Egypt: Christians, Revolution and Persecution

by THE EDITOR March 8, 2011
A blood-spattered poster of Christ from the al-Qiddissin (Saints) Church, attacked on New Year’s Eve.
On New Year’s Eve in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, Coptic Christians were celebrating New Year Mass at the al-Qiddissin (Saints) Church. As the service drew to a close, a bomb outside went off in the street outside. A video of the reaction of church congregants can be seen here. The priest tried to calm those inside, with little success. 21 people were killed, and 43 people were injured. Initially it was assumed that the blast was produced by a car bomb, though Egypt’s Interior ministry later claimed that it was the work of a suicide bomber.
The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the crime and President Obama also condemned the attack, though the president erroneously suggested that Muslims had been killed in the blast (some were injured).
When Obama made his famous speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, where he praised the tolerance of Islam, he made only a fleeting mention of Copts. Before the speech at Cairo University, American Copts had urged him to mention the plight of the Copts in Egypt. Obama devoted only half a sentence to their situation, concentrating instead on painting Islam in terms that were designed to please a Muslim audience. He stated:
“The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.”
Perhaps he should have been more forceful in stressing that need for diversity. Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, but they were denied basic rights under the regime of Hosni Mubarak (an ally of America). If the Muslim Brotherhood gains power in Egypt, Muslims cannot expect to see much improvement in their situation.
Sobhi Saleh is a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer from Alexandria. The New York Times recently described him as “immediately engaging, the kind of person you shake hands with at a conference then find yourself telling people, “He’s such a nice guy,” without really knowing why.”
Saleh was on the eight-man constitutional reform panel, which was convened to ensure that the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood had rights to partake in elections. Last week, Saleh told the BBC (at 6.25 of the video here) that he does not want a Christian or a woman to run Egypt. He said:
“They should not occupy the highest post – the presidency… We are the majority. We represent 95 percent of the population.”
Muslim Brotherhood members had been invited to attend President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech. The Copts were obviously not high on the agenda of the U.S. administration’s advisers. In November 2009, Obama was petitioned by an Egyptian father and his 15-year old daughter who had been living under extreme persecution. 57-year-old Maher el-Gowhary had converted to Christianity more than three decades earlier, but continued to receive threats. Egyptian authorities refused the pair permission to leave Egypt.  Dina el-Gowahry wrote:
“Mr. President Obama, we are a minority in Egypt. We are treated very badly. You said that the Muslim minority in America are treated very well, so why are we not treated here likewise? We are imprisoned in our own home because Muslim clerics called for the murder of my father, and now the Government has set for us a new prison; we are imprisoned in our own country… I am 15 years old but I still have hope that my message will reach President Obama.”
Dina and Maher el-Gowahry wanted to emigrate to the United States, but the administration failed to help them, perhaps fearful of enraging the Muslims they were trying to appease through “outreach” work. The Obama administration’s refusal to consider the human rights of Christians in Egypt had catastrophic results for the father and daughter. In April 2010, Dina el-Gowrahy was subjected to an acid attack, and on July 5, 2010, Maher el-Gowrahy was stabbed in the neck.
Despite wallowing in money from America, Mubarak had made no attempt to improve the plight of Egypt’s Christians. As noted by Raymond Ibrahim, in November 2010, Egyptian security forces opened fire upon Christians who had not followed discriminatory building regulations. The Copts had constructed the St. Mary and St. Michael churches in the district of Giza. Three unarmed Christians died from gunfire, and a small girl was suffocated by tear gas. Wounded demonstrators were handcuffed to hospital beds before being sent to detention camps.
Egyptian state security forces outside Coptic church at Talbiya
A “confidential” American diplomatic document, sent to Wikileaks, described one incident of Muslim against Christian violence. The report stated that on January 7, 2010, gunmen with automatic weapons opened fire on Copts leaving church after celebrating Christmas Mass at Nag Hammadi. The place where the attack took place is famous as the place where Christian scriptures were discovered, almost 1700 years after they had been written. Six Copts were killed in the attack, along with a Muslim policeman who was guarding the church. Muslims then attacked Christian homes, and one 70-year old Christian woman died when her house was set on fire. The report stated:
The attack on Coptic church-goers in Naga Hamadi is the worst incident of sectarian violence since January 2000, when attacks on Coptic homes and farms near Kosheh, another small city in Upper Egypt, resulted in the deaths of 20 Copts and one Muslim. Egypt's MoI and some local commentators described the Naga Hamadi attack as criminal in nature, attempted to link it to the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt, and emphasized Upper Egypt's culture of revenge and vendetta. Despite this characterization, an attack on church-goers on one of the most significant days on the Coptic calendar is clearly sectarian. Copts have complained bitterly in recent years about the GoE's failure to use the criminal justice system to deal with sectarian attacks - including the Kosheh incident, which resulted in no convictions.
Funeral of the Coptic martyrs of the Nag Hammadi attack.
The latest incident of mob violence against Copts happened over the weekend, where 4,000 Muslims were said to attack Christian homes in the village of Soul, about 18 miles from Cairo. A church was set alight using gas cylinders. The hostility against the Copts stemmed from a love affair between a Copt man and a Muslim woman. Muslim women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslims, and the woman’s family was expected to carry out an honor killing against her. When her father refused, he was killed by a cousin and then the cousin was killed by the murdered man’s son. The Muslim community blamed the Christian community and went on the rampage. Protesters swore they would hold Muslim prayers on the site of the burned out church.
The Coptic community in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It has survived for nineteen centuries. Copts were already practicing their faith in Alexandria two centuries before the Bishop Athanasius (c. 296 – 373 AD) purged the city of Gnostic heresies. The first official church of Alexandria in Egypt was founded by St. Mark in 43 AD, and according to Jerome the same saint (author of the Gospel) founded the Christian Catechetical School at Alexandria. The history of the Christian church would not be complete without mention of its Egyptian legacy. Early “Doctors” of the Church such as Clement of Alexandria were schooled and also taught in Egypt. Origen (185 – 254 AD) whose teachings blended elements of Neoplatonism with Christianity, became the principal of the Christian Catechetical School at Alexandria when he was only 17, according to St. Jerome.
The Coptic church has a system of Popes that began before the system used by the Catholic Church in Rome. St. Mark is regarded as the first of the line of Popes of the Alexandrian church, though the title “Pope” was first officially used by Pope Heraclas who was Coptic Pope from 232 – 248. The latest of this continuous line of succession is Pope Shenouda III who became Pope in 1971.
The Coptic language is a continuation of the language spoken by the people in Egypt in pre-Ptolemaic times.  Eventually, between the 11th and 14th centuries AD, the use of Coptic as a popular spoken language began to die out, and most of the population of Egypt came to speak Arabic.
The arrival of Islamic rulers in Egypt put the Coptic church and its followers under pressure. In 697 AD, the fifth Ummayad Caliph, Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan (who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and instituted the first Muslim currency), ordered that Arabic should be the official language of his territories, including Egypt. Egyptian Copts who worked in government had to learn Arabic or lose their jobs. Marwan died in 705 AD, and under  the Abbasid dynasty that began in 750 AD, forcible Arabization was dropped and Copts’ lives returned to some semblance of normality.
Egypt came under the rule of Al Hakim Bi Amr Allah, the Sixth Fatimid Caliph, in 966 AD. Al-Hakim – an Ismaili Shia - was an autocrat and  the country was subjected to his tyrannical whims. In 1004 he banned all Christians from celebrating Easter and in 1005 he ordered that Christians and Jews should follow the law of ghiyar (differentiation) where they should wear symbols and clothes that identified their faith. (The name ghiyar referred to a strip of yellow cloth, that the alh-adh-dhimma /Dhimmis were advised to wear by the Second Caliph, Umar ibn-Khattab in a pact, though the first recorded use of such items appears in the early 8th century under Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz.  The ghiyar law would later be re-adopted by Ottoman ruler Murad II who made Jews wear yellow headgear). In October 1009, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, at the site where Christ is said to have been buried, was destroyed on al-Hakim’s orders.  In 1021, al-Hakim disappeared, almost certainly murdered, and he was succeeded by his son Ali Az-Zahir.
Under az-Zahir, some of the excesses of al-Hakim were mitigated. Zahir ordered the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1280, a new sultan ruled over Egypt, called Sultan al-Mansur Qala’un, who was the seventh Mamluk Sultan. He ruled for 11 years, and during this time his treatment of Coptic Christians and other dhimmis was poor. According to an article entitled “Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks, 692-755/1293-1354” from 1976 by Donald P. Little (now Professor Emeritus at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies), quoting from 15th century chroniclers al-Maqrizi and al-'Aynl , 'the Dhimmis had been in a state of extreme humiliation and degradation.” Little related that under the al-Mansur’s son al-Ashraf Khalil, Copt scribes were allowed some protection by Mamluks, until 1293. In that year, al-Ashraf Khalil ordered that no Christian or Jew could be employed as scribes. Those that were already employed were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. His viceroy Baydara ordered a number of Christian scribes to be burned alive.
Al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ruled from 1299-1309, and during this time a decree was issued, ordering that the pact of Umar ibn-Khattab should be enforced, with Jews and Christians compelled to wear certain clothing, and only to ride donkeys. The decree ordered that no churches or synagogues could be built or repaired. At this time, many Christians converted to Islam. In 1321 there were riots in which churches across Egypt were destroyed. Egypt continued to be ruled by Mamluk sultans until 1517.
On January 20, 1517 the Ottomans – led by Selim 1 - invaded Egypt. By this time the Copts had declined in number, the Coptic language was slowly disappearing as a common tongue as more people were now speaking Arabic. They numbered two to three million, around ten to fifteen percent of the population.
In the late 18th century when Napoleon had invaded Egypt, there were riots against Christians in Egypt. Much of the animus was vented against Syrian Catholics who had established trade links in Egypt, but Copts too were seen by Egyptian Muslims as “collaborators” with the invading forces. As stated by Bruce Masters (p 118):
“The Syrian Christians of Cairo had achieved the dubious distinction of being the first victims of what would become a series of sectarian outbursts that would accompany the Ottoman Arab world’s troubled transition to a new political and economic order, dominated by the nations of Western Europe.”
Muhammad Ali.
The French control of Egypt soon faltered. In 1811, an Ottoman commander of Albanian ethnic origin named Muhammad Ali (1769 – 1849) consolidated his power within Egypt by murdering potential Mamluk rivals. Between 1829 and 1830, Muhammad Ali published Egypt’s first “national” penal code, which was based upon sharia law. Muhammad Ali attempted to make Egypt a quasi-autonomous successor for the ailing Ottoman Empire. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Ottomans engaged in “Tanzimat” a process of modernization and reform. To some degree Copts in Egypt benefited socially from these reforms, even though these same reforms caused fundamentalist Egyptian Muslims to retreat into Salafism.
One such reform, the Hamayoumi Decree, was introduced in Egypt in February 1856. This had allowed for the Copts to construct churches, as long as they made applications to the Sultan. However, in 1934, a minister called Al-Ezabi Pacha introduced ten extra conditions upon Christians who wanted to build churches, including consulting with local Muslims to see if they approved. However, these conditions also required that even the most minor repairs to a Coptic church would similarly have to be subjected to the terms of the ten conditions before any application could be submitted to the governor/ruler.
When Ottoman control of Egypt collapsed at the outbreak of World War I, Britain took charge of the nation. In 1919 there was a revolt against British rule. During this period, Copts and Christians were united against the foreigners. In 1922, Egypt gained independence, but the example of the Al-Ezabi conditions of 1934, never repealed, showed that the Copts were officially regarded as inferior citizens.
The Ottoman Caliphate had been abolished by the secular Republic of Turkey on March 3, 1924, and in 1928, Hassan al-Banna, son of a watchmaker, founded the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The problems faced by modern Copts have escalated over the past two decades. For a long time, people in the West were either ignorant of Copts’ existence, and those who were aware of their existence downplayed their position in Egypt. The downplaying continues today. As noted by Gary H. Johnson Jr., estimates for the numbers of Copts in Egypt fluctuate wildly, depending upon the quoted sources. They may number as few as 4 million, or as high as 14 million.
In an article published in 1969 (“Return to Cairo” in From Babel to Dragomans, p.322-323), when Nasser was the head of the military government, Bernard Lewis wrote:
“At the present time the regime theoretically maintains the position that the Copts are fellow-citizens and complete equals, but it is not always so in practice. The Copts cannot really complain of any genuine persecution – though this does not stop some of them from doing so. There is, however, a very definite ceiling to their advancement in government service of any kind – and in the socialist society of the present time the term government service embraces an ever wider range of activities. Some Copts complain with equal vigor of what they regard as the neurotic tendency of their co-religionists to see anti-Copt discrimination where there is none, and to attribute their own personal setbacks to prejudice against the group to which they belong. The real problem is one of insecurity. The Copts… do not feel at ease in modern Egypt.”
Since 1969, the situation has turned uglier. If there is substantial truth in Lewis’ statement, a parallel could be drawn between the situation of Christians in Indonesia during the regime of Suharto, who – like Nasser in Egypt – clamped down on expressions of Islamist extremism. When Suharto was forced from office in 1998, Islamist groups came out of the shadows and in the Moluccan islands and the island of Sulawesi, Islamists of the formerly suppressed group ‘Laskar Jihad’ made open war on the Christians, and thousands died.
When Nasser died in 1970, he was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. As expressed on Voice of the Copts website:
“Sadat ... encouraged violence against the Copts. Sadat used his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to protect his throne. Sadat’s era was marked as the beginning of open discrimination against the Copts. For the first time in Egyptian modern history, Copts saw their Pope banned and sent to a monastery, bishops and priests were arrested, churches were burnt and Copts' businesses were destroyed and looted. The worst aggression took place in 1981 when eighty-one Copts were massacred in Cairo.”
On November 6, 1972, a Bible publishing house was attacked at Al-Khanka near Cairo. In 1970, two Muslims had converted to Christianity and this had created resentment in the Muslim community. Sadat responded to Muslim pressure by declaring that Sharia was the source of Egyptian legislation. He subsequently held a party conference and declared that Copts outside of Egypt, particularly those in the USA, were trying to disrupt the unity of the nation. After Sadat set the political climate, on Friday September 8, 1972 following Juma prayers, a Muslim mob attacked and burned down the building housing the Orthodox Association (Al-Nahda) in Damanhur, Beheira.
Sadat’s declaration that the source of Egypt’s legislation is enshrined in the version of the Constitution of Egypt, ratified by Sadat after a referendum on May 22, 1980. Article 2 of the constitution affirms:
Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language.
Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.
Anwar Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, and he was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, who ruled continuously until he was forced to resign on February 11 2011. In the spring of 1981, Omar Abdel-Rahman (the blind cleric now imprisoned for planning attacks in America, including the 1993 World Trade Center attack) had issued a fatwa that legitimized “the robbery and killing of Copts in furtherance of the jihad.” At that time Abdel-Rahman was the spiritual leader of Tanzim al-Jihad, the group that would assassinate Sadat. After the spring fatwa was issued, a massacre took place in Cairo in June 1981, in which 86 people died. On November 17, 1981, a Coptic priest called Maximose Guirguis was killed by having his throat slit, after he refused to convert to Islam.
Magdi Khalil, Executive Director of the Middle East Freedoms Forum, wrote of some of the recent persecutions of Copts in Egypt. The following are just a few examples from his article:
  • Friday June 19, 1992: Extremists in the village of Sanbu, Dairut, went on a rampage, killing 3 Copts and destroying 64 houses and shops owned by Copts, eight shops were burned to the ground.
  • Friday October 16, 1992: Extremists charged into Coptic properties in the city of Tama, in Sohag governorate, and for the duration of three hours proceeded to destroy and plunder those properties, murdering 2 Copts, and burning a church to the ground.
  • Friday March 5, 1993: Al-Kussia assault that cost Coptic lives and properties.
  • Friday March 5: 1993: Extremists murdered Adel Boshra - a Coptic citizen who resided in the village of Mir, Assiut governorate – on his way home from church.
  • Friday March 11, 1994: Extremists committed a massacre outside the monastery of Al-Muharraq in Assiut governorate, killing two monks and three Christian guests.
  • Friday February 3, 1997: after the Friday Prayer, a rabble attacked Coptic citizens in the village of Manafis, in Abu-korkas, Menia governorate, destroying and plundering their properties.
  • Friday February 14, 1997: Extremists murdered three Copts in the village of Kom al-Zaheir, Abu-korkas.
  • Friday March 7, 1997: After the Friday Prayer, a rabble attacked a church in the Temsaheya village, in Assiut governorate, they tore down the Cross raised on the church façade and then turned their attention to Christian - owned homes and shops causing severe damages to both.
  • Friday August 14, 1998: Extremists murdered two Copts in al-Kosheh village, in Sohag governorate, the Copts were later accused of torturing and killing them, and the conclusion of the incident is well-known.
  • Friday December 31, 1999: al-Kosheh horrific attack started on that day and went on for 3 days, ending on January 2, 2000, spreading terror in the village, and resulting in the death of 21 Copts and the utter destruction of dozens of Christian-owned houses and shops. 
  • Friday November 7, 2003: A rabble attacked Christian – owned shops and properties in Gerza village, Al-Ayat, 13 homes were looted and destroyed and 5 people were injured during the attack.
  • Friday December 3, 2004: A rabble in Manqateen village, in Menia governorate burned and destroyed the Coptic Church and threatened the lives and properties of Coptic citizens.
Attacks upon churches – in the light of the current unreformed Hamayoumi Decree – are designed as a form of cultural extermination of the visible signs of Christian presence.
However, the reasons for explosions of violence against Copts are sometimes provoked by accounts of Coptic Christians resisting forced conversions of their number to Islam. The issue of Coptic women being urged to convert to Islam was dealt with in a play, entitled “I was Blind But Now I See.”
When this play was first performed at St. George’s church in Alexandria, it caused controversy. In 2005, Muslims went on the rampage when they discovered that DVD copies of the play’s performance were on sale in the church. On October 14 and again on October 21, 2005, the church was attacked. In the second incident, the crowds of thousands of Muslims had been incited to riot at local mosques, after Friday prayers.
Five thousand Muslims descended on the church (pictured), and in the chaos, three people were killed. One man who was among the dead had been trampled upon, and had breathed in tear gas. On October 19, a Coptic nun had been stabbed in the church. One of her fingers was severed in the attack. Another individual later died from injuries sustained in the October 21 attack.
A few days later, the trauma of the events led Shenouda III, the Coptic Pope, to break down in tears during a service. At the time, Monir Dawoud, president of the International Christian Union and American Coptic Association, stated:
"We are receiving numerous reports that extremist Muslim groups are planning to surround the Alexandria churches again on Friday, Oct.28, and at the end of Ramadan on the following Tuesday, promising the death of Christians and the continued destruction of churches throughout Egypt."
The tensions subsided after a short while, but returned again in January 2006, and again in April 2006, when four churches were attacked by extremists armed with swords. 67-year old Noshi Atta Girgis was killed and several Christians were injured. At Mr Girgis’ funeral, mourners were attacked and thirty people were injured. Rioting then continued and one Muslim died.
The issue of forcible conversion to Islam is a serious issue. Muslim communities deny any force or coercion is involved in Christian to Muslim conversions. The problems that faced Maher el-Gowhary and his daughter Dina relate to the fact that under Sharia law, no Muslim may convert to Christianity. Mr Gowhary found he was still registered as a Muslim, as was his daughter. Egyptian law cannot accommodate such conversions, even though it is easy for Christians to convert to Islam.
Just as the issue of DVDs of a play about the inhuman manner in which forced conversions take place led to violence against Copts in 2005, similar rumors of Egyptian Copts preventing two women from converting led to violence in Iraq. More than fifty people from the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Karrada, in central Baghdad died when Islamists attacked them on October 31, 2010. The assailants demanded that two Egyptian women converts to Islam, wives of Coptic priests who were being “held hostage,” should be released. The Al Qaeda attackers named these two women as Camellia Shehata and Wafa Constantine, though whether they were held hostage or even existed is unknown. Only rumors are required to cause sectarian violence to erupt.
The legal issues of Egyptian Muslims being prohibited from conversion to Christianity were not reviewed by the eight-man team recently assembled by the head of the army, Mohamed Tantawi, to review the constitution. One of the men on the team was Sobhi Saleh, who refuses to countenance a woman or a Christian ever becoming the president of Egypt.
No matter how Egypt will progress, either as a military dictatorship or as a nation governed by an elected Islamist hierarchy, Copts in Egypt will continue to live as second class citizens. They will remain legally unable to repair churches, often prey to the predations of Islamists, and at all times unsure of their future.
While the minority Christian population lives in fear, governments such as the current Obama administration will continue to ignore their plight if this does not fit in with their desire to do “outreach” work with Muslims.

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