Middle EastWorld

Who are Egypt’s Coptic Christians?

TANTA: A general view shows people gathering outside the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, after a bomb blast struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday. – AFP

CAIRO; Egypt’s Copts, targets of an apparent church bombing north of Cairo yesterday, are the Middle East’s largest Christian minority and one of the oldest. Making up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million, the Coptic Orthodox form the largest Christian denomination in the Muslim-majority country. Here is a recap of their history, their status today and recent attacks against them.

‘Dawn of Christianity’

The Copts trace their history to the dawn of Christianity, when Egypt was integrated into the Roman and later the Byzantine empire. The word “Copt” comes from the same root as the word for “Egyptian” in ancient Greek. The community’s decline started with the Arab invasions of the 7th century and the progressive Islamisation of the country, which today is largely Sunni Muslim. Several churches and monasteries in Egypt are built on sites Copts believe were visited by the Holy Family. The Bible says Joseph, Mary and Jesus sought refuge in Egypt after Christ’s birth to escape a massacre of newborns ordered by King Harod.

Copts today

Copts, represented in all social classes, are present across the whole country, with the strongest concentration in central and southern Egypt. Most adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, headed since 2012 by Pope Tawadros II. A minority is divided between Coptic Catholics and various Coptic Protestant branches.
Tawadros, who succeeded pope Shenuda III, was chosen by a blindfolded altar boy picking his name from a chalice, according to tradition. The Catholic Copts, who form part of the Church’s eastern rite, have been headed by patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak since 2013. The Vatican says some 165,000 Catholic Copts lived in Egypt in 2010. Poorly represented in government, Copts complain that they are sidelined from many posts in the justice system, universities and the police. Authorities often refuse to issue building permits for churches, arguing it would disturb the peace with their Muslim neighbors.

Deadly violence

Egypt’s Copts have been the target of several deadly attacks since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak. On January 1, 2011, more than 20 people died in the unclaimed bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria.
In March the same year, 13 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Copts in Cairo’s working class neighborhood of Moqattam, where around 1,000 Christians had gathered to protest over the torching of a church. In May 2011, clashes between Muslims and Copts left 15 dead in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, where two churches were attacked.
That October, almost 30 people-mostly Coptic Christians-were killed after the army charged at a protest in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt. The 2013 ouster of Mubarak’s elected Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi after just one year in power sparked further attacks against Christians. Pro-Morsi Islamists accused the Christian community of supporting his overthrow. They pointed to the appearance of Tawadros alongside President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on television in July 2013 as the then army chief, also surrounded by Muslim and opposition figures, announced Morsi’s removal.
The next month, security forces used deadly force to break up two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo. The following two weeks saw attacks against more than 40 churches across the country, according to Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International later said more than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked and 43 churches seriously damaged, with at least four people killed. In December last year, a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed 29 worshippers during a Sunday mass in Cairo.
A spate of deadly jihadist-linked attacks in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula in February prompted some Coptic families to flee their homes. About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video calling for attacks against the minority. Pope Francis is set to visit Cairo late this month for talks with the grand imam of the capital’s famed Al-Azhar mosque and to show solidarity with Coptic Christians. – AFP

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