By Kurt J. Werthmuller
The long-term future of Christians in Egypt is fraught with peril.
Paradoxically, the last century has been a period in which Copts have experienced both a reinvigorated sense of communal identity and increasing socio-religious pressure. In terms of the former, the mid-20th-century “Sunday School movement” (whose leaders in its heyday of the 1930s and ’40s included the church’s future patriarch, H.H. Shenouda III) sought to reverse centuries of cultural stagnation and what the Coptic Orthodox Church perceived as a growing threat from western Protestant missions. This initiative made the spiritual and ecclesiastical education of Coptic youth a priority by, for example, re-introducing instruction in the Coptic language (which had disappeared as a living language since the Middle Ages), encouraging devotion to its unique canon of Egyptian saints and martyrs, and emphasizing the special place of monasticism in the Coptic experience.
By the end of the century and into the present one, the Copts have indeed experienced a real sense of renewal: most of Egypt’s churches overflow with congregants for regular services, for example, while many monasteries have been able to boast of a full complement of residents, for the first time in centuries. New media, such as a proliferation of Arabic Christian satellite networks, have also provided a sort of ecumenical, virtual gathering place for Copts of all denominations. There, videos of Coptic Orthodox liturgy and instruction regularly compete for attention with programs from evangelical preachers and worship teams, Abuna Zakaria Boutros (a controversial, defrocked Coptic priest who specializes in anti-Islamic polemic), and yes, Joyce Meyer.
However, this rejuvenation has also been joined by a decades-long intensification of anti-Coptic discrimination, marginalization, and even outright persecution by some segments of the Muslim majority — including, at times, the Egyptian state. There have been low-level pressures on Egyptian non-Muslims for centuries, of course, but these began to especially intensify in the 1970s with the emergence of Political Islam. At first with the encouragement of the Sadat regime (and later turning against it), groups of ultraconservative Muslim students began to embrace a new Islamism that sought to firmly re-establish Egypt’s Islamic identity, as they saw it, in culture, politics, and society — many of whom followed Sayyid Qutb’s school of thought regarding the necessity of force to accomplish this. This included reminding the Copts of “their place,” and some of these zealots, spearheaded by the Gama’a Islamiya (“Islamic Group”), carried out numerous, individual attacks on Christian individuals and businesses, especially in Upper Egypt, throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
The last decade has been a time of increasing anxiety for the Copts. The armed extremism of the 1970s gradually settled into a less combative, but far more pervasive, form of religious conservatism throughout Egyptian society. (The more puritanical strain of this movement, Salafism, remained largely underground until 2011; more on this below.) This movement has mostly been concerned with the religiosity of Egyptian society in general, but its adherents have at times attacked Christians for what they view as evidence of Copts insolently “forgetting their place,” such as daring to repair church buildings.
At the same time, the corrupt Mubarak regime did nothing to address pervasive, societal discrimination against Copts, while creating a culture of legal impunity for the periodic use of violence against them. Outright violence on Christians may not have characterized daily life, but when it did flare up on an increasingly regular basis, it was generally ignored by the regime, or settled by so-called “reconciliations” that treated attackers and victims as equal participants in the violence — and held no one accountable (such as the attacks in Bamha, Giza attacks in May 2007).
The bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve 2010, which killed twenty Coptic worshippers and injured scores, turned out to be a tragic (and still unresolved) end to that decade of decline.
Sadly, since the fall of the Mubarak regime one year ago, the Copts have continued to have it rough, and it’s getting worse. The revolution itself inspired some Coptic youth with the hope that democratic reform would spread the religious inclusiveness of Tahrir Square throughout Egypt, and some — such as the Maspero Youth Union — have seized the moment to actively and boldly push Coptic rights. However, two dynamics have quickly deflated that initial optimism. The first is the public emergence of Salafi ultraconservatives, inspired by Saudi/Wahhabi-style puritanism, who are explicit in their calls for non-Muslims to be excluded from equal participation in Egyptian society and public life (among many worrisome stances). They have been especially antagonistic toward Christians: Salafi imams were responsible, for example, for inspiring a rash of mob attacks against Copts in 2011, such as burning a church in the village of Sol in March and sparking a massive riot in Imbaba in May.
At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s foremost Islamist organization, has emerged as the clear victor of the first free parliamentary elections in the country. Its Freedom and Justice Party has been quick to downplay such fears, but many Copts remain deeply concerned that a new era of religious oppression is approaching under Islamist rule, even if the implementation of conservative sharia law is gradual, as the Brotherhood insists. After all, the conservative interpretations of Sunni jurisprudence that it espouses would firmly and permanently affix Copts to a second-class position in society, making religious oppression official state policy; it would matter little whether this status comes in one year, or five. The ascendance of Islamists to dominance has convinced many Copts that their place in Egyptian society, strained as it has been already, is steadily growing less tolerable.
The caretaker military government of Egypt, it should be noted, has done little to address these concerns. It has perpetuated the Mubarak-era culture of impunity for the rash of dozens of attacks on Copts and their property in the months since the revolution, and in October its own soldiers participated in the massacre of twenty-seven mostly Coptic protestors in front of the Maspero building in Cairo. Few Copts, much less the Egyptian public as a whole, anticipate this changing ahead of an eventual transition to civilian rule.
Where does this leave the Copts in this era of the Arab Spring? I would argue that it leaves them in a dire position of uncertainty and fear for their long-term future in Egypt. There are far too many of them to simply pack up and leave Egypt, although it is likely that we will see an increase in the number of Copts looking to emigrate in the months and years to come (a trend of which we are already seeing signs). The Copts belong to Egypt, and many of them are prepared to fight for their place: the high turnout of Coptic voters in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November, in which they contributed to the slim gains of liberal groups, embodied this. The demonstrations of Coptic protesters in front of the Maspero state television building in May and October (despite their respective conclusions) were also evidence that Copts are no longer willing to remain silent.
But we should not be fooled into mistaking determination for progress: as of the beginning of 2012, the future does look rather unwelcoming for Egypt’s Christians. In light of this, we must prepare for the worst — a feared new age of authoritarian, Islamist rule — even as we do what we can to help the Copts challenge it, and as we fervently pray for their future and that of all Egyptians.
Check back next week to continue this series on Christians in the Middle East.
Kurt J. Werthmuller is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He is the author of Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218-1250, and he holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from the University of California, Santa Barbara (2007), an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University (2002), and a B.A. in history from Messiah College (1995).