After a long history of persecution as a minority in Egypt, in these days the nonetheless resilient Copts face a dire moment. The ominously Sharia-leaning Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, headed by President Mohammed Morsi, has taken over the country from the oppressive – but slightly more tolerant – Mubarak regime.
Adding to this crisis is the absence of spiritual and political leadership for the 18 million-strong Coptic community, namely a Pope. The church is still in the throes of a longstanding selection process to name a new spiritual head to permanently replace the interim administrator, a bishop, who has been the caretaker leader since the death of Pope Shenuda III earlier this year.
Recently, the Copts of Alexandria embarked on a three-day fast (no food, no water), petitioning God to find the leader divinely suited to be the successor of the beloved Pope Shenuda III. The institution of the Pope is of central importance to Copts, since the first Pope was consecrated in the first century AD upon the death of Saint Mark: He guides and directs Coptic life and the Orthodox Church. During the 1,400 years that Islam has dominated Egypt, Copts have been treated by the Muslim authorities as second-class citizens, with minimal rights but maximum duties. The Copts, who see themselves as the rightful inheritors of the land of the Pharaohs, have always found solace in the refuge of the church, insulated and protected by their clergy.
Representing a culture as much as they embody a religion, Copts constitute roughly 20 percent of Egypt’s nearly 80 million people. Morsi’s rise to power is the result of an 80-year struggle by the Muslim Brotherhood to rule Egypt with aspirations to control the entire Arab-Muslim world. After years of hibernation, the Brotherhood experienced a rebirth during the Arab Spring. And now Egypt’s Copts face the brunt of Morsi’s Islamic-supremacist leanings.
Until now, Copts managed to survive under Muslim dictatorships, even though those dictatorships often covertly fostered crimes against the Coptic community – bombers, snipers and gangs of Muslim thugs – who were assured of receiving favorable court hearings that kept them free and able to commit violence. Meanwhile, repeatedly victimized by deadly attacks, Copts were generally rounded up and thrown into jail and received none of the special judicial privileges or immunity that their attackers did. During the Tahrir Square protests of January 2011, Copts had good reason to rise up against the Mubarak state.
Today, under the new political class of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Copts are already paying a higher price – with their lives and property – for their religious beliefs. They are frequently accused of showing contempt for and insulting Islam, and face related trumped-up charges. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the threatening atmosphere in Egypt for Copts is Nazi-like. Coptic Christians are praying, fasting, and begging for mercy.
Islamist efforts to infiltrate Egypt’s church hierarchy have been ongoing since Islam came to Egypt, but in the past four decades Islamic influence over the church has intensified. This way the governing regimes could guarantee both secular and religious Copts were corralled away from political activism and local organizing, a strategy that worked at least until the autumn of 2010. Over time, this subtle pressure has forced Copts into a dependency on religious leaders to dictate political decisions for the whole body of the community, whether related to local, neighborhood issues or to wider, international ones.
The state political involvement in the church leadership evolved gradually, and has now got to the point where the government is attempting to influence the finances of the church. Under such imposed ‘oversight,’ the state is attempting to legislate and regulate church donations and expenditures, such as church salaries, schools, charities and maintenance. The Coptic congregation has no state institutional power to resist the intrusion by Egypt’s government to intrude upon the church’s decisions about how to direct its own financial resources.
Copts represent a major obstacle in the implementation of the Islamist plan for a pan-Islamic umma or Caliphate. By definition, in order to progress the idea of a global Muslim state, the fate of Egyptian Copts is either to convert or be expunged from history. So the destruction of Coptic churches, homes and businesses, kidnappings, forcible marriages of Christian girls to Muslim men, and mob violence instigated by the slightest perceived provocation, keep Copts living in fear.
In today’s Egypt even secular people face charges of blasphemy, of insulting Islam, because of their denial of the existence of God. Indeed, Islamists go one step further and charge that secularists are also guilty of insulting Christianity as well. However, this is completely alien to Christian doctrine. Christians do not support any such blasphemy laws, because Christian doctrine teaches that belief cannot be legislated for or against; convictions of the heart should replace the law. Islamists therefore posit a false picture of Christianity, and a false kinship between the two religions with regard to blasphemy, in an attempt to ‘play’ at inclusivity, in order to appear to be defending all religions. Even more sinister, it is an attempt to Islamize Christianity. Assuming that Muslim juridical principles are equally applicable to Christianity – that Sharia-like legal thinking exists for the Christian faith – is simply not true.
Needless to say, a tawdry portrayal of the Koran in a video legally produced in California by an unknown person who calls himself a Copt (among other identities) will, of course, be easy ammunition for Egyptian Islamists, on the other side of the world, who have shown their willingness many times to exploit real or invented events to attack Copts. The enforcement of Sharia blasphemy laws against non-Muslims are often based on little more than rumors spread by Muslim religious vigilantes that there has been some insult to Islam.
The violent fallout from the film controversy is now being borne by Egyptian Copts, the victims for so long of Egypt’s internal and religious politics. It is just the latest expression of an ongoing dynamic of blame and hatred that the Coptic community of Egypt is sadly long used to, as well as an illustration of how far the free world’s free expression is constantly subject to the scrutiny of Arab-Muslim religious and political leaders.
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah is founder and president of Voice of the Copts, a human rights organization