First and foremost, Coptic people constitute the most significant ethnoreligious minority in Egypt. A Christian denomination that has resided in the country of Egypt for century continuously undergoes discrimination and maltreatment in the Muslim nation. These days, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt consists about 162,000 laymen. In addition to that, other Coptic population amounts to 7-15 million people according to different estimations. The overall situation for Copts in Egypt is significantly convoluted as the community does not get any religious recognition from the Egyptian authorities and often acts in exile. It is linked to historical reasons, current political instability in the regions and a firm attachment of the religious identity to the national identity.
Historically, ethnic Copts did not constitute a mainstream group of Christians once they had started to reside in the region. Nevertheless, they have experienced specific momenta where their position in the society could significantly improve. Under the rule of Muhammad Ali in the 19th century, the abolition of taxes for the non-Muslim population reinforced social equality for Copts in society. In particular, they could start enrolling in the army. Moreover, the efforts to reform the Church by Pope Cyril IV who called for broader encouragement of Coptic population to the decision-making processes helped Copts to participate in the decision-making processes of Egyptian affairs. However, in the 1950s, the reform led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and a coup d’etat that led to the establishment of the Egyptian Republic. For Copts, these outcomes have not been positive as they ultimately lost their political recognition. The governmental policy of pan-Arab socialism and nationalism did not foresee any space for the recognized ethnic groups such as Copts. Until now, the situation did not achieve any improvements as Copts continue to constitute a marginalized group.
First and foremost, the current persecution of Copts in Egypt ties to religious persecution in the country. Currently, religious policies in Egypt are limited due to discriminatory and restrictive government policies in the country. As a largest ethnic and a religious community, Coptic population experiences a particularly harsh attitude and marginalization. Specific examples of the challenges include the requirements to obtain permissions for reconstructing churches. Until 2005, the legislation was excessively harsh and required to undergo a lot of obstacles. Even though the legislation has been softened for the Coptic community, there are a lot of convolutions related to the discrimination of religious minorities groups in the country.
In recent years, an uneasy status for the Coptic community has been affirmed by the hate crimes allegations against the religious minorities. The community has been continuously targeted at hate crimes. It even led to the fact that Copts were victims of murder by Islamic extremists. The intensified tensions between Muslim and Christian populations followed disputes and gained new forms of religious and political misunderstandings. In 2010, the tensions reached the highest point of clashes whereby 400 Copts had to barricade themselves. The opposition mobs orchestrated by the Muslim populations destroyed 18 homes, 16 cars.
Another incident took place in 2006 when somebody attacked three churches in Alexandria, killed and injuring the Christian laymen. Although the incident became a subject of allegations against the Muslim population, the person behind the incident was later recognized as ‘psychologically unstable’. It signals that the Ministry of the Interior of Egypt continuously fails to recognize discrimination against Copts in Egypt. As soon as the complications arise, the Coptic population has no political protection. In response, the US government authorities expressed several concerns about internal discrimination towards the Coptic population in Egypt.
These days, there is only one Copt in the government’s cabinet of Egypt. This figure is excessively low for the country rich in the Christian minority groups. Although Egypt declares to respect freedom of religion in the country, certain minority groups face particular difficulties in regulating their religious affairs. For instance, a person of Christian identity can easily take on a new Muslim identity whereas it is frequently challenging for somebody of a Muslim origin to become Christian. In that realm, religious freedoms gain a form of a purely declarative nature instead of gaining sufficient protection by the state (Stacher). The incident was reinforced by the Cairo administrative court which denied 45 citizens their right to new identity papers for reversing to Christianity following their prior conversion to Islam (Sedra, 2014). Therefore, it was somewhat challenging to take steps for assuring religious freedoms in the country.
Institutionalized discrimination towards Copts in Egypt has different forms. Coptic population of Egypt faces discrimination in being granted second class citizenship, undergoes violence and cannot exercise their religious freedoms without any intervention by the state and may even experience deaths due to the limited freedoms (Sedra, 2012). With the passing of each new era, the legislation does not ease, and the complications continuously arise.
One of the primary steps to ease the life for Copts in Egypt should be increased political participation of the Copts and the independence of political institutions in the country. With the currently limited amount of Copts in the Parliament, the enforcement of any changes that will favor the Coptic population is barely possible. International organizations and an international community should react more actively to discriminatory politics. The Egyptian government should be punished for such treatment and should rethink its approach to treating religious minorities in the country. Otherwise, the population will continue to suffer from mistreatment until the situation in the region changes.
- Sedra P., “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict- Coptic Christian communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 10-2, (1999), 219-235
- Sedra, P. “Copts and the Millet Partnership- The Intra-Communal Dynamics Behind Egyptian Sectarianism,” in Journal of Law and Religion, 29-3 (2014), pp.491-509
- Sedra, P. “Reconstituting the Coptic Community Amidst Revolution,” in Middle East Report, No. 265, Winter 2012
- Stacher, J. “The Arab Republic of Egypt,” in Mark Gasirorowski, The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, pp. 371-396