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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Constant Struggle of Egypt’s Coptic Christians

A Coptic priest blesses the coffins of victims
A Coptic priest blesses the coffins of victims, killed in an attack a day earlier, during an early morning ceremony at the Prince Tadros church in Egypt’s southern Minya province, on November 3, 2018. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/ AFP

Dana Hourany 

Arsanious Wadid Rizqallah, a Coptic priest, was stabbed to death in Alexandria, Egypt, on April 6, 2022.

The priest was escorting a group of boys from a beach club to their bus when he was stabbed three times in the neck, severing the main artery. The priest died in hospital as a result of his injuries.

The suspect, identified as Nehru Tawfeeq, 60, was initially assumed to be mentally ill until psychological testing revealed no signs of a mental disorder. Tawfeeq was fully aware of his actions, and if convicted of murder, may potentially face the death penalty.

According to media reports, Tawfeeq had previously been a member of an extremist group in the 1990s and had done time in prison for being involved in terror activities before being released by a general presidential pardon. 

Not an isolated incident 

Religious fanatics have a long history of violence and tyranny against Egyptian Copts, particularly under President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and during the January 2011 revolution. Despite the looming threat of discrimination and attacks, social observers told Fanack that the Coptic community has regained a sense of safety and security under the current government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but that more work was needed to achieve a unified sense of Egyptian nationalism free of religious divisions.

Sila, a 34-year-old filmmaker, told Fanack that as a Copt, he felt safe knowing that his community was protected by the government’s swift enforcement of the law, the latest case in point being Tawfeeq’s swift prosecution.

“We’ve witnessed horrendous hate crimes in the past, so it’s good to finally see a semblance of control,” he said. 

History 

Coptic Christians have long been a significant minority in Egypt, but the resurgence of fanatic Islamism over the last 60 years has coincided with an increase in prejudice. Copts currently constitute up to 10% of the country’s 95 million population.

The Copts are a North African Christian ethnoreligious group who have lived in modern-day Egypt and Sudan since antiquity. Saint Mark, one of the first Christian missionaries, brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century C.E. The Greek term Egyptus, is the source of the name Coptic. 

Today, the majority of ethnic Copts are Orthodox. They are the primary Christian denominations in Egypt, as well as Sudan and Libya. Copts have spoken the Coptic language throughout history, which is a direct descendent of the Demotic Egyptian used in late antiquity.

The community follows an ancient Egyptian calendar consisting of 13 months and celebrates Christmas on January 7.

According to Father Maximus el-Anthony, the Coptic faith has evolved over the last decade, primarily through the modernization of old monastic conditions in order to decrease rigidity. 

In Egypt, there are three Coptic denominations: Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, with the latter being the most populous. The majority of Copts follow Pope Tawadros II’s Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, but Sila’s protestant family from Asiut in the south supports the Angelical Church.

It was in that same city where he was first exposed to religious discrimination.

Regional discrimination 

Sila grew up in Asiut, where a large community exists, and according to him, different religious groups did not generally intermix—Christians stayed with Christians, while Muslims stayed with Muslims.

“Many in the south have a tribal mentality, where they adhere to their traditions and only communicate with people in their immediate vicinity. Cairo, however, is much more tolerant and cosmopolitan,” he said. 

Outside of touristic regions, in North Sinai particularly, Copts are threatened with kidnappings and death, Murkus* (not his real name), a sociologist and a Copt himself, told Fanack.

“Most Christians that once resided in the north of Sinai for example have emigrated due to the lack of law enforcement in the area, which opened the door for compounded discrimination and violence,” Murkus said. 

Following the revolution of January 2011, numerous Copts fled the country, primarily to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Sila and Murkus concur that the years immediately following the revolution, 2012 and 2013, saw the highest levels of community violence.

According to Human Rights Watch, Muslim Brotherhood militants accused Coptic Christians of being the principal drivers in the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi and sought vengeance. Sila recalls the torching and looting of roughly 200 churches and Christian homes in Asiut and Minya.

In 2013, members of the Muslim Brotherhood broadcast messages of hate framing Coptic Christians as supporters of the death of Muslims. As a result, and in the run-up to Easter in 2017, a 70-year-old woman was stripped naked and paraded through a southern village, and a suicide bomber blew up a church in the heart of Cairo, killing 44 people.

As for the recent murder of the Alexandrian priest, Sila blames it on the large but muted presence of Muslim extremists in the city. He believes the crime may have been largely motivated by the controversial Ramadan series “Al Ekhtiyar” (The Choice), which reenacts the 2013 rallies that led to Morsi’s ouster. The series has provoked uproar among viewers, with some believing the events depicted are false while others believe them to be accurate.

Copts today 

Coptic Orthodox Christians reach out to touch the cross
Coptic Orthodox Christians reach out to touch the cross as they observe Good Friday prayers at the Saint Simon Monastery, also known as the Cave Church, in the Mokattam mountain of Egypt’s capital Cairo on April 22, 2022. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Orthodox Easter in 2022 falls on April 24, and Copts are anxious about possible attacks on religious celebrations, Murkus says. However, he points out that past violence and fear have had no impact on Coptic traditions or people’s determination to celebrate.

Good Friday prayers, according to Murkus, include hymns dating back to ancient Egypt and are usually recited until dusk. Then new prayers begin, lasting from Friday night until Saturday morning. The Coptic Church’s Easter ceremonies are then concluded with the Feast of the Resurrection.

Some of the traditional dishes served on Easter are tamiya (falafel) and boiled beans. 

Although the current Egyptian government backs the Coptic community through “friendly gestures” such as president El-Sisi attending the Coptic Christmas mass in 2015, which was the first time an Egyptian president had attended the event, Murkus believes that these gestures are insufficient and superficial.

Meanwhile, the government enacted a new bill in March that mandates all newly developed cities include church construction in their urban project and administrative plans, even “if the church to be built will be attended by only 100 people, it must be built anyway. So no one will have to meet in an apartment and present that private house as a church,” El-Sisi stated at the time.

The bill came in light of many Copts taking to their homes for religious worship. Many Coptics, according to Murkus, have been driven to turn their homes into spaces of worship because their churches have been destroyed and authorities have refused to issue new building permits.

“I believe they do this to avoid inciting Muslim extremists, but it just results in unlicensed churches that are not protected by the government and are vulnerable to extremist attacks,” he said.

One way to combat fanaticism is to develop rural areas, Murkus says. “The government must invest in younger generations who have limited access to diverse forms of education and entertainment and are solely exposed to religious teachings,” he said. 

“Building cinemas, cultural facilities, and libraries provides people with a different way of thinking that can help them battle extremism. Children will be too preoccupied with their activities to be drawn into extremist groups,” Murkus said.