Throughout history, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have often been victims of oppression and violence. The Orthodox Christian minority had hoped that the Arab Spring and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ascension to power would mean more civil rights and religious freedoms. That hope has since been quashed by Islamist and other extremist persecution.
When people think about religion in modern Egypt, they often think about Islam. However, Egypt has long been home to Coptic Christians, also known as Copts, who are the largest and oldest ethno-religious minority in the country. It is believed that their roots go back to the time of Jesus, making them one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Coptic theology is based on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, the founder of the Coptic Church, who introduced Christianity to Egypt around 50 CE. The Coptic Church is just one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which includes the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church.
The word “Copt” is an anglicized version of the Arabic word “Qibt” derived from “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian in ancient Greek. After the arrival of Islam in Egypt in the mid-seventh century, the word came to refer to Coptic Christians specifically. At its height, the Coptic Church had hundreds of monasteries in the deserts of Egypt. Today, only 20 monasteries and seven convents remain, operated by more than 1,000 monks and about 600 nuns.
Currently, the majority of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, ranging between 6 to 11 million people, live in the provincial capitals of Asyut and Minya of Upper Egypt and in Cairo. Although Copts have been part of the fabric of Egyptian society for centuries, they have been the subject of frequent discrimination and persecution, especially after the 2011 Arab Revolution.
Post-Arab Spring Persecution
Just a few months after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically-elected president in June 2012, the Copts elected a new spiritual leader. Bishop Tawadros, born Wagih Sobhy Baky Soliman, became the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark in November 2012 at the Cathedral of St. Reweiss in Abbassiya, Cairo.
Fearing that Egypt’s new Islamist leadership would force Islamic rule on the country’s Christian minority, Pope Tawadros II eventually became one of the military, civil, and religious leaders who offered their support to then General al-Sisi, who announced his coup on television on July 13, 2013.
The Copts welcomed al-Sisi’s arrival hoping that he would improve their precarious situation.
The Copts welcomed al-Sisi’s arrival hoping that he would improve their precarious situation. But their oppression has worsened. Since al-Sisi’s coup, Coptic Christians and their places of worship have become even more the targets allegedly of Islamist groups, especially the Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seeking revenge for the Copts’ support of al-Sisi’s regime.
Pope Tawadros II’s support of al-Sisi’s coup inevitably put Egypt’s Coptic Christians at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood’s fervent supporters, who blamed the Christian minority for conspiring to overthrow Morsi. A year later, on August 14, 2013, the Egyptian security forces crushed two major Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Cairo, murdering and injuring hundreds of protesters. When word of the killings began to spread, angry mobs went on a rampage of looting, vandalizing, and burning Coptic churches in revenge.
ISIS has also repeatedly “vowed to go after Egypt’s Christians as punishment” for their support of al-Sisi.
ISIS has also repeatedly “vowed to go after Egypt’s Christians as punishment” for their support of al-Sisi. In recent years, the militant group has shocked the world by carrying out various deadly attacks against Christians, their so-called “favorite prey.” For example, the Palm Sunday church bombings on April 6, 2017, claimed the lives of more than 40 people and injured many more.
Almost a year and a half later, on November 2, 2018, gunmen allegedly from the local affiliate group of the so-called Islamic State ambushed a bus carrying Coptic pilgrims traveling to St. Samuel the Confessor monastery, a remote desert monastery south of Cairo. The attack killed seven people and wounded seven others, according to the Coptic Orthodox Church and Egypt’s Interior Ministry.
Much like Islam, the idea of martyrdom has always been a core Coptic belief. To adherents of the Orthodox Christian denomination, suffering deepens their faith. Today Egypt’s Copts celebrate Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, reminded and inspired by his martyrdom, forbearance, and forgiveness.
Reviving Hope for a Better Future
Holy Week, the week leading up to Coptic Easter, marks the last week of the 55-day Coptic fast. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, which commemorates the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem, a week before his crucifixion. During this time, Copts carry palms to symbolize the ones laid in front of Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem and they gather in churches for prayer and religious rituals.
Other significant days during Holy Week include Maundy Thursday (commemorating Jesus’ last supper with his disciples), Good Friday or Sad Friday (the memory of his crucifixion), and Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). On the eve of Easter, Copts go to church and pray, and later, break their fast. Worshippers who partake in the feast traditionally buy new clothes for the Holy day.
In Egypt, the day after Easter is known as “Sham El Nisim,” which literally means “Smelling the Breeze” in Arabic. The national celebration, which goes back to ancient Egyptian times, indicates the beginning of spring. Egyptians of all faiths observe this occasion by going to parks, eating salted fish, and coloring eggs. Although Copts treat Sham El Nisim as an extension of Easter, the rituals are in fact associated with the ancient Egyptian festival.
Since 2013, al-Sisi has made symbolic attempts to demonstrate his support for Coptic Christians, such as attending their annual Christmas mass. Despite this, his government has done little else to address the daily discrimination and violence they endure.
Coptic Christians face an uncertain future in Egypt, as the country’s authorities consistently fail to protect them from the bigotry and prejudice of extremist Islamists.
Coptic Christians face an uncertain future in Egypt, as the country’s authorities consistently fail to protect them from the bigotry and prejudice of extremist Islamists. Nevertheless, Egypt’s majority Muslim population has mostly lived in harmony with the Christian minority for centuries. On Easter day today, the Copts of Egypt hold on to their faith that a more peaceful and tolerant homeland is possible.