The Coptic Christians of Egypt have experienced a tumultuous relationship with the country’s religious majority since the Arab conquest of 641 C.E. Currently, the Coptic minority comprises around 12 percent of Egypt’s population. Identifiable by the blue crosses tattooed onto their hands (although they are by no means a requirement of the Church), the Copts’ culture is deeply rooted within Egypt’s history.Many sources suggest that this culture is currently threatened by Egypt’s Muslim majority. As time passes and the non-Christian majority encroaches on Coptic culture, a myriad of novel techniques for cultural subversion have also been emerging.
Egyptian identitification cards qualify their users for a variety of “modern amenities” including education, employment, public services, and burial rights. It is obvious that the restriction of these services would be of considerable significance to any individual unfortunate enough to be denied a card. One can therefore understand the fiery discourse surrounding the Egyptian government’s refusal to distribute I.D. cards to Christians. Terms like “forced conversion” are thrown around, invoking images of the National Liberation Front’s successful removal of Sharia Law from Algeria, or disputes throughout Nigeria.
This repudiation is reinforced by organizations such as the U.S. Copts Association and the Coptic American Friendship Association, which report on numerous forms of marginalization throughout the region. Though the images they paint are stirring, it is only prudent to seek out contrary opinion (something of a challenge in the American sphere of political discourse). Upon further inspection, the veracity of the claims made by these agencies appears to be suspect at best.
I was fortunate enough to see Egypt for the first time this past January, as Claremont Graduate University organized an extensive tour throughout the region helmed by Dr. Gawdat Gabra, curator of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. We traveled throughout Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan, Luxor, and Ain Al-Sukhna. I met many Copts during our journey, and the issue of marginalization never found its way into a single exchange. We traveled to a variety of Coptic churches and cathedrals (many funded by the government) and found that Coptic culture is alive and well, contrary to the dire state depicted through journalistic fervor. We walked through many thriving Coptic museums and met with local professors who sported a blue cross on their hands. It was obvious that Copts are not barred from contributing to Egyptian intellectual life.
Recently, the U.S. Copts Association reported on the shooting of several Copts that took place shortly after the Eastern Orthodox Christmas prayers on Jan. 7. (To this day, they utilize the Coptic/Alexandrian Calendar.) Muslim radicals managed to kill six people and wound nine others. However, does the Egyptian government warrant any blame? After reading this report (along with most of the reports stemming from the U.S. Copts Association and its many cognates), one is in danger of walking away with a sense that the government and people of Egypt are looking to do all that is possible to disrupt the lives of its Coptic minority.I personally attended the last Eastern Orthodox Christmas prayers, which turned out to be the largest gathering of people I witnessed throughout the entirety of my stay. The church was abuzz with activity as throngs of worshippers streamed in and out of the church, allowing a chance for everyone to pray and witness the service. Given that this event took place at the largest church in Egypt, one can imagine the scale of the event. The liturgy was televised and continued for several hours.
After a half-hour of standing in the back of the crowded church, I headed outside to look around the surrounding streets. It was pitch black, but a cavalcade of worshippers still surrounded the church, itching to get in. There were no security forces to speak of, and the rest of the city was relatively quiet compared to the church’s immediate vicinity. You might imagine what this large, noisy, expected, and unprotected gathering of Copts could elicit from the people of Egypt.
However, there was not so much as a single protest, let alone any acts of unadulterated violence. This display of tolerance on the part of Egypt’s government and its population suggests that the antagonism toward Copts traditionally attributed to the non-Christian majority is, in fact, only limited to certain radical groups.
Several Copts were killed later that evening, but such a grotesque act cannot be seen as representative of the will of the Muslim majority. Sweeping mischaracterizations of this nature are both insidious and thoughtless.
Have the Copts and the Muslims of Egypt endured troubled relations for many years? Certainly. However, the extremity of the actions of certain groups should not be allowed to contribute to our overall perception. Does the government wish to forcibly convert the Copts via I.D. cards, or do they regard it as inconsequential bureaucracy that they need not change?
We should not do ourselves the disservice of overlooking government contributions to Coptic life. Beyond their direct fiscal contributions to churches, cathedrals, and neighborhoods, the fact that countless Coptic monasteries are allowed to occupy a considerable amount of Egyptian land is a telling example of how the outcries of the U.S. Copts Association, Coptic American Friendship Association, and others are largely exaggerated.
The problems that the Coptic minority of Egypt has encountered should not be understated; the I.D. cards are certainly a problem, and a cultural stigma does exist. However, the sweeping generalizations utilized by groups like the U.S. Copts Association should be seen for what they are.
The Claremont Graduate University and its theology program (along with many other Claremont programs) deserve praise, as they allow one to see beyond the widespread rhetoric and to experience the reality of life for the Egyptian Copts.