From the Arab invasion to the Arab spring
Christians in Egypt: A minority under siege and persecution
By Magdi Khalil
July 8, 2016
Christianity was brought to Egypt sometime between 55-61 AD, at the hands of St. Mark the Evangelist, nephew of Apostle Barnabas, author of the Gospel of Mark, and one of the seventy apostles that Christ commissioned to preach the Gospel in His name. St. Mark was martyred in the city of Alexandria in 68 AD, after founding an evangelistic ministry in Egypt that still continues to bear his name in our present time.
In 642 AD, the Arabs conquered Egypt, under the leadership of Amr Ibn al-Aas, a famous Arab military commander and companion of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The Arab invaders forced Egyptians to choose between embracing Islam, being killed, or paying a Jizyah* tax. Christians who opted not to renounce their faith were forced to pay a Jizyah. According to Tamer Leithy – Assistant Professor at New York University, who holds a doctorate degree in History from Princeton University – this tax would have been equivalent to the wages of about twenty weeks of work for the average or poor worker. This amounts to almost half of the annual income of an average individual when tax collection expenses are included. Adding insult to injury, the collection method was determined by Islamic rules that were meant to emphasize the humiliating subjugated status of non-Muslims. Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab, an influential companion and successor of Muhammad, dictated a number of harsh conditions on non-Muslims in Islamic-conquered lands, historically known as “The Pact of Omar”, which established persecution, humiliation, contempt, and racial discrimination as daily facts of life for Egyptian Christians , who were called “Copts” by the Arab invaders, which is a phonetic alteration of the word “Aigyptus” used by the ancient Greeks in reference to Egypt. From that day on, the Egyptian Christians became known as the “Copts”.
Muslim conquerors caused irreparable damages to Egypt on the economic, cultural and human levels, as they ransacked the country, plundered its wealth and subjugated its people. When Omar ibn al-Aas invaded Egypt, it had a population of more than 15 million, but by the time Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, this number had dropped to about 3 million only! Under Islamic subjugation, many indigenous Egyptians nations lost their lives due to persecution, killings and epidemics. The agricultural land shrunk from six million acres at the time of the Arab invasion to less than 3 million acres at Napoleon’s time.
Between 642 A.D. and 1805 A.D., when the modern Egyptian state was founded by Muhammad Ali, Egypt was governed by more than 315 walis (foreign governors sent to rule Egypt by the Muslim Caliph), under the command of 94 Caliphs, starting with Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab and ending with Abdul Majid II, the last Ottoman Caliph. This means that every three years or so, Egypt was handed to a new governor who would exploit the country and steal its riches, to be replaced shortly by another governor who would do more of the same .
A century after Muhammad’s death, Muslim Arabs have taken control of two-thirds of the old Christian World, converting it to Islam by the force of the sword. Ancient civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa were severely devastated, and their cultural heritage was plundered and attributed to Islam.
As time passed, the status of Egyptian Christianity grew weaker, and the Coptic Church in Egypt became isolated and cut off from the Western Christian world.
In short, Arab-Islamic colonization of Egypt and the entire region is a very dark chapter in the history of these countries.
The Founding of Modern Egypt
While Egypt was trapped in this dark chapter, the first ray of light came to Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt in 1798. Equality for all, regardless of religion, was one of the values of that foreign culture, and Egypt’s exposure to these values caused a small breakthrough. In addition, a cultural scientific mission, which was part of the campaign, played a major role in uncovering the secrets of the ancient Egyptian Civilization. At that time, Egypt was mired in ignorance, regressive thinking and dissolution, and its non-Muslim population was suffering from widespread religious persecution. After being subjected for long centuries to colonial invasion and to unspeakable persecution and humiliation, the campaign offered Christians a glimmer of hope that their situation could change for the better.
After Napoleon’s departure, Egypt was governed by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Ottoman wali of Albanian origins, who established a dynasty that ruled Egypt for many decades. Under his rule, Egyptians gradually began to experience religious tolerance for the first time since the Arab conquest. In 1855 A.D., his successor, Said Pasha abolished the dhimmi status and Jizyah tax system imposed on Egyptian Christians since 642, and launched a major endeavor to modernize Egypt following the Western European model.
The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 A.D. maintained Egypt’s contact with the West and marked the beginning of a Golden Age for the Copts, which lasted until the Egyptian army coup of 1952, and the end of the British occupation of Egypt in 1956.
During the British occupation, Copts managed to hold the highest political office, with Boutros Ghali serving as Prime Minister in 1908, and Youssef Wahba holding the same position in 1919. Copts held other significant political posts such as Head of Parliament, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Defense. Copts thrived during the seven decades of British occupation as they enjoyed equality and freedom, and through their diligent work, they turned into a wealthy and influential class in the Egyptian society.
A return to Egyptian Rule in 1952
In 1952, Abdel Nasser and a group of Egyptian army officers known as “The Free Officers” cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement to overthrow the monarchy, end the rule of Muhammad Ali’s dynasty, and drive the British out of Egypt. Thus began the period of national rulers. Gamal Abdel Nasser dragged Egypt into constant confrontations with the west and wars with Israel throughout his reign. He also ordered the nationalization of properties owned by the upper class, which severely harmed the affluent Coptic minority. Freedom and human rights suffered under his rule, and Arab nationalism with Islamic links became his main obsession. The political and economic status of the Copts also suffered under his rule, as their participation in Egypt’s political life diminished and they were relegated to marginal symbolic roles.
The Islamic Awakening and the Havoc in Egypt and the Middle East
In the seventies of last century, an “Islamic Awakening” began at the hands of Faisal, the late king of Saudi Arabia, followed by Sadat in Egypt, Jaafar Nimeiri in Sudan, and Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, while Khomeini led the Shiite wing of the “awakening” in Iran. The revival of a Jihadist, Takfiri* aggressive and violent version of Islam was at the core of this “awakening”, which left its mark on most aspects of public life. One of the outcomes of such “awakening” was the emergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS later, as well as the worldwide wave of Islamic terrorism.
As oil prices rose, the increasingly wealthy Saudi Arabia went on to fund Islamic extremism in most Sunni countries, to the extent where we can rightly say that we are experiencing a new kind of Islamic Caliphate: a Wahhabi Caliphate that uses oil money to promote an extremist, aggressive and insular Islam.
With this “awakening”, which began four decades ago and has not abated, Christians in Egypt and the rest of Middle East have been subjected to a new and on-going wave of Islamic persecution.
The Arab Spring and the Coptic Situation
After the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, we thought that the Arab region had finally broken the “Arab Exception”, launching the fifth wave of democracy to join the four waves that covered most corners of the globe since the end of World War II. However, it later became obvious that this “Spring” has turned into a nightmare at the hands of the anti-democratic Islamic forces that have been lurking in the region for long centuries, and Christians in the Middle East ended up paying an extremely high price for that so-called Spring.
The Copts’ situation after the revolution of January 25, 2011 is similar to the situation of the rest of the Middle East Christians, as both suffered terrible loses due to those uprisings. In Egypt, Coptic civil forces were involved in the revolution, and in the period between January 25, 2011 and the fall of Mubarak on February 11, 2011, Tahrir Square was a beautiful example of national unity, with the absence of religious and sectarian slogans or anti-American anti-Israeli expressions. Nonetheless, the situation changed right after Mubarak’s fall, when Islamic forces that hid behind the revolutionary slogans of democracy revealed their true faces and hijacked the uprising.
Several factors paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power in Egypt, marking the beginning of a difficult period for the Copts who dreaded a repeat of the old history of persecution. Their fears were not unfounded, as confirmed by former Muslim Brotherhood Spiritual Guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who stated in a public lecture in the city of Zagazig: “We would accord no rights to the Copts other than those defined by the Quran”, i.e., as dhimmis who are required to pay Jizyah, which is the system that had remained in place since the Islamic invasion of Egypt in 642 AD and until it was abolished by Said Pasha in 1855. That statement basically meant that, in a state ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts would be denied rights of citizenship, and will be forced to live under the rules (from the seventh century) that apply to non-Muslims living in an Islamic State.
Since it was first established in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood movement has been harboring a plan to force Jews and Christians to leave Egypt and set up an Islamic Caliphate. They succeeded in getting the Jews out of Egypt, following the series of bombings that targeted their businesses and homes in 1948 and 1949. However, they had to put their designs for the Copts on hold after their clash with Abdel Nasser in 1954.
As they came to power in 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leaders started fantasizing once more about driving the Coptic population out of Egypt, and though more than 200,000 Copts did actually leave Egypt (with 100,000 leaving during Mohamed Morsi’s one-year presidency). This number is still quite small compared to the total number of the Coptic population which exceeds 15 million people. For these reasons, the Copts participated heavily in the second revolution against Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013, as a patriotic community making a stand against the encroaching religious state.
The Copts have continuously endured significant losses since January 25, 2011. Hardly a day goes by without a violent incident of some sort including murders, the abduction of Coptic women, large ransom demands, the destruction and looting of a Coptic properties, forced removal of Coptic families from their villages, and church destructions. Hundreds of Copts have been killed in separate incidents since the Revolution and more than 500 Coptic girls have disappeared with their whereabouts being unknown. More than a hundred churches and institutions were set on fire and destroyed during that period, including about 80 churches and Coptic institutions in a single day on August 14, 2013. Hundreds of Coptic homes, shops and businesses were set on fire and destroyed during that period.
The Brotherhood’s aim was to devastate the Coptic economic structure, using fear and intimidation tactics to drive the Christians out of Egypt, echoing what happened to the Jewish community of Egypt in 1948 and 1949. Muslim Brotherhood leaders have made a point to state publicly, more than once, that those who do not like living in an Islamic State can leave Egypt. The persecution did not stop at the Egyptian borders but spread into neighboring Libya, where poor Coptic laborers had traveled looking for work. Two Coptic churches were set ablaze, four persons were arrested on charges of proselytizing, and one of them was tortured to death. Abuse and insults became an everyday occurrence for hundreds of Copts. The abuse escalated into murder, as eight Copts were shot dead, a physician and his wife who served the Libyan community were killed, besides the well-known horrific incident where 21 Copts were beheaded by ISIS as they shouted Jesus’ name. Sadly, the Coptic community in Libya is still being terrorized.
Furthermore, Copts were victims of highly disturbing types of incidents that have not been seen since Napoleon’s campagin to Egypt in 1798. The following are examples of such incidents:
- In March 2011, Salafis gave an order to cut off the ear of a Copt named “Ayman Anwar Mitri”.
- On March 8, 2011, Army troops used live ammunition to shoot Coptic protesters in Manshiet Nasser, Cairo, killing 13 individuals and injuring more than a hundred people.
- On October 9, 2011, the Army used armored vehicles to attack Coptic protesters in Maspiro, Cairo, crushing 27 Copts to death under their wheels.
- On April 15, 2013, in Cairo, a Copt named “Saber Helal,” was set on fire alive. Helal was dragged out of his car and questioned about his religion, when he replied that he was a Christian, he was stabbed repeatedly and then burnd alive in broad daylight in one of the main streets of Cairo. Six other Copts were killed also in that incident.
- On April 17, 2013, The Coptic Cathedral, headquarters of the Coptic Pope, was attacked with Molotov during the funerals held for the victims of the aforementioned attack.
- On August 14, 2013, a wide-ranging attack was launched by the Muslim Brotherhood on Coptic churches and homes. In a single day, they set fire to 80 churches, Christian schools and institutions, in addition to dozens of homes and shops that belonged to Copts in Upper Egypt. The attack also targeted a historical 1300-year-old monastery and a thousand year old church in al-Delga village, in al Minia Governorate. On the same day and at the same place, a Copt named “Alexander Tous” was slaughtered. The horror did not end with his death, as his body was tied to a tractor and dragged through the streets of the village, and after the burial, his remains were exhumed and further desecrated.
- On March 28, 2014, Mary Sameh George was killed in Cairo, while on her way to deliver medicine to an elderly Muslim woman. She was stopped by Muslim Brothers who saw a cross in her car. Enraged, they attacked the car from all sides, forced her out and beat her brutally, then shot her dead.
In addition, the number of charges of blasphemy or contempt of Islam brought against Copts has never been as high as it was during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Forty cases were sent to prosecutors’ offices and courts, with many of those charged and unjustly imprisoned without fair trials.
The question here is whether the reluctant Egyptian authorities have been seriously lacking in their efforts to protect the Coptic population.
The answer is a resounding Yes.
Since the beginning of Sadat’s era, the Egyptian state has been an accomplice in the crimes committed against Copts, through negligence and collusion. Impunity and lack of justice are common characteristics of the responses to the acts of violence against Copts in the last four decades. After the Muslim Brotherhood rule collapsed on June 30, 2013, the Egyptian state claimed that Copts would be protected from the Muslim Brotherhood, but in reality, the same policies that were applied during the Mubarak era are still in place today, with no change in sight.
For three decades, under Mubarak’s rule, the Copts have experienced persecution as they were subjected to more than 1,500 assaults. Prior to that, they also had a difficult time during Sadat’s rule. After Mubarak’s fall, the attacks became even more intense, and reached a brutal point during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, even though the Brotherhood is no longer in power, the Copts find themselves in the crossfire of the conflict between the Military and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. The fact is that through different eras and under different governments, little has changed for the beleaguered indigenous Coptic minority.
Status of Copts Two Years into al-Sisi’s Rule
After two revolutions that saw active Coptic participation, with a significant role against the Muslim Brotherhood during the June 30, 2013 Revolution, Copts are nonetheless suffering from the same problems that have plagued them throughout Mubarak’s era. It can be said that al-Sisi era is in some ways an extension of Mubarak’s rule. With the exception of al-Sisi visiting the Coptic Cathedral during Christmas mass (he only visited the church during Christmas celebrations and refused to visit during Easter, since Muslims recognize the birth of Christ but do not recognize His Crucifixion and Resurrection), which was a mere courtesy visit, there is nothing to indicate meaningful progress or tangible changes.
Here is what the picture looks like two years into al-Sisi’s rule:
- The security and Intelligence agencies are still in charge of the Coptic dossier, profiling the persons and institutions of the Coptic minority.
- Copts are still markedly absent from government institutions, such as General and Military Intelligence, National Security, the Presidency, the Republican Guard, governorship and mayoral posts, military leadership, etc.
- The appointment rate of Coptic individuals as public prosecutors, members of the judiciary, diplomats, or university faculty members remains in the range of 1-2%, which is the same rate as during Mubarak’s era, or perhaps a bit less.
- The Egyptian Constitution allowed a discriminatory article requiring the issuance of a separate law for churches in the first session of Parliament, succumbing to Al-Azhar rejection of a unified law for places of worship. The government submitted an ill-conceived bill to the Parliament that would, for all intents and purposes, leave the security services in charge of the process involved in building churches, making the current situation more difficult.
- The use of so-called “reconciliation sessions” in cases of sectarian violence against Copts, in lieu of the regular civil or criminal justice system, is still widespread or it may have actually increased during this period.
- Compared to Mubarak’s era, the number of contempt of Islam or blasphemy charges has increased under al- Sisi, reaching a ridiculous level when four Coptic children were jailed because they made fun of ISIS in a 26-seconds video clip.
- Five Coptic soldiers were killed in their military units, for religious reasons. The crimes were not properly investigated, and the perpetrators were never punished.
- The disappearance of Coptic young women, a phenomena that started years ago, has continued throughout this period. The lack of efforts to resolve this issue on the part of the government and lack of condemnation by al-Azhar suggests a cover-up and a certain level of complicity. This human trafficking phenomenon continues to grow at an alarming rate.
- Coptic properties are still being destroyed, punitive damages are still imposed on Copts in some areas, and the demands for large ransoms to release abducted Copts have not ceased.
- For the first time in Egypt’s modern history, an elderly Coptic woman was stripped naked, shamed and paraded in the streets of her hometown among cheering Muslims.
- Security forces attacked several churches and closed them down under the pretext that they were built without a permit. They arrested and incarcerated the Coptic worshippers, for no charges other than worshipping. Furthermore, there are signs indicating that Security forces are colluding with the mobs that assault churches.
- A presidential decree is still required to build a church. Since 1952 and until 2016, the average number of churches that were authorized with a presidential decree is two churches per year, as blatant disregard of the annual growth in the number of Copts, who currently number 15 million.
- Although the Constitution has approved the participation of a reasonable percentage of Copts, 6% of the representatives, in the new Parliament as a one-time affirmative action, the interference of security services has led to the selection of Copts who are known to cooperate with the security forces and the state. Thus, ensuring that they will serve government policies and interests rather than serve and promote Coptic interests or causes.
What do Copts Want from al-Sisi’s Government?
1. To open all positions in the Egyptian State, including sovereign agencies, to qualified Copts, at a minimum rate of 10%.
2. To promptly issue a law that would allow churches to be built upon a notification to the concerned authorities. Police protection should be provided during and until the completion of the construction process; and individuals charged with attacking a church under construction should be prosecuted in the criminal court.
3. To reopen the churches which were closed down, whether they were built with or without prior permission, and to provide security for their worshipers.
4. To declare illegal the so-called “Reconciliation Sessions”, and put an end to “Family House” or “Beit al Eila” and similar institutions established by Al-Azhar that support and legitimize these sessions.
5. To reinstate counseling and guidance sessions for converts to Islam, giving them the right to leave Islam and to revert to their original faith whenever they wish, and provide them with new identity cards immediately. These sessions were to investigate whether the person converted by free will or under duress. If by free will, the person is left to his or her decision.
6. To abolish penalties imposed over charges of contempt of religion.
7. To issue a law, similar to hate crimes in the US, criminalizing assaults on Coptic individuals, properties and houses of worship, and to criminalize religious discrimination against non-Muslims.
8. To conduct an immediate independent investigation into the murder of Copt recruits in their military units, and to court martial those found guilty.
9. To abolish the divisions of Coptic Affairs in the National Security, General Intelligence, and other state security agencies, along with the anti-Christianization and Atheism Divisions.
10. To issue a religious freedom law, as defined by international conventions, so that religious conversion would be strictly motivated by personal choice, completely independent of the influence of state institutions.
In summary, Copts are still suffering from discrimination and persecution, even after two revolutions against tyranny, corruption and religious state. While they paid a high price during the chaos that ensued, their role and sacrifices remain unrecognized and unrewarded.
In Regards to The Middle East Christians
As the mounting negative repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring continue to hit Christians in the Middle East, with persecution turning into concerted efforts by Islamic terrorist groups aiming to end the Christian presence in the region, and given the region’s governments’ deliberate failure to protect the peaceful Christian minorities, Christians in the Middle East seem now to be facing one enemy and sharing one destiny. That enemy is Islamic extremism and the feared destiny is an end to the Christian presence in the Middle East.
This has now become an international issue, and it is past time for the international community to get actively involved, and refer the matter to the UN Security Council to take the appropriate measures. The main responsibility for the protection of these peaceful minorities falls on Europe and the United States, through the Security Council, and within the context of protecting vulnerable minorities against possible extermination.
* Jizyah is an Arabic word referring to an extra annual tax imposed on non-Muslims, or Dhimmis, who live under Muslim rule, according to the Quran and Hadith. Dhimmi is an Arabic word meaning “people of faith”. Dhimmi was the name applied by the Arab-Muslim conquerors to indigenous Jews and Christians, who refused to convert to Islam and surrendered by a treaty to Muslim domination. For more details about The Pact of Umar and the dhimmi system, refer to “Expatriate Copts”, written by Magdi Khalil, published by Dar al Khayal, Cairo, 1999.  For more details about the Islamic persecution of Copts since the Arab invasion and until Napoleon’s campaign, refer to Stories of the Occupation, or Hikayat al Ihtilal, by Adel Guindy, published by the Middle East Freedom Forum, Cairo, 2009
* A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim (or an adherent of another Abrahamic faith) of apostasy. The accusation itself is called takfir, derived from the word kafir (apostate), and is used to describe “a person who is, or claims to be, a Muslim is declared apostate by the accuser, the takfiri” In 2015, the Middle East Freedom Forum in Cairo published a 650-pages reference textbook, written by Magdi Khalil and Hamdi al-Assiouti, about legal cases of contempt of Islam in Egypt. This is the first book in Arabic to address this topic. However, Al-Azhar issued a warning to Egyptian bookstores to impede its distribution.
Magdi Khalil, the author of this paper, is the founder and director of the Middle East Freedom Forum since 2007, and a main founder and member of the Executive Board of Coptic Solidarity. Magdi Khalil is a researcher, activist, political analyst and author of several books. This paper was written for and presented at the International Christian Concern Bridge Conference in July 2016.