Copts of Egypt

Alternative names: Orthodox Coptic Christians
Location: Egypt
Population: 6 million plus
% of population: probably 12-15%
Religion: Coptic or Church of Egypt
Language: Arabic, Coptic (religious language)

The Copts are a relatively small but sometimes influential religious minority, members of a Church believed to have been founded by St Mark the Evangelist. Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire in AD 395 and the Egyptian Church was separated from the Christian community in AD 451. Copts adhere to a Monophysite doctrine which holds that Christ was both God and Man and that both natures were united in Christ, implying perfect rather than imperfect union. There are also Coptic communities in Sudan (approximately 100,000), and various Middle Eastern countries, the USA and some western European countries. Canada and Australia also have small Coptic communities.

In the seventh century Egypt fell to Arab Muslims and an uprising in 830 left Christians in a minority in Egypt for the first time. From the ninth century onward the Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers, in turn Arab, Circassian and Ottoman. Churches were destroyed, books burnt and elders imprisoned or put to death. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882 the Copts had been reduced to only some 10% of the total population. Many government servants were Copts, however, since they had been found to be better educated than the Muslims.

Freedom of worship is restricted in Egypt today by a law retained from 1856 which severely limits the freedom to build churches. Hospitals built and administered by the different Christian denominations have been confiscated as have some schools and church lands. Christians are considered to be infidels and although a Christian who converts to Islam is not considered apostate, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is.

Copts are drafted in proportionately higher numbers than Muslims into the armed forces but never attain senior positions; in 1977 only two of the cabinet’s 55 ministers were Copts. Military and police colleges restrict Christian admission and Christians are not accepted into the departments of gynaecology or obstetrics in medical schools. Despite their reluctance to admit Coptic students into Egyptian colleges the authorities have so far refused to allow the establishment of a Christian university.

For Egypt’s Copts the greatest threats have come from the increasing influence and power of Islamic fundamentalists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups have also posed a threat to the governments of Nasser, Sadat (who was assassinated by extremists within the army) and Mubarak, and there have been periodic mass arrests of followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore many Copts see their best course as a politically quiescent one, attempting to work quietly within their own community and without provoking the government to act against them.

The most serious crisis came in June 1981 when, after Muslim-Coptic riots in Cairo had left 20 dead, President Sadat initiated a clamp-down on both Copts and Muslim extremists. The Coptic Pope Shenouda III was stripped of his authority and exiled to a desert monastery and 125 Coptic clergy and lay activists were arrested. Three Coptic associations were banned and Coptic publications closed down. Apparently many Copts welcomed the arrests as they feared that Coptic militants were likely to antagonize Islamic extremists into further acts of violence. Pope Shenouda was released and allowed to resume his religious duties in early 1985. Since that time relations between the Copts and the government are reported to have been better, although the Coptic church has kept a low profile.

It is difficult to gain information about the present position of the Coptic community. Even the population figures are a matter of guesswork as official figures underestimate their numbers while some “Coptic nationalists” claim up to one quarter of the population as Copts. Copts share many of the same characteristics as other Egyptians; there are poor rural Coptic villagers, unskilled labourers in city slums, migrants to Gulf States, an educated middle class and some in a position of power, such as the three Christian ministers in the government in 1988. Sections of both Muslim and Coptic communities practise female circumcision. The Upper Egypt Christian Association was one of the pioneers of education in Egypt and still has many Muslims in its schools.

In addition to the Orthodox Coptic confession there are other Christian communities such as the Catholic Copts, who number around 150,000, and about 200,000 Protestants. In the case of intermarriage between these confessions the Coptic Church insists on the non-Coptic partner being rebaptised according to Coptic rites, and there is a ban on shared communnion.