The continued threat for Coptic Christians in the Mideast

Copts have historically been attacked in Egypt, and experts predict that the religion will continue to face hostilities from extremist groups.

February 19, 2015 16:30
3 minute read.
Egyptian Coptic Christians

Women hold up pictures of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by Islamic State in Libya, as they gather in a gesture to show their solidarity, in Amman. (photo credit: REUTERS)

With the largest Christian presence in the Middle East, the Coptic Church is now down 21 members after recent mass beheadings in Libya, and is in danger of losing more as sectarian strife continues to sweep the region.

According to Assistant Professor of  Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Kiel, Sebastian Elsässer, this most recent crime has particular root in propaganda of Egyptian Islamist circles, especially Salafi circles, against the Coptic Orthodox Church and its treatment of converts to Islam. Islamic State social media claims that the killings were done in revenge for Waka’ and Kamila, two Christian women who supposedly converted to Islam during the 2000s, and were later, according to Islamists, tortured or captured by the church.

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Coptic supports of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could further lead to hostilities from both Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist circles, Elsässer believes. Islamist groups in the region are likely to continue this streak of violence against Middle Eastern Christians as long as they are in support of the government. In addition, such violence against Copts will help promote Sisi’s agenda of restricting individual liberties.

“For the time being, violence against Egyptian Christians is going to strengthen the hand of the Sisi regime.” Elsässer says. “It claims that its increasing restriction of personal and civic liberties is necessary because the nation must stand united against terrorism. Any acts of violence that can be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups help to renew this line of argument.”

When the Islamic State attacked a Catholic Church in Baghdad in 2010 they used the same logic, stating that the attack was motivated by Salafist demonstrations against the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo.

Under Sisi, Copts have been protected by the government in name only, but have been subjected to violence at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. At least two Coptic churches were hit by explosives in 2010 and 2013, during which a reported 13 Copts were killed. In Libya, dozens of Copts were tortured by a militia in the city of Benghazi for their faith in March 2013.

Although the Egyptian constitution calls for equality among all religions, Copts hold a lower societal status, and many have fled the country as a response. The Christians beheaded by ISIS were among such Copts in search of employment opportunities.

According to a 2013 Amnesty International report, the Egyptian government has failed to protect Christian schools, churches and charity buildings. No Christians serve as governors, presidents of public universities, or deans. There are few Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces, and many Christians face discrimination within the educational and public sectors of society.

Many believe that Copts in Egypt have faced violence since the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and the birth of the modern Egyptian state in the early 1950s. In recent years, scandals have continually arisen in which Copts are accused of "corrupting" their Muslim neighbors with Christianity.

Coptic Christianity originated in the first century in Egypt when it was founded by Saint Mark the Apostle. Copts adhere to monophysitism, a theological position on the divine nature of Jesus Christ primarily associated with Egypt, due to its early founding long before Protestantism, or other more modern sects of the religion.

Today, Egypt holds the largest population of Coptic Christians, but they also exist in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Copts survived through the rise of Islam in Egypt, and today they make up roughly 10% of the country's population. The remaining 90% of the population is Muslim.

The Coptic Christian Orthodox Church does not differ much from the rest of the region's Christians except that they believe in the single divine nature of Christ and they have their own “pope” in Alexandria. 

Copts may be the largest sect of Christianity in the Middle East today, but they are not in communion with the rest of European Christianity, according to Marav Mack of the Truman Institute for Peace at Hebrew University. Their unique practices, such as praying in their own language, separate them from the rest of the Christian world.

“They are trying to bridge the theological bridge between them and European Christianity, as this is very much pre-protestant Christianity” Mack says. “Egypt is the place where monasticism was invented. In many ways Egypt defined how we think about the Christian world.”
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