By Tim Scheiderer
Updated, September 2018
In the early to mid-second century A.D., Egypt became the birthplace of Christian scholarship. Under the leadership of Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, the Catechetical School of Alexandria became the preeminent Christian institution of the Roman period. Of particular importance, Clement used Greek philosophy alongside Christian thought to battle the pervading pagan philosophy of the day, Neoplatonism. As well, Origen developed the first systematic theology of the Christian faith as laid out in his book, On First Principles. The impact of their work continues to shape and influence priests, pastors, and scholars alike.
After the Roman persecution ended in the early third century, Christian winds blew through secular institutions and the halls of politics snuffing out pagan philosophical flames. Christianity soon dominated every facet of Egyptian society.
Christianity’s dominant influence ended, however, when Omar ibn al-Aas, a military leader under caliph Abu Bakr, overtook Alexandria in 642. The fall of Alexandria ended the Arab general’s two-year military campaign in Egypt. At this point, the country began to experience a massive reshaping due to the Arabs’ implementation of the Pact of Umar that brought persecution and humiliating discrimination against Christians. It was at this point in history Egyptian Christians began being referred to as Copts by their Arab invaders. The word, Copt, comes from the Arabic word qubt, which is a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptus, meaning Egyptian.
Over the next 1,100 years of Muslim rule, Egypt and its citizens suffered greatly. Its population dropped from 15 million to 3 million people, according to Magdi Khalil, president of the think tank, Middle East Freedom Forum. Killings, persecution, and epidemics were the causes of death. Khalil also states the agricultural land suffered as well, shrinking from six million acres to less than three million during the same time period.
The impact of these centuries and ones since have dramatically affected Christians and, of late, other religious minorities. Currently, the Christian population in Egypt is estimated to be 10-15% of its 97 million citizens with up to one million being evangelical Christian. Some experts, though, place the percentage closer to 5% of Egypt’s population. About 90% of the Christian population is Coptic Orthodox, according to the U.S. State Department. The Coptic Orthodox Church is part of the Oriental Orthodox stream of churches. These churches split from the Western and Eastern portions of the Church shortly after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. due to differences in the way both churches understood the divine and human natures of Christ. Shia Muslims account for about one percent of the population.
In today’s Egypt, violence against religious minorities comes from within and without. On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, IS suicide bombers brought more carnage to the nation’s Coptic population. The attack was comprised of two bombings in northern Egypt. The first bombing happened at St. George’s Church in Tanta. Two hours later, the second took place in Alexandria at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. Combined the blasts killed 47 people and injured up to 113 people, according to Eshhad, which documents sectarianism in the Middle. East. In the second attack on Palm Sunday, the bomber did not make it past the gates as Pope Tawadros led mass inside the cathedral. The pope being his target is a likely presumption due to the pope being considered “favorite prey” in a video released by IS in February 2017. In the footage, a militant declares, “God gave orders to kill every infidel.”
These attacks come on the heels of a bombing at the St. Mark’s Cathedral complex in Cairo that took place in December 2016 and claimed 28 lives. The St. Mark’s Cathedral, in Cairo, is the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church and houses the office of Pope Tawadros II.
The other religious minority to suffer greatly in 2017 was Sufi Muslims. In fact, they were the victims of Egypt’s most devastating terrorist attack in modern history. 305 Sufis were killed as they gathered at a North Sinai mosque in Bir al-Abed for the Friday sermon. In light of previous statements and actions against Sufis, experts believe ISIS is responsible.
Up until the recent bombings and the increased violence in the Sinai Peninsula, many Copts were encouraged by recent political happenings. In July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted President Mohamed Morsi, a welcomed and supported event by many Copts in light of the persecution they had endured during Morsi’s presidency. General Sisi became president and, in January 2014, the Egyptian government passed a referendum ratifying a new constitution to replace the 2012 constitution put in place under the Morsi government. Freedom of religion and belief is included in Article 64 of this latest set of governing directives. The article states, “Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of revealed religions is a right organized by law.” In Egypt, revealed religions are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
In light of this, the Egyptian government has shown some steps of good faith to implement Article 64. “The Ministry of Education … continue[s] to remove and/or clarify passages from primary school textbooks, particularly Islamic education books, deemed to promote extremist ideology. During USCIRF’s March 2018 visit, the Minister of Education outlined plans to roll out over a period of several years a new education system and curriculum for primary and secondary schools starting in the fall of 2018,” according to the latest USCIRF report. In addition, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments is now monitoring imams’ sermons for extremism.
In 2015, President Sisi laid the responsibility for reform at the feet of Al-Azhar’s scholars, who are viewed as the leaders of intellectual, Sunni-Islamic thought. He said, “You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting. The entire world is waiting for your next word because this nation is being torn apart." Two years later, Al-Azhar's grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, did denounce those who use Islam as a vehicle for death. And Al-Azhar, in partnership with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, are advocating for religious tolerance and understanding by the training of imams and the inclusion of such content in their schools' curriculum, which serves some two million primary and secondary students and 400,000 university students throughout the country.
Other encouraging news for Christians came in August 2016 when Parliament passed a measure loosening church construction regulations. The old, onerous regulations, of which some dated back to 1856, included needing to receive a building permit from the president. Now, provincial governors may approve construction requests, but the approval must come within four months of the application date. Under the old provision, even if presidential approval was given, the proposed site of the church could be a disqualifying factor. Prohibited sites included those near mosques, government buildings, and between residential areas. Now, a big hurdle is limits on church size. According to the new law, the size of the building must correspond to the number of Christians in the area, which could potentially hamper a local church’s effectiveness in ministry and future growth. Many suspect the Christian community is underestimated purposefully to diminish its influence.
The new law was greeted with praise and critique. “We hope these negative points will be eliminated in the future, but in any case, this law is a good step," said Margaret Azer, a Coptic MP and the human rights committee deputy chairwoman. Leaders of Egyptian churches (Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical) provided their stamp of approval also. Yet others see the measure as unjust for it requires more of Christians to build churches than it does of Muslims to build mosques. According to Coptic Solidarity, in the past 60 years, only two churches a year have been approved for construction, which comes to one church for every 5,500 Christians in Egypt—compared to one mosque for every 620 Muslims.
One unknown about the new law concerns whether national security will be used as pretense to block construction approval. Christian activist Nader Shukry wonders, “What if Salafis protest against the construction of a church, would this prompt the governor to turn down the request, for fear of national security?" Salafism is a fundamentalist branch of Islam.
Furthermore, even though, churches have been built, some still go unused for various reasons. In Ismailia, two Coptic churches have yet to open due to security concerns on the part of the local government. In September 2016, The New York Times reported the Christians received permission to worship in a tent, “but the tent was recently burned down.” This is one example of many where police are denying Copts the opportunity to open new churches due to security uncertainties. Abram Samir, a lay church official, finds the concerns baffling. “The police say they can’t open because of security concerns? It’s their responsibility to protect me and let me have my rights,” he said.
There is good news, though, for churches built without permits in prior years. In January 2017, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail formed a committee which is tasked with legalizing these churches. And "the government [has] nearly completed rebuilding the 78 churches and other religious sites that were damaged or destroyed in mob violence in 2013 ," reports the International Religious Freedom office at the State Department.
RECENT GOVERNMENT ACTION
The delicate balance between religious freedom and national security is demonstrably seen in two trends. The first is the general crackdown on freedom of speech, expression, and association. The Brookings Institute reports this trend could be affecting all religious minorities soon. After Morsi’s fall from power, the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates were the first to be muzzled by the government. Next, the NGOs felt the foot of Cairo’s suppressive measures, along with journalists who criticized it. Then, foreign-funded organizations and foreign journalists were the government’s targets. Currently, some suggest all of civil society is in the government’s sights.
The second trend is more alarming: closures and violence, some lethal. NGOs are being “shuttered.” Activists and journalists that were being sanctioned are now are turning up missing, tortured or killed via extra-judicial means. “Things that were rare, if not absent under Mubarak,” Brookings reports.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 report on Egypt speaks to these issues as well. In addition, the report cites “deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties. … Civil liberties problems included societal and governmental restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press, as well as on the freedoms of assembly and association.” USCIRF has called on the State Department to designate Egypt as a “country of particular concern [CPC],” but it has yet to do so. The designation of CPC permits the United States Congress to impose economic measures in order to bring about the “cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
One of the most severe violations is found in Egypt’s equivalent of a blasphemy law. This law makes illegal any expression uttered “for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion [Judaism, Christianity, or Islam] or a sect following it, or damaging national unity.” There is movement afoot in parliament to strike the law from the books, but Sisi’s administration is against it. Chancellor Ayman Rafah, an administration official, told the People’s Assembly abolishing the law “would violate a constitutional prohibition against inciting hatred against people of a revealed [heavenly] religion,” reports Morning Star News. Officially, the intent of the law is to protect members of the revealed religions from slander and strife with other portions of society. In practice, it is also used to protect “the official religious narrative” and punish those who speak against the state.
Since 2011, blasphemy cases have increased according to USCIRF. “While the majority of charges are leveled against Sunni Muslims [to maintain Islamic orthodoxy], most of those sentenced by a court to prison terms for blasphemy have been Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists, largely based on flawed trials.”
The steady increase of cases was rather steep in June 2014 when on the 15th, a 23-year-old Coptic teacher was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to prison for six months. Eight days later, Christian journalist Bishoy Armia was sentenced to a five-year term because he reported on discrimination taking place against Christians in Minya, a northern province. The next day, the 24th, Kerolos Shouky Attallah received a five-year prison term for liking a Christian group’s Facebook page.
In 2016, the arrests and convictions continued with the unbelievable sentencing of four teens who supposedly committed blasphemy by mocking ISIS. This case exemplifies USCIRF’s reference to flawed trials that characterize the legal process of “enforcing” the law. The conviction of the teens was largely based on an opinionated video report given to the judge. The judge himself never reviewed the video to verify the report’s claims, Human Rights Watch reported. There were also other discrepancies in the trial’s proceedings. Three of the four teens received a five-year prison sentence, and the fourth is spending time in a detention facility.
The case of the four teens illustrates the liberality with which the law is applied. Ehab Ramzy, a lawyer and former MP, told Morning Star News the law was weakly constructed. “When you have a [well-crafted] law, the law will have definitions and boundaries of each article,” Ramzy said. “But in this article there is no such thing, so the definitions and the boundaries are left to the judge and the police to identify.” Mohamed El-Messiry of Amnesty International says enforcement is based on one of the following: culture, education, and/or background. Human rights activists, both in Egypt and abroad, agree the law must be repealed.
At one point, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee was seeking input on the statute and reform suggestions from Al-Azhar University, Dar al-Iftaa (an institute of Islamic scholars), and the Coptic Orthodox Church. A report was to be prepared based on these comments and submitted to several government agencies and the public. To date, this has not happened. Leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church have initially expressed their concerns about the “blasphemy law.” In 2015, they termed the law as “exploitative” and called for its repeal.
A UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP
Coptic Church leadership praised Mr. Sisi for liberating them from Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and continues to do so in regards to pro-Coptic actions by the government. This indicates the unique relationship the Coptic Orthodox Church has with the Egyptian government. In certain areas, both groups have a vested interest in the other dating back to Mubarak’s presidency as explained by The New York Times.
“The government provided security in an increasingly hostile environment, and the Christian leadership helped present a face of tolerance and religious freedom to the West. ... That compact frayed badly in the waning years of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency and seemed to come undone altogether after he was toppled from power and an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was elected. Attacks on churches, led by Islamist youths, surged,” writes The Times. When General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president, the Coptic Church viewed him as a savior from the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Yet there exists “de facto discrimination,” states foreign policy expert Sarah Yerkes. She believes this discrimination against Copts is evidenced in three ways. First, there is a “disproportionately low level of Christian representation in government, particularly within the influential security establishment.”
Secondly, Ms. Yerkes believes President Sisi “refus[es] to acknowledge the differences between Christians and Muslims. [As a result], he does not see Copts as a minority in need of protection and is, therefore, not willing to extend the necessary measures to proactively protect against or respond to attacks.” Finally, she contends there is a demographics dearth. “This attitude has ... impeded the ability of scholars and policymakers to collect data related to Egyptian demographics,” she said. This is detrimental to “our collective understanding of the size and make-up of Egypt’s minority communities.”
The violence in Egypt has escalated to a new level. During the second quarter of 2017, 76 Christians were killed, according to Eshhad. St. George’s Church in Tanta and the St. Mark’s Cathedral complex in Cairo experienced the most fatalities, 28 each. The attack at the St. Mark’s Cathedral complex took place in the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is adjacent to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. As worshipers participated in Sunday morning mass on December 11, 2016, people were killed by a suicide bomber. As stated earlier, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo is the most sacred space for the Coptic Church. The deeply, personal significance of this attack for Copts is analogous to the way Catholics would react if the Vatican were bombed.
A particular region in Egypt experiencing a high volume of violence is the Sinai Peninsula in northern Egypt. In the early portion of 2017, during a four-week period, seven Copts were killed. Over a three-day period in February, 100 area-families fled to Ismailia due to killings, other violence perpetrated by ISIS, and a video released by IS calling for the slaughter of Christians in Egypt. This is only part of the continuing exodus that has been taking place over the past five years. In 2011, reportedly 5,000 Christians lived in Sinai. Due to the 2011 revolution and resulting compromised security, the number has dwindled to less than 1,000.
In 2016, the Minya Governorate was the epicenter of violent persecutions in Egypt. Its capital, Minya, is on the banks of the Nile River and its population is 40% Christian. In the governorate, during the summer, at least eight violent persecutions took place. The touchstone, according to Minya Bishop Anba Makarios, was the attack upon a 70-year-old woman, Soad Thabet, who was stripped naked and dragged around her village, al-Karam. The incident was the culmination of violence that began when her son, a shop owner, defaulted on some payments. The Christian man’s Muslim suppliers accused him of having an affair with a Muslim woman and burned his house down. His elderly mother was caught in the middle of the fracas.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. “What especially angered Copts,” he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident. … Had they apologized or said they would follow it up, it would be different, but this was an insult to Egypt and the women of Egypt,” he said.
News outlets reported 300 men were involved in the incident. Sixteen were arrested for involvement in the assault. Eleven were released on bail. Mr. Sisi promised justice for the perpetrators. He also appointed Imam Mahmoud Gomaa to be a mediator between the Christians and the Muslims at the time. Imam Gomaa told The New York Times, “Everything is good.” Hours later, however, Bishop Makarios declared there is no cooperation. “I have nothing to do with Mahmoud Gomaa,” he said.
The bishop continued, “We are at a breaking point. People can’t put up with any more of this.” From August 2013 to September 2017, there were 204 instances of violence in the Minya province. Almost all of them against Christians.
Eventually, three men were charged with the dragging of Ms. Thabet. Then the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. In February, the case was reopened due to an appeal by Thabet’s legal team. Charges against the three men have been reinstated.
Before the bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Christians, in Cairo, suffered greatly during the tumultuous times of 2011. One major incident occurred on March 8. Nearly 150 Copts were injured by gunfire in Cairo during a demonstration about a church recently destroyed in the town of Sol. Thirteen people lost their lives. According to some eyewitnesses, Egyptian troops failed to intervene for almost four hours as they observed the violence happening before them.
On May 7, 2011, Copts and Muslims clashed at the Church of St. Mina. Twelve died, six Christians and six Muslims. The clash started when Muslims claimed a woman wishing to convert to Islam was being held against her will inside the church. Christians say there was no such woman inside the church.
On October 9, Egyptian troops fatally crushed 12 Copts under the wheels of their armored vehicles. In total, on that day, 26 people died, mostly Coptic Christians, and over 300 people were injured during demonstrations. Again, the focus of the demonstration was the destruction of a church, according to USCIRF.
Other atrocities, in Cairo, include Saber Helal, a Copt, who was dragged out of his car and set afire in broad daylight for affirming his Christian faith. As mourners left St. Mark's Cathedral after the funeral of Helal and six others who were killed the same day, they were attacked with gunfire and Molotov cocktails by unknown assailants. The mourners were forced back into the Cathedral grounds and the gate was closed for safety. The “siege” lasted five hours. Again Egyptian security forces did very little. In fact, they fired tear gas into the St. Mark’s complex where Copts were taking refuge. Two died that day, and 89 were injured according to the Health Ministry.
Understandably, the mood of a number of Egyptian Christians is one of fear because of the constant threat of violence, abduction, or property destruction. More than 200,000 Copts have left Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office. As a result, the U.S. Coptic Church has seen growth. “The number of Coptic churches in the United States has jumped from 202 to 222,” while one Coptic Church in Fairfax, Virginia has seen their congregational size increase to 5,000 from 3,000, said the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros.
Overall, most of the persecutions occur in Egypt’s rural areas where educational levels are not high. Lack of education results in lower literacy rates. Consequently, neither do people know the Koran nor are they able to fact check inerrant teachings or beliefs.
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At a Christmas Eve Mass, in 2016, Mr. Sisi declared on St. Marks’ sanctuary, (a stage reserved for the Coptic clergy) “In this occasion, I want to exhort you all, let no one come between us. … God has created us different … in religion, manner, color, language, habit, tradition, … and no one can make us the all same.” Great jubilation and support went up from the congregants inside the cathedral. Outside, in many homes of the persecuted, the president’s televised words were also of great encouragement, but limited progress has been seen. To many Copts and other Christians, their homeland, once known as the birthplace of Christian scholarship, has become a furnace of affliction.