Coptic Christians make up Egypt’s largest and most significant minority population and the largest population of Christians in the Middle East. It is an Eastern Orthodox tradition, and most Copts follow the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Historically, the Coptic Church has roots in Egypt originating in the earliest days of Christianity; Christian religious sites mark the location where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are believed to have stayed during their flight to Egypt and are proximal to centuries-old Coptic churches.
The Coptic Church experienced a religious revival beginning in the 1950s, and currently claims some seven million members inside of Egypt, though population numbers are contested in a nation where religious minority issues are highly politicized. This revival was overseen by two prominent church leaders: Pope Cyril VI (d. 1971) and Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), the latter who oversaw the expansion of church activities, the creation of youth groups, and increased dialogue with other Christian religious leaders. The current Pope is Tawadros II (b. 1952).
Early nationalist movements frequently elided religious and ethnic differences in order to promote an Egyptian subject, though not always. Coptic Egyptians were active participants in nationalist and anti-colonialist movements, but were wary of any narrative that painted Egyptian identity as inherently Islamic, including the 1952 Free Officer’s Revolution. In 1955, Nasser abolished religious courts, including independent Coptic courts guided by their own personal status laws. Copts were negatively impacted by the creation of Israel, and were accused by some Islamists of being sympathizers to the Israeli cause. In the following decades, the Islamic revival prompted rising numbers of Copts to immigrate to North America, which currently has the largest Coptic diaspora community. The 1971 introduction of Article 2 to the constitution, which stated that Islamic law is the foundational source of Egyptian legislation, encouraged legal, social, and political trends that marginalized Egyptian minority communities, including the Copts.
Nonetheless, Copts continue to be active in Egyptian political and social life. Egyptian Copts were among the hundreds of thousands who protested during the Arab Spring; powerful images of Copts protecting Muslims praying and Muslims protecting Copts at prayer suggested feelings of nationalist revolutionary solidarity. These feelings were marred in months to come, during which Coptic Churches were targeted by bombings and in October 2011 when a protest against the destruction of a Coptic church in Aswan held in Cairo was attacked by the Egyptian military and police, resulting in 28 deaths. Coptic Egyptians were troubled by the continued rise of Islamist political parties and the presidency of Muhammad Morsi; he and the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated little sympathy for the rights of religious and other minorities.
Contemporary discourse on Egypt’s Copts is dominated by an assumption that Copts form a monolithic persecuted community, eliding the wide diversity of viewpoints that Copts historically and currently hold. This stereotype is shared by Coptic organizations abroad, which uniformly portray the Copts’ relationship with Muslims and with the Egyptian government as one of disempowerment/power, passivity/oppression, need/neglect, and pacifism/sectarianism.
These binaries have their own history. The notion that Copts are inherently separate from Muslims based on their religious identity is a legacy of the millet system used during the Ottoman period in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Coptic narratives of persecution are grounded in the historical memory of “the Era of Martyrs,” a massacre of hundreds of thousands of Copts beginning in 302 AD under the Emperor Diocletian (which marks the beginning of the Coptic calendar), such that the church acts as the protector of a minority perceived to be under siege throughout its history. The martyrdom narrative is among the most prominent, historically and today, which has sidelined other narratives in which Copts express political or social agency, including the expression of Muslim-Christian national solidarity or in which different Coptic perspectives compete.
Vivian Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2011), p. 3.
Yolanda Knell, “Cairo clashes leave 24 dead after Coptic church protest,” BBC News, October 9, 2011, accessed January 7, 2014.
Rachel Scott, The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).