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Religion: Egypt’s Copts in Crisis

6 minute read
Sara C. Medina

The oldest Christian community fights for a tenuous security

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat cracked down two weeks ago on religious militants who oppose his regime, one of his targets was the Coptic Orthodox Church, the ancient Christian community that has survived in Egypt since its establishment by the Apostle Mark in the 1st century A.D. Sadat abruptly stripped the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, of his authority, banished him to a desert monastery, and ordered the arrest of some 125 Coptic clergy and lay activists. The world was shocked, but many members of the church hierarchy were considerably relieved. For at least a year, they had been concerned that the Pope’s controversial leadership was leading the Christian community into serious trouble with Egypt’s newly assertive Muslim majority. The climate of sectarian strife had resulted in several violent incidents in the past three months, including three days of communal rioting in a Cairo slum housing project that caused at least 17 deaths.

Father Matta el Meskin, one of Egypt’s most influential Coptic clergymen, told TIME Correspondent Robert C. Wurmstedt last week, “I can’t say I’m happy, but I am at peace now. Every morning I was expecting news of more bloody collisions. Sadat’s actions protect the church and the Copts. They are from God.”

From God they may have come, but Matta played a large part in their shaping. The abbot of St. Macarius monastery near Cairo, Matta was summoned to Alexandria by Sadat a week before the crackdown. Sadat and Matta discussed ways of defusing the looming crisis. Sadat asked Matta how far he could push Shenouda. The abbot says he outlined Sadat’s limits in dealing with the Pope. When the ouster was decided on, it was Matta who submitted the names of five bishops who would collectively take over the Pope’s functions.

Shenouda, 58, crowned ten years ago, was educated as a teacher. He served as an army officer in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and was then trained by Matta in the 1950s to become a monk. Shenouda, says Matta, is the best educated Pope in church history. But, he adds, “Shenouda’s appointment was the beginning of the trouble. The mind replaced inspiration, and planning replaced prayer. For the first years I prayed for him, but I see the church is going from bad to worse because of his behavior.”

Shenouda has led a religious revival that fostered the ethnic identity of Egypt’s Copts as a nation separate from, and older than, the Muslim majority. Indeed, many Copts feel that they, and not the Arabized Muslims, are the true Egyptians, the descendants of the pharaohs. As they are quick to point out, “Copt” is the Arabi-cized, then Europeanized, form of the Greek word for Egyptian. Although the Coptic language is used today only in the church’s liturgy, it was the language of Egypt until the 13th century.

Shenouda aggressively resisted the increasing Islamization of the country: in 1977, for example, he called on Copts to undertake a four-day fast to protest proposed legislation that would make it a capital crime to renounce Islam. The bill threatened Christians who convert to Islam to avoid stringent Coptic divorce laws, then apostatize once proceedings are over. The bill was shelved. He also complained often and bitterly that the government did not do enough to protect Copts from violent persecution by Muslim fanatics. Last year, after a reported series of church burnings, attacks on clergymen and forced conversions, Shenouda canceled all Easter celebrations except religious services and boycotted Holy Week rites. That spring, President Sadat alleges, he encouraged the 100,000 Copts living in the U.S. to stage embarrassing demonstrations during Sadat’s visit to Washington and New York City. Increasingly angered by Shenouda’s actions, Sadat, who has tried hard to cultivate good relations with his country’s Christians, accused the “new leadership” of the Coptic church of engaging in a “conspiracy” to blacken his name and the image of Egypt’s Muslims.

Shenouda’s confrontational activities coincided with a marked increase in Islamic fervor and militancy among the country’s Muslims, and in the wake of the violent incidents this spring and summer, some Copts began to fear for their physical safety. As Matta puts it: “All of us are in this dilemma, [because] Muslims feel Shenouda is a threat to Islam and the Koran. He was working against the line of the government and moderate Muslims.” Most Copts feel that Shenouda’s ouster is a tolerable price to pay for communal peace.

This is not the first time the Copts, the world’s oldest organized Christian body, have walked a tricky tightrope. In the church’s first centuries, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, with its eminent school of theology, was second only to Rome as the major see of the early church. In the mid-5th century, however, the Coptic church defied orthodox Christian teaching by adhering to the so-called Monophysite heresy, the belief that Jesus Christ had one nature that mystically united his humanity and divinity, rather than two distinct natures, human and divine. Schism ensued, and Coptic Christians were persecuted under the Byzantine Empire.

After the Arab conquest of 641, the Copts resisted the onslaught of Islam for two centuries. But as a result of periodic cycles of persecution under successive Muslim conquerors, and waves of immigration from Arabia, the Copts were reduced from a majority to a minority. Today, according to official census figures, they constitute less than 10% of Egypt’s 43 million population (Copts complain, however, that they are systematically undercounted). They are the largest Christian entity in any Middle Eastern country, with small communities in the U.S. and Canada, South Africa, Australia and other countries.

Given the area’s background of sectarian violence, the possibility that the Copts could be swept under by a tide of Islamic fundamentalism seems less remote than before. But the Copts have shown a gift for survival. As one elderly Copt puts it:

“To be a Copt is to be threatened, but we bear the cross proudly among the Muslims and we are ready to die for it.” —By Sara Medina. Reported by Nathaniel Harrison and Robert C Wurmstedt/Cairo

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