Friday, March 23, 2012

The Coptic Church Today

A Coptic monk visiting with
faithful at his monastery on the
roof of the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher in Jerusalem
The Arab Caliphate invaded Egypt in 639 and from that time on Egypt was ruled by Muslims, yet for many centuries the majority of the Egyptian people clung to the Christian faith.  The main instrument that the Muslim rulers used to influence its subjects to convert was the jizya, a tax levied on non Muslims to remind them of their inferior status under the law and also a means of putting the burden of taxation on the Dhimmi or non-Muslims.  The jizya may have been a burden but it was not without benefit—as the Dhimmi were not subject to conscription into the military. And in some places, among the Palestinians for example, Christians were proud to pay this tax and saw it as a sign of spiritual integrity that their religious faith was not for sale.  In regards to Egypt, it is a testimony that as many Egyptians as did remained faithful to the Christian faith—between ten and thirteen percent of the population. 
     Despite popular Christian mythology, especially of the pseudo-evangelical sort, Islam has not made it its policy for there to be outright persecution of Christian or Jewish minorities in Islamic states.  The Arabian Peninsula, by the decree of the Prophet Muhammad, is restricted to Muslims and religions other than Islam are proscribed today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  And it is forbidden everywhere in the Islamic world for a Muslim to convert to another religion.  For the most part, the philosophy has been that intermarriage, and in particular the marriage of Muslim men to Dhimmi women, as well as the social disadvantages of not being Muslim will eventually persuade Jews, Christians, and others to accept Islam.  And so in Egypt, over the almost fourteen centuries since the Islamic invasion, the vast majority of people have accepted Islam.  But not the Copts and they are very proud of their independence.  
      The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered a negative reaction among many Muslims.  The “Crusade” language used by the previous American administration and the anti-Islamic rants of the religious right have sparked the resurgence of a militant Islam.  Oppressive regimes such as the Sadam Hussein Regime in Iraq and the Hosni Mubarak Regime in Egypt feared militant Islam and kept it at bay.  The overthrow of those regimes, rather than spawning democratic movements, has energized radical Islam. Unqualified American support for Israeli policies, especially in regard to the Settlement Movement, has also awakened a sense of Islamic solidarity especially among those Muslims of Arabic language and culture.  Indigenous Christian communities in the Near East and North Africa have felt the consequences of this.  Since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt the Copts have been put in an especially difficult situation with many violent outbursts against Coptic Churches and communities.  The more traditional harmony between the Muslim and Coptic segments of Egyptian society are giving way to more politicized and polarized antagonism. 
      Several months ago when first planning to do an entry on the plight of Coptic Christians I visited a Coptic Orthodox Church and spoke with several lay leaders of the congregation.  (I would have like to speak to the priest but no offer was made to introduce me; I suspect the laymen with whom I was speaking were anxious to get their opinions across rather than the views of a more official spokesperson.) 
      Unlike the Palestinians with whom I have spoken who feel that it is the Israelis who are squeezing them out of their ancestral homeland, encouraging them to emigrate and begin new lives elsewhere, the Copts with whom I spoke are blunt in saying that the cause of their suffering is Islam.  In this they are not unlike the Chaldean Christians—Iraqis—who also feel that it is their Muslim neighbors who are squeezing them out of the lands on which they have lived for millennia.  The Coptic men with whom I spoke that day pulled no punches in their blaming Muslims for the suffering of their ancient community.  For more information and (I believe) balanced views, I suggest you contact the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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