Egypt's Coptic Christians

Their 14 century-old coexistence with Islam has faced strains frommilitant extremists

Milad Hanna fingered his prayer beads methodically as he leaned into the microphone and spoke about recent reports of mass arrests and torture of Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt. This, he said, looking into the predominantly Muslim audience, is not a religious issue. A spontaneous burst of applause erupted from the assembled crowd.

The issue, Dr. Hanna went on, is indiscriminate police brutality (which human rights organizations confirmed). A prominent Copt and former parliamentarian, Hanna was referring to a highly charged incident last August in the village of el-Kusheh that created an international uproar when a London paper detailed the torture and labeled it Christian persecution.

But Hanna was not there to set the foreign press straight. This was an informal meeting at the private Shams sports club. The audience (with the exception of me) was exclusively Egyptian. Hanna, along with Salah Ideen Hafez, a well-known columnist for Al-Ahram, had come to discuss the fractured relationship between the country's native Coptic Christian and Muslim communities.

Egypt's long and layered history of cohabitation between Muslim and Christian - now in its 14th century - has seen periods of rapprochement and periods of greater segregation. But through the centuries, the two communities' shared cultural experience has been uniquely Egyptian and ultimately binding.

Both monotheistic faiths have tempered and shaped each other's practices and customs into what Hanna calls "Egyptian Islam" and "Coptic Christianity," producing a long-standing respect and tolerance between adherents of the two faiths. (Copts make up 6 to 12 percent of Egypt's 60 million population, depending on whom you ask.)

Over the past three decades, however, this symbiotic relationship has come under increasing pressure from the tide of Islamic fundamentalism and government suppression. The divisive effect has been subtle and profound.

Where once pride in being Egyptian superseded religious affiliation, now faith enters earlier into the conversation and is increasingly germane to identity.

Religious consciousness and the politics of identity are gaining ground, says Mona Anis, culture editor for Al-Ahram Weekly, a sister publication of the country's leading daily.

By way of example, Anis recounts a recent conversation with her Muslim hairdresser, who probed about her faith by asking when she would be celebrating Christmas. On discovering she was Muslim, albeit nonobserving, he was surprised and delighted. Yet Anis felt disheartened by the exchange. "Ten years ago," she says, "that question would never have been asked."

In the past decade, religious consciousness has quietly crept beyond conversational labeling to more palpable divisions. Among the poorer classes, many Muslims who once visited Coptic doctors have since switched to Muslim physicians, citing Islamic dictates that a believer should not undress in front of a nonbeliever.

It's an interpretation put forth by populist preachers, Anis says, and, like many of their pronouncements, has questionable basis in the Koran or Hadith traditions. The fundamentalist bent in Muslim practice, however, has pushed Copts closer to their own church and caused a greater parting of the communities.

Yet that rift may have reached its nadir, suggests Marlyn Tadros, a human rights activist researching a book on the two communities. A Copt herself, she says that in the last year, there has been a small but perceptible easing of tensions with the government, which has made several gestures to the Coptic community.

The most recent was the broadcast for the first time on local and satellite television of the Orthodox Coptic Christmas service. Conducted by Pope Shenouda III, the two-hour liturgy was beamed out Jan. 7 from the Patriarchy in Cairo. With almost a complete absence of Coptic programming on TV and radio, the broadcast was doubly significant.

Last year, the government also returned church endowments, including land and property, that had been seized decades earlier under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

And an 1856 Ottoman imperial decree that required Copts to obtain permission from the president of the republic to build or even repair church edifices has been reworded to allow governors to grant permission. In the past, obtaining approval has often meant months or years of delay, even for minor repairs. (Mosques are not subject to the same rigors.) Although the change lowers the bar slightly, Copts are still not happy, Tadros says. "But it's a gesture," she concedes.

The role religion plays in Egypt's politics and culture is key to how the rift was created and why it may now be healing. Although the country is a social democracy, it has never had a separation of church and state in the American sense. Islam is the official religion and the principal source of legislation. The government licenses the mosques, appoints and pays the imams, and monitors their sermons.

Equally, there has long been a lack of even-handedness in dealing with Coptic Christians. Key posts in the military and government are out of bounds. And constitutional rights sometimes get overshadowed by political expediency.

It was Anwar Sadat's backing of fundamentalist groups in the 1970s to counter leftist influences that first brought religion into the forefront of public discourse. Sadat called himself "the believer president" and changed the Constitution to make sharia or Islamic law the principal source of legislation. This Islamization - fed by millions of Egyptians returning home after years working in the more conservative Gulf and Saudi Arabia - caused rifts with not only the Christian community but also secular Muslims. When a state is Islamicized, says Tadros, "anybody who is not Islamicized will feel like an outsider. That's how the break occurs." In the streets of Cairo, the most visible signs of that shift are the many scarfed women, and the occasional fully veiled one. Schoolgirls don the head-covering early. And many young men sport beards and the prayer caps that signal religious devotion.

The Coptic community responded to the boom in religious programming, publishing, and conservative dress by drawing more closely to the church. Traditions were revived, services added, and Sunday school activities expanded. Monasteries were renovated and new churches built, even without the required presidential decree.

But in associating more with their own kind, Tadros says, the Copts widened the gap from the Muslim society around them.

In the ensuing years of militant and government struggles, the Christian community frequently became a scapegoat. Militants attacked Coptic businesses to help fund their cause. And Copts Christians became easy targets, particularly in the rural south.

When the militants' aim to embarrass the government failed, they upped the ante and preyed on foreign tourists, finally forcing the state to step in.

But a number of Muslims and Copts suggest the militant escalation may have reached its height, largely crushed by the security forces. The trend toward veiling has also peaked, Anis and several other social observers added.

"The Islamic trend at large - intellectuals, sheikhs, political activists - all respect the freedom of the Copts," says Abdul Wahab al-Messeery, an informal spokesman for political Islam and a former professor of English literature at Cairo University.

This assessment was echoed countless times by Egyptian Muslims of every walk of life: Islam guarantees the right of Christians and Jews to practice their faith. It's a well-recited tenet, which many older Muslims defended with tales of Coptic school friends, shared childhood, and trusted fellowships.

But the younger generation's experience is less embracing. One Muslim mother said her daughter returned home from school one day and announced, "I hate Copts." Shocked, the mother pointed out that the girl's favorite family friend was Christian, and the hostility was quickly diffused.

At the Shams Club meeting with Hanna and Hafez, however, there was almost no one under 40 years old. At the same time, the gathering showed the genuine concern Egyptians have about Copt-Muslim relations, even if the dynamics of that relationship may have permanently changed.

When Hanna first coined the phrase "Egyptian Islam" in the early 1980s, his wife feared Islamists would seek his life. But the concept won broad acceptance, he says.

What's happening now, Hanna says, is that moderate Egyptian Islam is being reshaped by Wahhabism - a stricter, more literal interpretation, largely practiced in Saudi Arabia. It's a school of Islam that developed without the tempering influence of another monotheistic faith, he explains. As a result, "Egyptian Islam will not survive," he says with resignation. "Culturally, we are not propagating Egyptian Islam."

That may be. But most Egyptians interviewed expressed a deep desire to maintain that traditional cohesiveness. "Egyptians are one element, one ethnic root, but two religions," said Hafez, the columnist who addressed the Shams club meeting. "When someone from outside tries to create an internal crisis, they start with the two religions."

This was not the first crisis. It started with the crusades, he said, and ended with the British occupation, which tried to create a rift by elevating Copts to elite administrative posts.

Tadros is more pragmatic about the final outcome. "When a plate cracks, it never gets back to what it was before," she says. "It's a question of cycles. This is one of the bad cycles, but it's passing."

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