Egypt’s Copts

Will the Region’s Largest Non-Muslim Religious Community Simply Disappear?

Nina Shea

In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”

The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.

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