Back the Copts: Muslims do.

by - 20th October 2011

The massacre of Copts last weekend in protests in Cairo is wholly ominous and I can add little to the best account of it I've read: New York Review of Books' writer Yasmine el-Rashidi's brilliant eye-witness account and analysis. 

Why then do I feel the need to write anything at all about the 25 deaths outside the state TV station on Sunday?  Is it really any of my business? 

The cyber-air is bristling with speculation enough without me adding my tuppenny-worth. 

But one thing else I must say:  that Muslims marched with Copts into Tahrir Square that night, and want none of the sinister Islamism, whose political strength is nonetheless increasing in the shadows.

One of my advisors Ziya Meral was there and reports it – and religious literacy if it is to contribute anything to world affairs requires not just accuracy but nuance.  He writes: 

‘I am currently in Cairo. Over the years, I have come to love this country and its people with all of it's complexities. And the experiences of tonight brings home all the good and the bad.

‘When I heard the news that Copts were protesting by the television studio near Tahrir Square, I thought about how much things have changed here. Copts protesting was unheard [of] till very recently. The church leaders have always refused it, mostly out of fear and Copts never thought their exclusion will end anyway.

‘As I walked towards the area, it became clear that the protests have turned violent. Smoke was everywhere, and people were running and shouting. Then came the military in their riot gears, firing rounds and tear gas. Soon, I had my own share of the gas and joined running crowds.

‘Muslims were marching with Christians, defending rights and protection for all Egyptians. A Muslim told me that he is here to defend Christians. Then picked up empty shells on the road and showed them to me.

‘Protesters grouped by Tahrir Square, and the military police sent more troops. More rounds.. More tear gas.. Then, a water cannon truck got stopped by crowds and torn down.

‘A young girl ran to me and asked me if I was a foreigner. I said I am. In perfect English, she asked me to run and go to any hotel I can enter. She said it’s not safe. And when I asked “What about you?”, she said “This is my country. I will be here.” Her genuine concern for me but disregard for her own life moved me deeply.

‘Eventually, I walked away from the area as my eyes burnt and I kept coughing.

‘Tonight, I saw first hand what I have been writing about and researching in Egypt for years now. Coptic youth are even coming against the Church's demands for calm and are now demanding a life equal with their Muslim compatriots. Since the impeachment of Mubarak, their situation only got worse. You can watch a TV debate I partook on the topic here!

‘But tonight, I was also reminded that the deep human longing for freedom and dignity are universal and inherent to all of us, whether Muslims or Christians or atheists. When it is denied, people will eventually raise their voices.’


Scholars have traced Coptic liturgical forms back to Pharaonic temple worship, i.e. more than 600 years before the Arab conquest in 640, yet they are second-class citizens in Egypt in terms of religious freedom.  There have been difficulties with church building, even building toilets and play facilities for churches for generations, as I saw for myself when I visited in the early 1990s.  Neither new churches nor renovation of old ones are allowed without a specific permit from the President and very few are. Even when the permit is not denied outright, delays are usually equivalent to denial.  

The feeling now is that the interim government could have wiped such prohibitions off the slate as an immediate gesture of goodwill and hope. 

Yet they did not.  So the resentment festers, and as in any relationship where one partner is seething with long-suppressed sense of humiliation and helplessness, the mood flips quickly over into anger.

These Coptic protests are unprecedented, and so was the state response to them.  


So what can we do?  I suggest we learn about the Copts and their historic patience and speak up for them and for the Muslims prepared to stand with them, while we can. 

The West owes much of its Christianisation and its civilization to the Copts: the drafters of the Nicene Creed that fixed the faith and is recited every Sunday were Coptic bishops, Alexander and Athanasius (325AD); the Desert Fathers who established small communities in response to persecution, inspired 1,000 years of monastic civilization upon which Europe was built.  They were Copts.

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ office issued a statement on Tuesday about the massacre.  It said:  ‘In modern times the significant Coptic Christian population in Egypt has been free from repression; Muslims and Christians have happily shared a loyalty to the one Egyptian state.’

The latter part of that sentence is largely true – I’ve witnessed SOAS’ Egyptian Professor of Islamics Abdel Haleem OBE embrace the Coptic Chaplain of St John’s College, Nottingham with real warmth.  But the Archbishop’s office must do a lot better on the question of repression if it is not to become a laughing stock.

The Copts’ long struggle seems to be unknown among the Archbishop’s ex-Foreign Office advisers and other elites who hobnob with wealthy sheikhs on the diplomatic circuit.

One very well-connected interfaith bureaucrat I spoke to this week, formerly with the Foreign Office, alluded knowingly to ‘Coptic wealth’ as the root of resentment against them.

Maybe it's true, but it's no excuse.  That’s what justified the extermination of another religious group in the 1940s.