By Mena A. Botros (*) – Coptic Solidarity –
The Coptic Identity: Recognizing the Coptic “Indigenous Peoples” Status for Protection from State-Sponsored Discrimination (Part 1 of 4)
Coptic Solidarity Introduction –
Coptic Solidarity became officially accredited with the United Nations after more than seven years of obstruction, initiated by the Egyptian Permanent Mission to the UN. With this new avenue to champion the organization’s mission, Coptic Solidarity will be participating in the upcoming UNPFII Twenty-Second Session: in April 2023, titled Indigenous Peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health and climate change: a rights-based approach. In preparation, Coptic Solidarity is publishing the report here-below . We will continue to examine and discuss this theme during our annual conference in Washington, DC on April 15 – 16, 2023.
Copts are Egypt’s ethnoreligious population that identifies as the descendants of ancient Egyptians, demonstrated by their DNA, their undeniable link to the land of Egypt, unique language, calendar, and traditions that root back to the ancient Egyptian civilization. A critical component of the report is demonstrating the historical continuity of discrimination against Copts since the first Arab invasion of Egypt in 693 CE and how their situation has evolved until current times.
Coptic Solidarity’s report explains why Copts qualify and should be recognized as an indigenous minority, and thereby contends that Egypt’s Copts merit additional protection for their persons, and for cultural, linguistic, and historical protection beneath a variety of United Nations Charters and Agreements.
In conclusion, Coptic Solidarity provides recommendations of actions that must be taken for Copts to achieve equal citizenship rights in Egypt.
Since 2010, Coptic Solidarity has been working to accomplish its one, seemingly basic vision: “Equal citizenship for the Coptic Christians of Egypt and minorities in the Middle East.” 
This report is a continuation of the efforts set by the organization to protect the rights as indigenous people, exchange information on violations to international protocols and standards that have resulted in discrimination and persecution in the last 1,400 years and increasingly after 1952, and propose recommendations on how to recognize, acknowledge, and protect the Coptic community’s security, heritage, and history.
The Coptic people are an ethnoreligious population that identifies as the descendants of ancient Egyptians according to their genetic results and the evolution of their language and traditions that root back to the ancient Egyptian civilization. After the Christianization movement in around 60 CE by Mark the Evangelist (known to the Copts as the first Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church), the Church of Alexandria became an intellectual center for the ancient world and a leader in theology and the sciences. Following the great Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries, the Coptic Church, along with the rest of the ‘Oriental Orthodox family,’ became alienated from the universal Church union, with ensuing pressures by the Byzantine Emperors. Mutual efforts were made in recent decades towards rapprochement based on a broad agreement that the differences in Christology were in fact theological formulae seeking to express the same reality.
In 639 CE, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As initiated his first Arab invasion of Egypt after a series of conquests in the Levant. After years of siege and surrender, the Byzantine governor and al-‘As settled on the Treaty of Alexandria, which included the establishment of the jizya, grant of autonomy of Copts and Jews in Egypt, and guarantee of no Muslim intervention in church affairs should the Copts not support a new Byzantine invasion. The new Arab administration, however, breached this contract as their primary compliance was to the Pact of Umar, or simply to the whims of the various Caliphs and their Walis. Throughout the different dynasties, the Arab rulers treated the Coptic population with various amounts of discrimination that started from radical increase in taxes and up to full-scale massacres. With much of the native population converting to Islam, to escape the jizya and the humiliations of the dhimmi status, over the next four centuries, the word Copt transformed to define the native population that had not converted to Islam. With the central theme in the unity of all Muslims as one umma, the term Copt started limiting itself to Egypt’s native Christians.
The Copts’ distinct identity did not feel the urge to prove itself until the Arabs controlled Egypt, being the descendants of Ancient Egyptians, not only ‘genetically,’ but by retaining tangible cultural heritage such as language and music. According to El-Maqrizi, al-‘As recognized the division in the church and the population between the Chalcedonian followers (the Greek Melkites, concentrated in Alexandria) and the miaphysite in the rest of Egypt (later identified as Jacobite Copts.) With the end of the Early Caliphate, persecution status shifted to a Caliph’s basis during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Some of the actions committed by Arab governors went beyond other ruler’s; Ahmad ibn Tulun (870-884), for example, incarcerated Pope Khai’il III (880-907) for money for his Syrian campaign, and the Church’s bishops had to sell a church and numerous properties to get back their patriarch.
The clearest evidence of the restrictive interpretation of the Pact of Umar on the Copts from the Arab Conquest to this day can be found in the establishment of the dhimmi’s inferiority in their faith and citizenship status. Converts’ persecution documents back to the 11th century by the execution of John of Phanidjoit, Salib, and Jirjis al-Muzahim, to name a few. The argument that al-dhimmi status was leniently enforced and that it died soon after the invasion is faulty as historical documents show the activeness of the administration from that time to isolate the Coptic community and terminate any prospective members until recently when Muhammad Hegazy applied to legally change his religion and was denied by an Egyptian court in 2008, more than a millennium later. It is unknown whether Hegazy’s case was genuine or not as he soon converted back to Islam; in fact, there are sources that speculate that he might have been utilized to uncover any proselytizing efforts. His scenario, on the other hand, shows the legal reaction to religious conversion and hierarchy.
The fluctuation in persecution between each governor and Wali, the Copts, and Egypt in general, entered into a cultural coma in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods which lasted over five centuries, until the awakening shock of French Expedition in 1798. Historical sources show the Church’s almost exclusive burden to comply with different bylaws like clothing mandates, increases in the jizya, displacement of the patriarch, or shutting down or demolishing church buildings. Nevertheless, these restrictions provided a more distinct political, cultural, and economic system in the Coptic community than at any other time in its history. Clothing mandates, such as requiring the wearing of blue turbans, bells on the neck, or only black garments, shaped many of the liturgical and traditional Coptic attires. Increases in the jizya and the constant danger to the patriarch’s safety motivated the rise of the Archons, civilian Copts of high socio-economic status, who usually repaid the ransom to free incarcerated patriarchs, stopped orders to demolish churches, and helped with Coptic non-sectarian affairs. Similarly, the patriarch’s role shifted from solely a religious figure to a wise leader who had to have the Copts’ security as his priority; patriarchs that did not fit the qualifications were removed even if they were religiously fit but politically unsound (Abba Ghobrial II and Youannes VII). The isolation and discrimination bylaws were not solely targeting the Copts, as in the case of the Egyptian Jewish community, which suffered from looting, burning of synagogues, and were mandated to wear two bells on the neck and red or black pointed hats. To an extent, bylaws enacted on Copts tackled various non-religious aspects of their lives, which demonstrates that many Walis viewed the former as an independent population with a distinct language, customs, culture, and intra-community politics.
With the Copts alienated both religiously and ethnically, the settlement to more peaceful national co-existence and cooperation started in 1855 when influential European powers, notably Great Britain, pressured the Ottoman Sultan Abdelhamid II to waive the jizya in the Tanzimat Reforms. With about 1,200 years of continuous terrorizing, political approaches divided the Copts between the traumatized clergy and nationalist laity. The Ottoman constitutional reforms allowed non-Muslim sects to host representative councils to regulate their internal affairs so long as they maintained their loyalty to the Bab-’Ali. Several Coptic Communal Councils took place between 1874 and the 1910s, which was much later than other communities’ starting dates as the patriarchs were worried about the compromise to their power and the possibility to upset the ruler (an action that had, before, resulted in displacement, massacres, incarcerations, and financial penalties). With several archons and elites disappointed at the clergy’s overreaching powers and improper economic maintenance of the waqf endowments, many individuals called to host the first Coptic Congress to regulate the Church’s internal affairs and elect the new Communal Council. In 1910, however, the Congress was postponed after the assassination of the first Coptic Prime Minister, Boutros Ghali Pasha, by nationalist and religious extremist Ibrahim Al-Wardani. Many scholars view Ghali Pasha as the last chief archon of the Coptic community as, after his assassination, religious and state powers pushed the idea of secular Coptic autonomy aside to the present day. In 1911, Coptic leaders from Asyut urgently called for the Congress to be held and change its mission from internal reformations to advocating for equal citizenship for all Copts. For the first time, in March 1911, 1,150 representatives convened to represent the Copts from all across the nation. The congressional body incorporated individuals from all Christian denominations and high-ranking members of the Congress were required to not be senior government officials to prevent the traditional archons’ conflict of interest. The conference’s five demands were:
- Exempting Christians from work on Sunday like Muslims on Friday,
- Reforming government appointments and promotions to be based on merit and competence instead of religion or creed,
- Restructuring the electoral system to ensure representation for minorities,
- Granting equal educational rights under the Provincial Councils regardless of religion or creed,
- Promising equality in government funding to all institutions- including equal funding to Coptic and Muslim charitable organizations- without accounting for religion.
Although the Congress’ demands seem decently appropriate even in this historical context, especially with the emerging secularization trend in the Ottoman Empire, radical powers backfired those demands to destroy the yet best example of Coptic self-awareness, and desire to live as equals to their Muslim peers, in their homeland. A month later, the Islamic Congress- later renamed the Egyptian Congress- convened to refuse the five demands. The Congress’ leader proclaimed that those demands did not meet the nationalist vision of political unity under the indivisible state religion, Islam. The idea of a state religion was hence born from this convention. Internally, Patriarch Cyril V was able to obtain a khedival decree in 1912 to further limit the Communal Council’s power, which eventually terminated the Council and Congress’ power, leaving the Copts with no autonomy other than religious compliance and obedience to a state that no longer represented them. 
Most importantly, this period reveals two essential themes for this report’s argument: the proclamation of the Copts as more than a religious sect and the preexisting Coptic secular autonomy. When the Ottoman administrations established the millet system and reinforced it in the Tanzimat Reforms, they did not account for all minorities. For example, the Coptic Orthodox Church religiously fell under the Armenian Orthodox Church millet just because the latter had better representation in Istanbul, and they both shared non-Chalcedonian theology, which the imperial government viewed as a proper reason to combine both under one millet. However, the official classification of Copts was a ta’ifa, which is a sect with distinct ethnicity, religion, and customs. Since Ottoman rule, the Coptic population has been classified as what it is: an ethnoreligious population. Secondly, the political fights between the patriarch and his clergy versus the laity show that, at some point, the Coptic community was politically and economically autonomous rather than exclusively religiously independent. The idea that the Copts are just a religious denomination of the larger Egyptian population was a newly indoctrinated idea coming from 19th century European political revolutions, and the emergence of nation-states, where national unity transcends religious and ethnic differences. Yearning to be liberated from centuries-long internal Arab-Islamic colonization and imperialism and realizing that political autonomy – let alone independence – was practically impossible (given that Copts do not live in exclusive/isolated areas), their elites selected the other option: live as equal citizens in one nation-state. Whether or not it was in their best interest, is another story. 
After the declaration of Egypt as a British protectorate in 1914, Egyptians developed a theme of unity against a new common enemy, the colonial power. Simultaneously, a new power of Pan-Islamism emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood which advocated that, as stated by Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Gawish, “The Copts’ cheek-skins are good to make shoe-soles… The Copts must be beaten to death.” The sectarianism movement was facilitated, however, with a spirit of equal civil discourse and freedom of expression, which faded away with the end of the monarchy and British occupation in 1952 by the “Free Officers.” The first two presidents, both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, established a dictatorial regime that heavily depended on military power and censorship. One of the biggest visions adopted by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and later by all other presidents, is Arab nationalism, which ignited even more hatred and discrimination against Copts, whom many saw as the non-Arabs who followed the colonizers’ faith. This idea was the latest attempt to alienate the Copts from their motherland and, eventually, unofficially transform their identity from the Christian indigenous population to the heretic foreigners.
(*) Mina A. Botros is a political science researcher.
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