By Mina A. Botros – Coptic Solidarity –
Recognizing the Coptic “Indigenous Peoples” Status for Protection from State-Sponsored Discrimination
II. INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS
The Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations states that it serves to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.
According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Article 18, everyone has the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, conversion, and private and public religious exercise and expression. Article 20, section 2 states that individuals should not be compelled to belong to an association, which may include mandatory official documentation of this affiliation. Articles 21 and 22 grant equal opportunity in civic service, national security, and equal cultural, economic, and social rights.
The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities establishes in Article 2, Section 3 that minorities have the right to participate in national decisions. In Article 5, states are asked to take due regard for minorities in their laws and interests.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states in its Fifth Article that cultural rights are a part of human rights. As per the Declaration, all people maintain the right to the free flow of thought and expression.
According to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, Article 3 states that discrimination based on religion or belief is considered a violation of human dignity and hence to the Charter of the United Nations. Article 4 calls upon all States to actively seek the elimination of discrimination within to provide equal freedoms in civil, economic, political, social, and cultural life. In Article 6, different applications to this freedom are presented, including the right to establish and maintain a place of worship and assembly, the ability to write and share material in the religious field, and the right to observe and celebrate one’s holidays.
The Second Article of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is an act committed to destroying, wholly or partially, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Subsection (b) lists physical and mental harm to group members as a form of genocide. Subsection (e) designates the forcible conversion of children to another group as a form of genocide.
According to Article 2 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous peoples have full and equal rights as all other individuals and shall not face any forms of discrimination according to preceding statutes and charters. Article 5 grants indigenous communities the right to self-determination while offering full participation in State affairs should they choose to do so. The basic rights of indigenous peoples are stated in Article 7, Section 1 as “life, physical and mental integrity, liberty, and security of person.” Article 8 calls on States to actively eliminate any forms of discrimination, prohibit any forms of cultural or identity deprivation, and disable any forced integration. Articles 11, 12, and 13 grant the right to cultural preservation, representation, freedom of expression, and freedom of transmission. This is later reemphasized in Article 34 to include the right to promote, develop, and maintain their “distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices.” Article 32 protects the indigenous people’s autonomy over their land and property, and a State shall not impose any legislation or projects over indigenous lands before consultation and agreement. Article 33 grants the freedom of identification to which indigenous populations can choose their specific way of identification in relation to the State without impairment to their right of citizenship. Lastly, Article 37 grants the right of recognition, observance, and enforcement of treaties by States toward their indigenous populations.
CATEGORIZATION OF INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS
With all the resolutions and propositions set by relevant bodies in the UN, there has been no official or bounding definition limiting what and who the indigenous people might be. However, notably, The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples and the “Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations” by José Martínez Cobo set a list of criteria that, for the purposes of this report, can be considered as the standards that, if passed, refer to the presence of an indigenous identity. This report considers each of these standards and their compatibility with the Coptic population. These standards are:
- A strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
The general genetic makeup of most Egyptians shows a significant link to the land. While about 17% of DNA origin (according to one study by the National Geographic) is connected to Southwest Asia, Egyptian DNA origin comprises about 68% of Northern African descent and smaller percentages of Jewish Diaspora, Southern Europe, Eastern Africa, and Asia Minor. However, according to a study done on the genetics of Eastern African populations in 2015, the Coptic population shows no Sub-Saharan and significantly fewer Middle Eastern/North African ancestral links than the whole Egyptian population. Rather, Copts own a much more distinguishable genetic and ancestral makeup (DNA) that makes up the majority of their total ancestral results.
Aside from genetics, cultural heritage and continuity are distinctive. For example, the farming populace in Egypt depends on the Coptic calendar, an edited version of the Ancient Egyptian Calendar. In contrast to other calendars, the Coptic one is customized to determine the Nile flood times and the optimal times for planting and harvesting as well as peak seasons for sandstorms and cold weather. Not only is it an example of cultural continuation, but the calendar is one of the numerous examples of everyday activities and practices that reflect the Copts’ indistinguishable link to their land.
- Distinct social, economic or political systems
Copts maintained their own educational system and family status regime over the centuries under Arab-Islamic rule, which was initially governed by the Church, and later by the Melli Councils. As of 1956, educational curricula became subject to government control, and Copts had to adhere to the national Family Status laws. Those laws dictate religious tenets to non-Muslim citizens (followers of ‘Heavenly Religions’), provided that these provisions do not violate Article 2. This means that marriage, divorce, and child custody rules are specific for marriages within the denomination. However, Sharia rules prevail should a marriage partner ‘convert’ to another denomination. Also, a Christian couple cannot adopt a child as this is prohibited by Sharia. The law stipulates that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Alternately, Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men.
From the 7th and up to the late 19th century, the mandated jizya typically constituted an enormous burden on the majority of the population. The Patriarch was frequently kidnapped by the governor and demanded a ransom for his war efforts. An unofficial council of bishops usually met to planhow to pay for ransoms and extra fees and decide on the status of many of the church properties should they need to sell them due to financial crises. The Ottomans ended the jizya mandate across their Empire and substituted it with badal-asskari (tax for non-Muslims to be exempt from military service). In Egypt, it was Khedive Saïd Pasha who ended the Jizya in January 1855.
Until near the time of the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, Copts maintained a much more established community leadership aside from religious leadership. Archons were Coptic notables of elite financiers, landowners, and bureaucrats, as well as modest farmers, artisans, and laborers who represented the Coptic public in the administration. They were usually not officially appointed and executed the work voluntarily, and they almost always had a say in the choice of new patriarchs. This social system was eventually weakened after 1952, when the political parties (where Copts were disproportionately more active) were dissolved, and later the land reforms and nationalizations occurred, which decimated the Coptic secular elites. Eventually, new types of Coptic elites emerged, composed of businessmen, liberal professionals and bureaucrats. But these professionals were much too weak to challenge either the State or the clergy. The inevitable result is that management of church assets was left under the clergy’s authority, and secular elites were not permitted to represent the overall interests of the community vis-à-vis the government.
- Distinct language, culture and beliefs
The Coptic language is the last stage of the Ancient Egyptian language, which was initially written in hieroglyphics, then in Demotic (‘popular’) characters, before adopting the Greek alphabet (with additional 6-7 characters to represent specific sounds.) With the advent of Christianity, the theological and liturgical terms of the new religion were adopted from Greek into Coptic. Coptic is a fully structured language that is still used today in liturgy and can be spoken fluently by many members of the clergy and devoted Copts. The language’s common use declined over several centuries for a variety of reasons, ranging from coercion by certain rulers to the practical needs of working in the diwans or conducting daily business. A major blow was dealt in the mid-twelfth century when the Patriarch decided to prioritize the translation to Arabic of the Gospel and the liturgical books. A strong pillar of Coptic identity was thus shaken. Some villages in Upper-Egypt still used Coptic fluently until the 1930s. On the other hand, the Coptic language survives in the Egyptian ‘colloquial’ language, which retains numerous Coptic words as well as the grammatical construction of sentences.
Coptic culture and civilization are the result of the emergence of political and cultural scatter in Egypt around the Greek conquest. With the blending of Egyptian, Ptolemaic, Greek, and later Christian tenants around Lower Egypt, the Coptic culture emerged with distinct culture, practices, and beliefs. Historically, the Copts gradually maintained their unique attire, calendar, food, language, and holidays. For example, the majority of the Coptic holidays, cannot be found in either national or Western Christian celebrations, making them religiously and socially distinct.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most of the modern Coptic population belongs, was historically one of the four leading universal churches in addition to the Churches of Constantinople, Antioch, and Rome. Two of the first three universal church councils were presided over by Coptic Patriarchs, and much of the fundamental church documents were written and theorized by Coptic theologians. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon discussed the nature of Christ, which, due to mostly linguistic and cultural misinterpretations, caused a schism in the universal church between the Coptic Church and its sister Oriental Orthodox Churches and the rest of the churches (all of the other orthodox churches, the Catholic Church, and later most of the Protestant churches). While Copts often identify themselves as monophysites rather than miyaphysites- with which many Chalcedonian churches correctly identify them – the Coptic Church established a unique form of belief and prayer in comparison to most other churches, transforming their religious practices to a mix of liturgy and historical symbolism.
- Historical continuity with pre-invasion and/or pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories.
Evidence of Coptic texts date back to remnants in ancient temples and tombs to modern-day books with similar text in the same language. Much of the clergy’s clothes and components of liturgy have evolved from Ancient Egyptian religions and times of Arab persecution. Coptic liturgical music, for instance, involves many elements of Ancient Egyptian chants that were preserved by chironomy, particularly any foreign influence such as that of Greeks. Much of the vocal techniques and vowel projection suggest an undeniable link between Coptic liturgical chants and Ancient Egyptian hymns. The same idea applies to language, dietary systems, holidays, funerary rites, and secular rituals.
Despite Greek, Roman, and Arabic influence on Coptic culture, the Copts maintained a strictly conservative view of protecting their existence. For example, despite the change of holiday dates by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church still uses its original calendar to determine holidays’ dates. Other aspects include their unique liturgy and form of prayer that differs from all other orthodox and non-orthodox churches. Even in secular life, Copts still maintain unique rituals for al-sebou’ (newborn celebrations), tehour (circumcision ceremonies), weddings, and funerals.
As a central theme, Coptic representation has been a question that fluctuated during all Arabic political dynasties and stabilized by the twentieth century. When Sa’ad Zaghlul planned a delegation in 1918 to represent Egypt in Great Britain after World War I, George Khayat, a Coptic notable figure, asked Zaghlul where the Copts’ place was in this delegation, as not a single delegate was Coptic. Zaghlul answered him: “Rest assured, Copts will have the same rights and duties as us, in all equality.” This “us” resulted in consistent discrimination in for Copts. Otherness has been a standard way in which to treat Copts, as a second group and a population with divided loyalties because of their faith. Historically, Copts were isolated from governing and persecuted as hieratic monophysites. After the Arab invasion, they were considered a desperate population sharing a religion with the Western enemy. Today, the only progress that has been made is to reserve the appointment of the Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affair, which has been filled by a Coptic woman, to fill in for two underrepresented peoples, Copts and women in general, with one junior ministerial position. The Coptic population has very minimal representation in government and is almost non-existent in higher education, national sport teams, and any entities that represent the state internationally. Christians are underrepresented in the military and security services, and those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks. No Christians serve as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government bars non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating that the curriculum involves study of the Quran. 
- A determination to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and identity as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system
The only major, living institution that focuses on Coptic cultural preservation is the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church hosts many of the projects that were initiated with Coptic language revival and Coptic theological education. The Church has also sponsored projects to teach Coptic iconography and calligraphy. Oral transition is also the major source to transmit rituals and oral historical records, which some independent NGOs and the Church have recently started recording. There are some limits on those activities to avoid “evangelism” or “defamation of religion,” both legal crimes in Egypt.
INTERNATIONAL POLICY TOWARDS THE COPTIC CASE
In 2016, Coptic Solidarity worked with Rep. Dave Trott to draft and introduce H. R. 5974 – Coptic Churches Accountability Act, with 3 original cosponsors. While the bill did not move
beyond the Foreign Affairs Committee, the introduction of this legislation was enough incentive.
for the Egyptian government to finish repairing churches destroyed and damaged in the August
2013 anti-Christian riots that occurred when President Morsi was ousted.
Coptic Solidarity worked with U.S. Congressman French Hill to draft and introduce resolutions supporting protection and equality for the indigenous Copts of Egypt in the previous three sessions of Congress. Despite broad bi-partisan support and numerous cosponsors on each resolution, partisan and individual politics prevented the resolutions from moving beyond the Foreign Affairs Committee. For example, former Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) was Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee during one of the sessions that a resolution was prevented from moving forward. Immediately after retiring from Congress, Mr. Royce became a lobbyist for the Egyptian government, shedding light on how personal profit can thwart good policy. These types of obstacles are omniprevalent. In September 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden authorized the withholding of 130 million USD of the total 300 million USD FMF grant to Egypt pending the improvement of human rights conditions. US Senator Patrick Leahy successfully blocked an additional $75 million in military aid to Egypt in 2022, due to human rights concerns and political prisoners. In the 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Egypt by the U.S. State Department, there were several cases of harassment, persecution, and unreasonable detention based on the “blasphemy” laws.
In November 2022, the European Parliament issued the Joint Motion for a Resolution on the Human Rights Situation in Egypt (RC-B9-0505/2022), which condemns the lack of fundamental political rights and freedoms in Egypt. The report calls on the government to stop discriminating and grant full equality to the Coptic population. The report also condemns the methods of torture and lawless detention used by the government. The report also calls for the government to repeal NGO Law 149/2019, which severely restricts domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations. The report urges the amending or repealing of the 2018 Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law, its 2015 Terrorist Entities Law and the 2013 Law on Public Meetings and Peaceful Demonstrations. Egyptian Senate Speaker Abdel Wahab Abdel Razek declared in a session that the resolution is based on “fragile assumptions and misconceptions.”
The Human Rights Council issued its Universal Periodic Review on Egypt in its Forty-Third Session (A/HRC/43/16/Add.1), where 133 member-states made 372 recommendations. Recommendation 161 by The Republic of Haiti asks for local and regional governments to take measures to protect Christians from extremists, especially in Upper Egypt, which the government accepted. Many recommendations were not accepted, deemed inaccurate, or considered hostile, and most of those were centered around freedom of expression, releasing political detainees, and limiting restrictions on NGO activity. Those recommendations include, but are not limited to, 25, 130, 167, and 201. The government also did not accept the Principality of Liechtenstein’s 36th Recommendation to “Join the Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as elaborated by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group.”
The Amnesty International Report for 2021/2022 criticized the government’s repression and discrimination against Christians in law and practice. The report condemns the 2016 law that regulated the licensing of church buildings and reparations and reports that less than 20% of the submitted applications get approved. The report condemns the government’s lack of urgency in saving Nabil Habashy, a Christian in North Sinai that was recorded as being killed execution-style by the Sinai Province. The government, according to Amnesty, also failed to help the hundreds of Christians in North Sinai that were displaced by terrorist organizations.
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