Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

To talk about Egyptian Christians as a “minority” is to open a can of worms. The sensitivity of the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians was evident in 1994 when a conference on minorities in the Middle East, supposed to be held in Cairo, included the Copts of Egypt on its agenda. [1] The uproar surrounding the conference was unprecedented. As Egyptian sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim put it, “It was the biggest public debate in Egypt on a single issue since the Gulf crisis and Desert Storm.” Ibrahim’s Cairo-based Ibn Khaldoun Center organized the controversial conference together with the Minority Rights Group in London.

Preparations for the conference seemed to have been moving along smoothly until the prominent writer Muhammad Hasanayn Heikal put his political and intellectual weight behind a fierce attack against the conference’s attempt to deal with the Copts as a minority. In an article entitled “Citizens or Protected Minority,” he argued against the minority concept in Egypt and described the Copts as “part of Egypt’s unbreakable fabric.” Heikal also used this intervention to raise general questions about foreign funding of social research in Egypt. Looking back to a time when the British colonialists used the protection of the Coptic minority to legitimize their presence in Egypt, Heikal warned: “Intervention begins with the dictating of political conditions. It ends with military interventions.”

Heikal’s attack triggered an avalanche of articles in the Egyptian press, mostly supporting his position. Pleas for national unity were often backed with quotes from the 1919 revolution, such as the one by Father Sergious, who replied to the British proposition to stay in Egypt to protect the Coptic minority: “I would rather have every single Copt die and Egypt live.”

The final blow, for those who wanted to open the Coptic minority file, came from the Coptic Church itself. Pope Shenouda issued a statement rejecting the designation of Copts as a minority, stressing that they are “part and parcel of the Egyptian nation.” As a result of this public debate, involving more than 200 Egyptian intellectuals, the conference on minorities in the Middle East was forced to move on short notice to Cyprus.

More workshops and conferences have since followed. The word “minority,” however, is studiously avoided in preference for titles such as “The Problems of Copts.” “That is the lesson of Cyprus,” says Yvette Isaac, a young researcher at the Ibn Khaldoun Center, “because the attack was also fueled by the fact that the conference received foreign funding, things should be worked out locally.” Samir Murqus, the head of the Coptic Center for Social Research, argues, “We are mature enough to deal with the issue without the Minority Rights Group in London.”

Recent attacks against Christians have once again shown that the Coptic issue is not merely an intellectual topic. On February 17, an enraged crowd in the village of Kafr Dimyan Girgis in the Delta province of Sharqiyya burned down Copts’ houses and killed their cattle. This was inspired by rumors that the guard of the local church had killed a policeman who stormed into the church to destroy a newly built “illegal” altar.

At least 25 Copts were victims of Islamist violence in southern Egypt around the same time. The most appalling case happened in a Coptic village near the town of Badari, 210 miles south of Cairo. Three men, armed with automatic rifles, went from house to house posing as policemen and demanding to be let in. The nine who followed the order were murdered in cold blood. These incidents were especially shocking to those who believe in “one Egyptian fabric.”

Ethnically, Egyptian Copts are the same as Muslims. They do not have their own language, do not live in specific areas and do not wear special clothes. Sociologically, too, Copts are part of all social classes. “Religion is all that remains,” according to Murqus, “a minor distinction when you consider that Copts took part in all political struggles. The concept of ‘minority’ serves to polarize because it sets a dynamic of a minority against a majority.” William Sulayman Qilada, a prominent Coptic intellectual and legal adviser to the administrative court, in an article in al-Qahira magazine, argued that Copts do not have the objective feeling of being a minority. His article begs the question: Is there a definition only to satisfy the definition?

If it is an issue of feelings, some argue, then the basis for minority identity does exist. “If you are made to feel different, then you start to look for another identity,” says Bishop Thomas, from the province of Asyout. This “made to feel different” is based on daily discrimination. The debate over discrimination has developed since Heikal’s article. “Both Muslims and Copts love Heikal’s vision of ‘one fabric,’ but where to go from there?” asks Magdi Muhanni, from the Christian Upper Egyptian Development Association. Isaac suggests, “Instead of fighting over definitions we should address the daily discrimination against Copts.”

Maurice Sadiq, director of the Center of Egyptian Human Rights for the Consolidation of National Unity, a new Cairo-based human rights center focusing on Coptic issues, supports claims of discrimination with impressive numbers. In the 26 Egyptian provinces there is not a single Coptic governor. Only ten Copts head the boards of the 3,600 public sector companies. Of 127 embassies, only one Copt serves as ambassador. In 12 universities there is not a single Coptic president.

For many Copts, the recent talk about them as a minority highlights that, besides the growing Islamist trend, the state also shares responsibility for discrimination and marginalization. According to Nadia Farag, who writes on Coptic issues, it is the state which differentiates on the basis of religion, and this will eventually create an ethnic minority. Murqus describes one such strategy: “[The government] wants to show that it doesn’t attack the Islamists for the sake of the Copts.”

In the 1995 parliamentary elections, President Husni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) did not appoint a single Coptic candidate, even in areas with a Coptic majority, such as the Cairo district of Shubra. In the Cairo neighborhood of Waili, one NDP candidate even used anti-Christian terminology to overcome his independent Coptic competitor. “The exclusion of Copts from any kind of formal political process is the sure road to ethnicity,” claims Farag. “The state treats the Copts as a whole like the Muslim Brotherhood, as a political group, and punishes both with exclusion.” Murqus agrees: “The dynamic between the Islamists and the state makes the Copts behave as a minority.” Bishop Thomas argues, “If the government would not interfere in religion, Copts would be only a religious minority. Now they are slowly becoming targeted as an ethnic minority.”

Today, many who took part in the minority dispute agree that the Cyprus conference had at least one fruitful result: It brought the issue of discrimination to the table. While some Copts would like to discuss the problem more aggressively, others like Murqus worry that raising the profile of the issue might be dangerous by fostering a struggle between religious trends. Murqus argues that while discrimination is an important problem, it might be better if liberal Muslim intellectuals and not their Christian counterparts make the first steps. This kind of attitude typifies the dilemma of Coptic life in Egypt. Murqus explains: “In times of crisis you are made to feel your Coptic identity but at the same time your best protection is to emphasize your 100 percent undivided Egyptian-ness.”

Numerous recommendations have been offered to solve problems of discrimination: Cancel the reference to religion on the Egyptian identity card, and revise laws which require the church to seek presidential permission to build or restore a church building or even renovate a bathroom.

The educational curricula and its Muslim bias provoke constant complaints. In addition, the official holiday timetable needs reform. This year, many schools selected a holy day of Orthodox Christians to schedule important exams.

The media provide daily examples of the problem. Last Ramadan, several popular television series had the theme of Coptic women converting to Islam. The abundant airtime given to sheikhs on radio and television fosters a hostile atmosphere against Christians. Expanding their allotment of airtime is a repeated demand.

Most reform suggestions aim at one goal: to acknowledge that Egyptian society does not consist only of Muslims. But the core of the issue, says Muhanni, is secularism. “To rationalize the role of religion in the state, that’s the solution also for the Copts.” Even religious Christians, such as Bishop Thomas, agree: “We need a little bit of secularization.” But for others, like Sadiq, this seems unrealistic; one has to deal with the fact that religion is constitutive of Egyptian public life. “Copts are a minority,” he says, “and they need the necessary minority protection.” Sadiq’s solution would be a religious proportional system a la Lebanon. Besides Lebanon, Sadiq looks towards the affirmative action model in the United States. “We need something similar for the Copts.” A civil rights movement, however, is not on the horizon in Egypt. Rather, suggestions to base everything on religion have been gaining support. Even Pope Shenouda, changing his tone, has begun to examine the idea of a proportional system. [2]

Endnotes

[1] The word “Copt” is used by most Egyptians as a synonym for all Egyptian Christians. This article does so as well because the issue of minorities or discrimination does not differentiate among the various denominations. The majority of Egyptian Christians follow the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, with their own pope. According to Orthodox traditions, this church was founded by Saint Mark somewhere between 48-64 AD. A small portion of Egyptian Christians follow the Catholic and Protestant churches which were introduced later in Egypt. The exact percentage of Christians in Egypt is contested. The 1976 census records 6 percent (CAPMAS, November 1976). Ecclesiastical sources speak of 18 percent. D. B. Bartett, ed., World’s Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 2. Marlyn Tadrous, at the Cyprus conference, recommended that the Egyptian government make proper and reliable statistics available to prevent exaggeration and the misuse of existing statistics. See The Copts of Egypt (London: Minority Rights Group International/Ibn Khaldoun Center, 1996).
[2] Al-Ahali, December 20, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Karim El-Gawhary "Copts in the “Egyptian Fabric”," Middle East Report 200 (Fall 1996).
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