The Desperate Plight of the Copts of Egypt

On Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, the Arab daily online Elaph reported the disappearance about one month ago, of Sarah Isaac, a 14-year old Coptic girl. The family lived in a small village near Marsa Matrouh, in Northwest Egypt. It turned out that she was abducted, forced to Islamize, and marry a Muslim man. The Coptic priest of the parish, Anba Machomius, explained in an article published in the Egyptian press, that the law does not allow any girl at that young age to be married.

Incidents of abduction of young Coptic girl have become a frequent and painful problem for the Copts of Egypt. They point to the sufferings of a community that has been in Egypt for more than 2000 years. Their plight has worsened after the fall of President Mubarak, and the election of President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt. They are the descendants of the peoples who had lived in that land prior to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Since they form the largest Christian minority within the Muslim World, it is very instructive to pay a special attention to their status within Egypt. In many ways they typify the plight of most Christian communities living under Islam.

The report in Elpah, reminded me of the scholarly book I had read, “A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts.” The author, Edward Wakin, was a journalist who showed unusual sympathy for the Copts. Even though several decades have passed since the appearance of the book, yet its findings are just as accurate now, as when it was published in the early 1960s.

While Copts have always had their difficult times under the various regimes that ruled Egypt since the Arab conquest, yet the advent of the republican regime in 1952 marked the beginning of a new phase of subtle and unrelenting persecution. Even though Nasser was perceived by many Arabs as a great nationalistic hero, yet he was at heart a strong Pan-Islamist leader and did very little to make the Christians of Egypt feel at ease.

Mr. Wakin did his research during the Nasser era, before publishing the book. According to him, the study of the status of the Copts today is extremely important, for as he puts it:

“Viewed today from the West, the Copts are a major test of modern coexistence between a large Christian minority and a Moslem majority. In the Middle East, the Copts constitute the largest body of Christians in that part of the world where Christianity was born. For Egypt which is trying to mobilize all its human resources into a modern state, the test may be decisive. For a mosaic of minorities in the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, the Coptic story can be read as handwriting on the wall. For the Christians of Lebanon, who are maintaining an uneasy dominance in a country evenly divided between Christians and Moslems, their prospects in Moslem Arab hegemony can be deciphered from the Coptic situation in Egypt. It is a problem echoed nearby in the tenuous Greek-Turkish partnership of Christian and Moslem in the island republic of Cyprus. Involved, besides the Western values for which the Copts stand, is the fate of tolerance and respect for the individual in the vast self-centered world community of 400 million Moslems. On an even larger stage, the Copts share the dream of the world’s minorities, ranging from the recent sufferings of Jews and Armenians to such current problems as Jews in Russia, Protestants in Spain.” P. 4

How prophetic these words have become. July 1974 witnessed the invasion of Cyprus by the Turkish army using NATO supplied arms paid for by the American taxpayer! Two hundred thousand Greek Cypriots were made homeless overnight. No one seemed to care for the human rights of these natives of Cyprus. They had been living in their island for more than two millennia. Turkey must be appeased at any cost, since it occupied such a strategic position near the borders of the USSR! It is a very sad fact that in the analysis of the problems of the Christian in a Muslim society today, no emphasis is placed on the religious nature of his plight. Christians are described in ethnic or hard to recognize terms such as: Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Maronites, etc. While this classification is valid up to a certain extent, the true nature of the problems that these ethnic groups face is not due to their ethnicity but to the faith of their community. This is why Wakin’s book is so important. Coming from a secularized culture in the USA, yet he did not allow that factor to forget or minimize the religious nature of the plight of minorities living under Islam. In the final analysis, Middle East Christians are considered as second-class citizens, and sometimes persecuted, because they belong to a community that in Arabic is known as the Messianic minority.

Many things have happened in Egypt since the death of President Nasser in the early seventies. Under President Sadat, socialism was completely discarded; a new policy was adopted allowing many international companies to compete openly in bidding for projects related to the renewal of the economy of Egypt. The terrible defeat in the war of 1967 was avenged by the partial victory of the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) war that resulted in the eventual withdrawal of Israel from Sinai. But one thing has not changed: the Muslim’s attitude to the Copt. The latter is still despised, persecuted, and at times brutally murdered by radical Islamists. Whether the Copt is an ordinary layman or Pope Shenuda, the then head of the Orthodox Coptic Church, Muslims look upon him with derision or suspicion. This is why the Copt has identified with the cross, a symbol of suffering more than any other Christian community.

Mr. Wakin described this facet of the Copt’s life in a chapter entitled: The People’s Church.

“The cross suits this cruel culture of poverty and persecution, both as identification and an outlet for the Copts. It is their brand and their balm; it gives a meaning to life when there are only blind nature and inexplicable misfortune. If Western Christianity gives prime glory to Easter, the day of Resurrection, deliverance and confirmation of Christ’s divinity — Good Friday is more appropriate psychologically to the Copts. On this day when the cross was born as a universal Christian symbol, modern Copts say “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy upon us) 400 times at home, 100 times in each direction, and flock to their churches.” P. 136

“While the Copts share the cross with the rest of Christianity, with no other group is its presence so obsessive. This ranges from the Patriarch, who holds the cross in front of himself as though it were both a shield and a weapon, to the ragged village children who run after strangers, with crude blue tattoos of the cross on the inside of their right wrists and crosses around their necks. Whenever the Patriarch appears, Copts rush forward to kiss his cross. The fixation is symbolized at baptism when the infant is anointed 36 times all over his body.” P. 137

“Crosses are painted over the doors of Coptic houses in towns and villages or formed in bas- relief in mud over the openings of mud homes. Sometimes the house and cross are brick. The Copts, who are fond of reading the family Bible at home, are aware of Exodus 12:13 and the significance of a sign in order to escape the wrath of the Lord: “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” P.138

“Both Egypt and Islam, like all other countries and ways of life in the modern world, must meet the test of toleration. For Islam it is a moral challenge spread over its proverbial range from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Citing its theoretical toleration does not silence the cry of its minorities. For a Moslem nation, it is the practical problem of using human resources. The Copts themselves, within the microcosm of their history and its manifestations in church, community, nation and minority, present everyman’s tale of dream and nightmare, fulfillment and frustration in a world not of their making. Insofar as the Copts have received their due — without ignoring their blemishes — this modern story of Egypt’s Copts is an account of the human condition.

“At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny wherever it stands, even when the tyranny is elusive and unannounced, even unintended. It begins with labeling injustice long before shop windows are smashed, icons broken, and families torn apart. This labeling is an antidote to the danger of dulled sensibilities in our time and while the Copts can be accused of hypersensitivity, their problem is by no means imaginary. They are feeling pressures that inflict suffering without mutilating, that intimidate relentlessly without exploding sporadically that wound without bloodshed.”

“The Copts are numbed and helpless as well as anxious as their historic cycles of acceptance and rejection, their recurring stages of toleration, discrimination, and persecution move inexorably in the direction of rejection. Persecution is still the nightmare, discrimination the reality in the latest chapter of a long story of a people. They are there in Egypt and there they remain, the “true Egyptians,” the “original Christians,” the four million Copts of the Nile Valley, that troubled, enduring, lonely minority.” Pp. 175 and 176

I have quoted at length from this valuable book since it remains one of the best works on the plight of the largest Christian community living within Daru’l Islam. Things have not improved since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011; on the contrary it is becoming clear that the rise of Islamist movements in the Arab world is gathering momentum with Christians finding themselves in a precarious position, as had already happened in Iraq. Before the American intervention in that country, there were around one million Iraqi Christians living in the land of their ancestors; but almost 500,000 have been forced to leave and become refugees in several parts of the world.

In closing, I would like to relate relevant information about Mr. Wakin, who passed away on 13 November, 2009.  The following are excerpts from the obituary published by Fordham University:

University Mourns Edward Wakin, Former Communications Professor

Edward M. Wakin, Ph.D., (FCRH, ’48, GSAS, ’73) a communications professor at Fordham for more than four decades and the author of more than 20 books, died Nov. 13. Wakin, who was 81, suffered from Parkinson’s-related dementia, and died at the Linda Manor nursing home in Northampton, Mass.

“In the 1950s, Wakin and his then-wife traveled extensively in the Middle East, where he wrote articles for the Scripps-Howard News Service. He also wrote for Harper’s, Saturday Review, Catholic Digest, The Christian Century, American Way and Beyond Computing magazines.

“He returned to Fordham in 1954 as an adjunct professor of communications, and became full-time faculty member in 1960, the same year he earned an M.A. in sociology at Columbia University. He earned a Ph.D. in sociology at Fordham in 1973. He taught journalism classes, including magazine writing, until 2002, when he retired as professor emeritus. He was also responsible for launching one of Fordham’s first internship programs.

“In an oral history of the department in 1990, he said, ‘The media represent a small village in the sense that everybody in the media knows everyone else. When you go to work in the media, you are joining a very small population that operates on a face-to-face basis. When I came to Fordham out of that world, I introduced that awareness to the students: Everybody is going to know you and you are going to know everyone else as soon as you begin working.’

“In an obituary for his father, Daniel Wakin, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote that A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Cops (William Morrow & Company, 1963) was arguably Edward’s most important book.

“The Copts, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, were a sensitive subject in Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, and Mr. Wakin said he had to smuggle his notes out of the country hidden in his luggage,” Daniel Wakin wrote. “Even 40 years later, Egyptian Copts would contact Mr. Wakin in appreciation of the book.”

For readers of FFI who would like to read Dr. Wakin’s book, it is available in many bookstores.

Jacob Thomas

Consultant on Middle Eastern affair/ Columnist

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