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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Copts in Egypt

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Egypt Facts
Area:    997,738 sq. km.
Capital:    Cairo
Total Population:    66,050,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

The Copts have only one of the risk factors for rebellion – infrequent government repression, of both violent and non-violent actors. Protest will probably remain at low levels, however, given the poor political organization of Copts. Coptic leaders, including Coptic Pope Shenouda III, insist that there is no systematic persecution of Copts in Egypt, lowering incentives for Copts to protest. However there have been some protests by Coptic kindred groups abroad. However, as long as Copts remain politically and culturally marginalized, it is likely that they will continue to protest only verbally and symbolically. Furthermore, sporadic violence remains likely as long as tensions remain high between Muslims, Copts, and Egyptian authorities. The overall discriminatory treatment of Copts in Egypt is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. One positive aspect in this regard is the growing attention being paid in the United States to persecution of Christians overseas. As the recipient of the second largest amount of foreign aid from the United States, Egypt is susceptible to U.S. pressure to improve the situation of the Copts.

The primary threat to the Copts in the 1990s and early 2000s emanated from Islamic militants and the government’s inability to contain them effectively. In recent years Islamic fundamentalism has dramatically expanded in the region and remains a threat, especially since the strongholds of Islamic militancy also tend to be areas populated by Copts. Furthermore, the el-Kosheh incidents in 2000 and other violent clashes throughout 2002-2006 between Copts and Muslims indicate that Christians also remain vulnerable to violence on the part of ordinary Egyptian Muslims, who are not necessarily mobilized in the Muslim militant movement.

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Analytic Summary

The Copts are indigenous Egyptian Christians. While some are Catholics or Protestants, the vast majority of Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. They live throughout Egypt, but are concentrated in Alexandria, Cairo and the urban areas of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) (GROUPCON = 1). They are physically and linguistically indistinguishable from the rest of Egypt’s population. (However they pray in Coptic which is believed to be a derivative of the ancient Phaoronic language, but even most priests do not understand it.) Thus, religion is the primary factor distinguishing Copts from the predominantly Muslim Egyptian populace.

The Copts believe themselves to be the descendants of Egypt’s ancient Phaoronic people and the facts seem to support this. They were first converted to Christianity with the arrival of St. Mark in Egypt in A.D. 62. The Muslims arrived in A.D. 640 but did not constitute a majority of Egypt until about three centuries later, mostly due to the conversion of the Egyptian populace. Under Muslim rule, the Copts were alternately treated with tolerance or repressed. As Dhimi or "peoples of the Book," Copts are a tolerated religion under Islamic law. However, Islamic law can be interpreted in different ways to produce different levels of tolerance varying from considerable to none. In any case, Dhimi, under Islamic law, are always second-class citizens.

In the 19th century, the influx of Western ideas gave the Copts, favored by colonial powers, an opportunity to improve their status. This also had the result of increasing their level of conflict with the Muslim political community. This conflict intensified after Egypt’s independence in 1936, when the Copts began demanding equality in the new state. This resulted in a cycle of violence that did not end until Nasser’s "bloodless coup" in 1952, at which time Nassar’s autocratic government repressed the violence. Today, the Copts are economically advantaged in the sense that they are disproportionately prosperous city dwellers engaging in commerce and the professions (ECDIS06 = 0). However, they must deal with many disadvantages that offset economic well-being. The Egyptian universities are reluctant to admit Copts, and the government refuses to allow a Coptic university to be built. They receive a disproportionately low amount of public spending, which has fueled Copt economic grievances (ECGR06 = 1). There is clear discrimination in hiring in the private sector. Although they are overrepresented in the bureaucracy and military (a proportionally higher number of Copts than Muslims are drafted), they are underrepresented in the upper levels of these institutions. There are no Christian governors, university presidents, or deans. They are underrepresented in Egypt’s political structures (POLDIS06 = 3). They are excluded from the judiciary even in matters concerning marriage, divorce and inheritance (the latter resulting in the loss of a considerable amount of property).

They are also subject to religious discrimination, both official and unofficial. In the past the government restricted Christian broadcasting, public speech, holiday celebrations and the number of Coptic institutions. Although there was improvement in some areas in 2001 and 2002, such as the introduction of the Coptic era into the history curriculum of public schools, the declaration of the Coptic Christmas (January 7) as a national holiday, and the mass media increasingly covering Christian subjects, government discrimination continued, such as the alleged statistical underrepresentation of the Coptic population in the 1996 census, failure to admit Christians into training programs for Arabic language teachers in public universities (because it requires study of the Koran), and the payment of Muslim imams through public funds while Christian clergy must be paid with private Church funds. In the past, many Coptic hospitals, schools and Church lands were confiscated; though in recent years such official discrimination has substantially lessened and the government has returned some land to Coptic ownership. The government-sponsored television station has broadcast the Coptic Christmas Eve mass in recent years. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has also delegated to provincial governors the authorization for building or repairing churches. In 2001, the government donated three parcels of land for construction of new churches, which marked a significant shift in government policy with respect to church construction. While Copts still resent that they must receive governmental permission to build, there have been no reported denials of such requests (although some have reported intentional bureaucratic delays). In 1998 and 2001, the government returned some Coptic lands that had been confiscated in previous years. While Copts were subject to increasing violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists during much of the 1990s, violent conflict in 2002 was more sporadic. This violence often occurred with the tacit approval of local officials. The group Gama’a al-Islamiya is believed to be responsible for much of this violence, but it is only one of the numerous militant Islamic organizations. In addition Copts face violence perpetrated by individuals. The Egyptian government by the late 1990s had contained Islamic militants. However, just as Copts were beginning to feel more secure, the worst incident of Muslim-Copt violence broke out in January 2000 in the southern city of el-Kosheh. Twenty-one people (all but one were Copts) were killed; 33 were wounded; and 81 buildings (mostly Copt-owned) were destroyed. A dispute between a Coptic shop-owner and a Muslim customer initially sparked the violence. Sporadic violence continued through 2006, and Muslim attacks on Coptic churches sparked riotous responses in 2005, and 2006.

The Copts are not effectively mobilized politically. They do not enjoy territorial concentration and do not have a cohesive identity. The Copts do not have a political party, so their interests are represented mainly by Coptic Orthodox clergy and umbrella human rights organizations (GOJPA04-06 = 1). Protest levels rose with small demonstrations in 2004 and 2006 (PROT04, 06 = 3), as hundreds of Copts took to the streets in response to violent clashes with Muslims. The Copts have no recent history of violent rebellion. The prevalent method that Copts employ in response to violence and marginalization appears to be withdrawal or low-level demonstration. The upsurge in violence during the 1990s coincided with an explosion in the numbers of Copts entering monasteries and other religious institutions. Copts’ primary grievances are their political and cultural marginalization within Egyptian society and the seeming inability of the Egyptian government to protect them from attack by Islamic militants (CULGR06 = 1). Political grievances center on underrepresentation in national politics (although Mubarak has consistently appointed Copts to the Parliament and has included them in cabinet positions) and on equal civil rights (POLGR06 = 1). Copts also are disadvantaged in some judicial procedures, which are based on Shari`a, and some Christians alleged that the government was negligent when it came to protecting Christian lives and property. Cultural grievances center on continued restrictions on religious life, promotion of group culture, and freedom from threats from other groups. There are also consistent reports of Coptic girls being allowed to marry below legal age (or sometimes allegations of being kidnapped and forced to marry) Muslims and then being persuaded or coerced to convert. In these cases, the girls’ Coptic families are no longer allowed contact them.

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References

Amnesty International Human Rights Reports, 2001-2006.

Carter, B.L. The Copts in Egyptian Politics, London: Croom Helm, 1986.

The Coptic Network. "Encyclopedia Coptica" http://www.coptic.net/EncyclopediaCoptica/, accessed 4/24/2008.

Fischer, Eric Minorities and Minority Problems, New York: Vantage, 1980.

IRIN. 12/14/2005. "Activists call appointments of women, minorities "fig-leaf" http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=25812, accessed 4/27/2008.

Kamil, Jill. 1997. Coptic Egypt: History and Guide, Cairo: The American University in Cairo.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994, Reuters News, 1990-2000.

Lexis-Nexis. Various reports. 1990-2006.

Lippman, Thomas W. 1976. "Egypt's Christian Minority" Middle East Review. 9:1 pp. 32-5.

Mason, John P. 1984. "A Coptic Christian Priest's Symbolic Battle with Fundamentalist Islam" Middle East Insight. 3:5. pp. 30-35.

Nyrop, Richard (ed.) Egypt: A Country Study, The American University. 1982.

Sherry, Virginia N. "The Predicament of Egypt's Christian Minority"

The Washington Post, 1990-1994.

US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2001-2006.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006