Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community

Concerned with the standing of minorities and the under-represented in the new Egypt, Amador Square has followed events relevant to the Egyptian Christian community through a number of blogs, including, “A Sense of Belonging.” The blogger, Jayson Casper, is an American writer with Christianity Today, Lapido Media, and Arab West Report, living in Egypt. A professed Christian himself, Jayson’s approach is to build understanding between cultures and religions, even as he wears the hat of a journalist.

Jayson Casper, American writer living in Egypt.

Two of Jayson’s recent posts alternated between bold analysis—“Islamo-Fascism”–and straight reporting—“Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt.” Jayson’s balancing act prompted me to invite him to a Q&A, and I am privileged to share his thoughtful insights today—along with some wrong assumptions on my part. Before our Q&A, a quick—assumedly narrow—introduction to the history of Christians in Egypt and review of recent events is in order.

The majority of Egypt’s Christians are part of the Coptic Church and make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. Their history began with the arrival of gospel-writer and Apostle Mark in Alexandria, during the Roman occupation in the first century. Even after the Arab conquest in 641 A.D., Egypt remained largely Christian for another four centuries; Muslim dominance was not fully established until the 12th century.

A long history of persecution and marginalization of the Copts gave way to greater integration in the 19th century, with the abolition of the Jizya tax and the right to serve in the army. But conditions worsened again during the Nasser regime (1950’s-1960’s) when Pan-Arab policies and nationalism, property confiscations, etc., eroded the Copts’ pre-Arab identity and economic power. Their minority standing continued to be, and remains, threatened by periodic hostilities and violence.

The same month that would bring the revolution to Tahrir Square began with the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, killing 21 worshipers. Eight months after January 25th uprising–in the wake of another church attack—Christians gathered at Maspero-Cairo to demand equal rights and legal treatment–namely the right to build houses of worship without fear of violence and persecution.  Clashes with the military (Daily News Egypt raw video) resulted in 27 deaths and hundreds of injuries (NYT slide show). These violent clashes were portrayed very differently by the military and justified as action against sectarian vandalism.

The potential for sectarian violence is, in fact, very much on the minds of Christians. Strong defenders of the separation of church and state, the plight of Egypt’s Christians is now heightened by the Islamist push for a Constitution article that defines Egypt as a Muslim nation, with laws founded in Islam.

Such is the context that informed the Q&A with Jayson Casper.

Amador Square (AS):
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts were there, at Tahrir Square, demanding the ousting of Mubarak’s regime. What has changed for Copts, a year later?

Jayson Casper (JS):
A couple clarifications, first. Though the Muslim Brotherhood was not there officially when the revolution began, many of their youth were. Furthermore they were there officially after January 28.

Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church was not there in the beginning, or afterwards, though Christians did contribute from the earliest days. Christian activists I know, however, lament that their fellow believers were so few.

But you refer to the changing euphoria that Copts had following the revolution. Simply, they were dealt a huge blow by the military in the events of Maspero, and the other powers which emerged are mainly Islamist. I don’t think Copts want to go back to the old regime – they recognize the limitations and false freedoms of Mubarak. But they would not mind a reformed continuation of what was, though this creates a dissonance that mutes overt support for the revolution.

When you talk to Egyptian Copts about the community’s future prospects vis a vis Egypt’s political present, what do you hear most? Concern-to-fear; hope-to-optimism? What are some of the concerns and what are some of the opportunities Copts still hope to reap from the advent of the revolution?

There is the specter of Islamist rule that terrifies many, but it has little to do with the current political discourse and more to do with longstanding mistrust and the weight of sectarian incidents over the years. Even if the near-term political future is bleak, Copts generally still maintain hope that what the revolution has unleashed is good. Yes, Islamists seem to be reaping the fruit, but the revolution was clearly not an Islamist movement, and thus can hold any future government accountable. But there is also the worry that the revolution was Cairo- and elite-driven, and the basic conservatism (though not necessarily Islamism) of the masses may blunt the long term effects of the revolutionary cry.

For some years already, there has been talk about a decline in numbers and in religious freedom for Christians in the Middle East. Last year, for instance, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Kurdish-region of Iraq was quoted by The Catholic Herald as saying, “Iraq’s ancient Christian community has run out of time and will disappear soon.” DoEgypt’s Copts have reason for a more optimistic outlook than other communities inMiddle East societies under Islamist rule? How and why so? (What makes Egypt different?)

Egypt is different because there are so many Christians among an already large and still rapidly growing population. Birthrate differences, emigration, and conversions to Islam continue to shrink the population proportionally, but it will still take generations to see a similar dissolving of Copts in Egypt.

Sectarian tension also does not seem to be an essential part of the Egyptian religious identity. In history harsh periods of persecution were few, and generally tied to social instability or foreign pressures. Similarly, for all the incidents that have happened to Copts from Sadat’s presidency onward, most were of limited provenance and tied to specific social factors. While not excusing the real tensions behind and resulting from such attacks, it is wrong to extrapolate these and suggest they represent the core of Muslim-Christian relations.

That said, Egypt is undergoing social instability, and it is not out of the question to imagine Copts paying the price as local scapegoats, with some taking advantage of the situation to enact an extremist understanding of Islamic hegemony. Copts have been immigrating from the villages to the regional capitals, and from there to the big cities. The ease of modern migration enables further mass exodus. The Iraq example is a concern, but it should not be taken as a prediction.

What are some of the initiatives and organization the Copt community and leadership are undertaking to protect their religious freedom and their identity in the new Egypt? Who are the Copts allies?

The Coptic community suffers division in terms of who should represent it. Many fear the loss of Pope Shenouda means the church will lose its protective role and desire another strong pope to continue his tradition.

Others believe the strong role of the church damaged the community and its social integration. Some have made Coptic pressure groups and revolutionary organizations like the Maspero Youth Union, while others are simply diving headlong into politics such as the Free Egyptians or the Social Democratic Party. There is even talk of creating an organization similar to the Muslim Brotherhood – a Christian Brotherhood.

But other initiatives are like the one you ask about next.

One of your recent posts describes a new agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Evangelical Church in Egypt. What significance do you attribute to this document?

The significance is not in what was agreed; similar statements have been made by the Brotherhood in the past. The significance lies in that Christian groups are seeing the necessity of dialogue and relationship with Islamist forces. Relationships are vital in Egypt; they may not get you what you want, but if you are known, there is a great social bond which cannot be violated. Pope Shenouda is celebrated as having crafted such positive relationships.

It is also significant this agreement was signed by the Evangelicals only, though the stipulations cover all without distinction. But as the Orthodox Church has not entered into such dialogue may indicate they still have their eggs in the basket of old regime/military elements, for good or for ill. That may be too much of a speculation, of course, and as the representative of the vast majority of Egyptian Christians they may simply – and wisely – be refraining from entering too deeply into the vagaries of the current political transition.