fifth column, supported by foreign powers to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
Millions of Copts partook in the Arab Spring in hopes of removing Mubarak and electing a stable, equitable democracy that would proffer Coptic Egyptians with the same civil liberties as their Muslim neighbors and temper the rise in the tide of Islamism. They waited with bated breath to see how the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi would affect the Coptic Church and community.
Though he pledged to the acting pope Anba Bakhomious that he would not permit a condescending relationship between Muslims and Christians, his skirmish with the Supreme Constitutional Court over the dissolution of Parliament is not a promising indication for the Coptic congregation.
Added to a recent spate of Copt arrests for defaming Islam—in the case of Naguib Sawiris, Albert Saber, and others—the “free and fair” elections that placed Morsi in the presidency do not appear to be so free and fair. Only in an Egypt where freedom of expression is cherished can the Copts venture out of their isolation to be integrated members of society. But the current of Islamism, strengthened by the ballot box, may be too strong a competitor for the withdrawn Coptic community.