Test of Faith

Over the last few decades, Copts—and most other Egyptians—have experienced various forms of political, social, and religious repression. But the Copts’ particular victimization as Christians became clearly highlighted just a few weeks before the outbreak of the January 25 revolution.

Mourning Pope Shenouda III, Cairo, March 17, 2012. Khalil Hamra/Associated Press/Corbis

Over the last few decades, Copts—and most other Egyptians—have experienced various forms of political, social, and religious repression. But the Copts’ particular victimization as Christians became clearly highlighted just a few weeks before the outbreak of the January 25 revolution. On New Year’s Day 2011, the Two Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria was targeted by a car bomb, which killed twenty-three people and injured close to a hundred. In the televised funerals following the attack, Coptic mourners chanted “mish ‘ayzino” (“we don’t want you”) at the governor of Alexandria and his deputies, who had come to pay their respects. Soon after, protests broke out in Cairo and Alexandria, where Copts—and even on occasion their Muslim supporters—battled police forces in an eerie prelude to the revolution. The boldness and the anti-government tenor of the demonstrations reflected widespread frustration with the status quo. It seemed mish ‘ayzino resonated with all Egyptians.

Christians in Egypt trace their history back to Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria in the early days of Christianity. There are an estimated eight million Coptic Christians, roughly 10 percent of the population, plus perhaps 100,000 other Christians adhering to a variety of denominations. When the revolution erupted on January 25, many Christians were readily prepared to join the protests despite calls from the Coptic Orthodox Church leadership to abstain from participation. The late Pope Shenouda III’s caution regarding the protests reflected the church’s longstanding position to maintain the status quo and also captured a widespread belief among Copts that a power change or vacuum would create an opening for Islamist groups whose agendas were either unclear or were outright hostile towards non-Muslims. Conversely, several Coptic intellectuals and activists argued that the Pope should eschew politics and that the church should not speak on behalf of Copts in non-spiritual matters. Regardless, and before long, numerous Christians were marching on Tahrir as the world watched the square transform into a utopian space where Muslims and Christians prayed side by side, protecting each other from harm. This Tahrir moment allowed Copts, perhaps for the first time in decades, to imagine that they too could have a meaningful role as equal citizens of a democratic Egypt and that they need not look to their clerical elders for political leadership and guidance.

But the excitement quickly gave way to uncertainty. For Copts, the first political battle came in March 2011 during the vote on the constitutional referendum. Many joined with revolutionary activists in opposition to the Islamists and called for a re-writing of the entire constitution prior to parliamentary or presidential elections. Echoing the unifying spirit from the earliest days of the revolution, activists challenged Article 2, which states that Egypt’s official religion is Islam and that Islamic legal principles are the main source of legislation. However, a referendum to implement limited modifications onto (rather than repeal) the constitution passed with 77 percent of the vote, and hastened an electoral process that favored, as activists had correctly anticipated, the election of established political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Then, within a few months of the revolution, a series of sectarian-motivated attacks against persons and properties, as well as church burnings, rattled the community and called into question the Copts’ place in a future Egypt. Among the most prominent and divisive of these acts was the burning of churches in Sol (March 2011), Imbaba (May 2011), and Al-Marinab (September 2011). The rising tensions and feelings of increased political marginalization led to the formation of the Maspero Youth Union, an umbrella group that mobilized Copts to demand justice and accountability for the ongoing violence being committed against Christians. The group, whose name derives from its protest hub near the state television building in the Maspero area of downtown Cairo, represented an emerging style of Coptic political activism, one that was autonomous from the Orthodox clerical leadership. Following the revolution, the Church, for its part, seemed out of step. In October, the Maspero Youth Union and the Free Copts movement staged a demonstration in Maspero that was violently dispersed by security forces, resulting in the deaths of twenty-seven people and the wounding of more than two hundred. Coptic Church leaders condemned the violence and mourned the fallen “martyrs” but they remained conspicuously silent about the role of the military in these attacks.

In a few short months, many Egyptians, particularly Christians, were beginning to lose hope in the realization of equality, freedom, and accountability, the very ideals of social justice promised by the revolution. Following the Maspero attacks, then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised that a Unified Law for the Places of Worship protecting Christian churches would be promulgated within thirty days, but the law never materialized. After the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists scored an overwhelming victory for Islamists in the parliamentary election in December and January, Coptic hopes for basic rights seemed even more tenuous. The new parliament mostly ignored stipulations for Christian-Muslim equality: for the fair and just enforcement of laws regarding freedom of worship and freedom of religion; for the removal of one’s religious identification from Egyptian identity cards; and for the institution of anti-discriminatory provisions in the workplace, among others. The fear that Egypt would turn into a religious state, where Muslim rights and roles were privileged over those of non-Muslims, seemed more immediate than ever.

The presidential election in May and June was another political battle for Copts. Christian volunteers visited rural areas and urban slums in a muwatana campaign (roughly, “instilling citizenship”), a sort of informal civic program to educate their coreligionists about candidates and the voting process. In the first round, most Copts opted for secular candidates with votes well distributed between Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, and Ahmed Shafik. The voting pattern reflected the same generational divide present among Egyptians at large, with many youth casting their votes for the Nasserist-socialist Sabahi. In the runoff, Copts voted in large numbers for Shafik, the former Air Force commander who stressed security, and greeted Mohammed Morsi’s victory with concern. Although Morsi has vowed to be a president for all Egyptians, his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has historically sent mixed messages regarding the rights of non-Muslims and women, elicits mistrust from many Egyptians. Morsi’s promise to appoint Coptic and female vice presidents brought condemnation from his Salafi supporters, some of whom have allegedly called for the implementation of the jizya tax on non-Muslims in a new Egypt. These developments have prompted many Copts to contemplate or pursue emigration to the West. Upper and middle class Copts might be increasingly motivated to leave, though their less fortunate coreligionists who also tend to bear the brunt of discrimination and sectarian tensions have fewer prospects. Coptic sources report that as many as one hundred thousand Copts have left Egypt since the revolution, although the the figure has not been well corroborated.

These events also occurred in the context of the death of Pope Shenouda in March at the age of eighty-eight. For the last forty years he was the public face of the Coptic community. Some Copts have argued that his role resulted in the community being more isolated, that Copts came to be seen as a separate part of Egyptian society by just having one figurehead—and a religious one—as their spokesman.

The future patriarch’s attitudes and policies will likely be vital in shepherding the millions who still see the papal seat as representing the Coptic voice. Yet, the Orthodox Church’s political wane during the revolution has created new loci of Christian leadership. Aside from the burgeoning youth movement, an important space has been opened for other Christians to emerge as dynamic and forward-thinking leaders. In particular, the Kasr Al-Dobara Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church in the vicinity of Tahrir Square has come into greater prominence and has been dubbed by many as the “Church of Liberation.” The church’s pastoral and youth leaders were active from the earliest days of the revolution, and the church served as a makeshift hospital for some of the wounded during the numerous skirmishes that followed in later months. Kasr Al-Dobara was also the first to host a commemorative service for those killed during the revolution and to honor the families of the fallen—both Muslim and Christian.

Coptic Evangelical leaders have also become ubiquitous on Christian satellite channels, calling for national unity and for solidarity against all forms of oppression. On November 11, 2011, a twelve-hour prayer marathon, broadcast live on SAT-7, was organized in one of Cairo’s largest churches in Muqattam and was reportedly attended by tens of thousands. This inter-denominational and charismatic service was infused with praise, song, and tearful worship. It revealed that as Egyptian Christians feel increasingly threatened in the uncertain political climate, they have become more willing, at least on a grassroots level, to overcome traditional denominational differences for the sake of unity and communal coherence.

The diverse forms of political activism, inter-denominational grassroots mobilization, and increased media attention illustrate how Copts are trying to become agents of their future, even as they feel targeted, alienated, and rightfully uncertain of that same future. Many Christians—young and old, men and women, Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox—believe that Egypt’s revolution was dependent, in great part, on their courage and their ongoing activism against injustice. They now wonder whether a new Egypt, dominated by an Islamist agenda, can safeguard and accommodate their rights as equal citizens.