Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality
by S. S. Hasan
Oxford University Press, 320 pp. $49.95
Sana Hasan, an Egyptian scholar best known for her Enemy in the Promised Land, has written another important book in Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt—a book in which she honestly confronts the sorry condition of Christians in Egypt, where the “problems faced by the Christian minority are for many . . . a taboo subject.” Hasan courageously describes the discrimination and harm often visited upon one of Christianity’s oldest communions—the Coptic Church. Courage is certainly required in a world in which Islamic leaders frequently suggest that the victims of Muslim violence are themselves to blame for it. Among other things, Hasan’s book is a welcome taboo-breaker.
The book has other merits as well. Though Hasan focuses on the past century in the life of the Copts, she capably fills in much Coptic history, which is too little known in the West. The Copts trace their traditions back to St. Mark the Evangelist and count among their luminaries such figures as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria. The tragic isolation of the Copts began in 451, when a majority of Egyptian bishops, led by Patriarch Dioscoros of Alexandria, refused to accept the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon, which decreed that in the person of Christ there are two natures, one human and the other divine. Dioscoros and his supporters argued that Christ possessed only one nature. The Copts have been known ever since to the Chalcedonians as Monophysites (from monos, meaning “one,” and physis, meaning “nature”). After Chalcedon, relations between the Copts and the Chalcedonians were often strained, and for two centuries well-intentioned religious and political leaders on both sides tried in vain to find some mutually acceptable teaching.
In the 640s, Muslim armies conquered Egypt, and ever since the Christians of the region have lived under Islamic rule. The work of Bat Ye’or (discussed in FT August/September 1997, February 1998, and May 2002) has shown that the idea of an Egypt where Christians and Muslims lived together in peace under the caliphs is a multicultural myth. So long as the majority of Egyptians were Copts, their Muslim overlords could not afford to persecute and alienate them. Copts were needed to staff the government bureaucracy, which the caliphs largely took over from the Byzantine government. After about three centuries Islam became the majority religion, and Muslims were free to vandalize churches, assault priests, and mock liturgies. Copts thus began their long, painful search for a peaceful place within their homeland. Alternately tolerated and persecuted, they were always dhimmi (second-class citizens).
Events of the nineteenth century seemed to offer the Copts hope for a better future. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1797 highlighted the weakness of the Ottoman sultanate and spread the doctrines of nationalism throughout Egypt. Influenced by these ideas, some Egyptians, such as the governor Muhammad Ali (1805-48), sought to create a state for themselves within the Ottoman orbit. Copts hoped that such a state—founded upon nationality rather than religion—would set them on an equal footing with Muslims. Ali wanted his regime to be a meritocracy, within which Coptic prospects would improve. Still, their traditional status as second-class citizens endured. The British occupation of Egypt, begun in 1882 to secure the shortest route between Great Britain and India, was also of small benefit to the Copts, since instead of cultivating good relations with fellow Christians, the British cynically courted the majority Muslims. Egyptian independence in 1922 merely aroused another round of nationalist hopes that were once again dashed by Muslim prejudice and jihadist violence.
In the twentieth century, Copts began to organize themselves to defy both the familiar persecution and new threats posed by modernity. The principal effort in this area was the Sunday School Movement, founded in 1918 by Habib Jirjal, an educated layman of the middle class, who decided that the political and religious movements then current in Egypt did not serve Coptic interests. Jirjal wanted Copts to rediscover, in the face of jihadist movements, not only their Christian traditions but also Egypt’s pharaonic inheritance, of which Copts believed themselves to be the true stewards, because Coptic is the native tongue of Egypt. Jirjal was likewise convinced that Coptic survival demanded economic development and modernization, by which he meant much-improved education for a traditionally ignorant Coptic clergy. As an educated layman, he wanted to end the laity’s subservience to a scandalously uneducated priesthood. Finally, Jirjal aimed to thwart the missionary work of occidental Christians, especially Protestants, whose disparagement of the ancient and beloved Coptic liturgy he found deeply offensive. To reach these goals it was felt that the best strategy was for the Copts to withdraw from Muslim Egypt and to preserve their religion, church, and way of life in a ghetto.
The leaders of the Sunday School Movement often differed as to the urgency of the movement’s aims. Some, like Bishop Samuel, championed the ascetic models of the desert fathers. Advocates of economic modernization, such as Abbot Matthew “the Poor,” sometimes found Samuel’s preoccupation with third-century hermits obscurantist. In the person of Pope Shenouda (the Copts style the patriarch of Alexandria their “pope”), the movement struck its best balance.
After the Second World War, the Copts faced another series of challenges. Nasser’s pan-Arabism seemed to leave the Copts (who tended to think of themselves as Egyptians, but not Arabs) out of his Egyptian nation. He also had a socialist’s suspicion of all large, private institutions and organizations. Still, his crackdown on Egyptian jihadists aided the Copts by crippling their most consistent persecutors. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, made more concessions to the jihadists, and violence against Christians broke out more often. The Egyptian government developed the habit—outrageous to decent men and women throughout the world—of ignoring attacks against the Copts, who rarely returned the violence. Jihadists assassinated Sadat in 1981, as the world well remembers, but they also assassinated Bishop Samuel in the same year.
Hasan believes that “the Copts have accepted molestation at the hands of Muslims with a resignation that borders on fatalism. Thirteen centuries of oppression have developed in them the traits of prudence and fearfulness.” What Hasan characterizes as fatalism, however, might better be explained as perseverance in suffering, for the Copts have long praised the examples of their martyrs; indeed, the accession in 284 of the Emperor Diocletian, who staged the most thoroughgoing Roman persecution of the Christian church, marks the first year of the Coptic calendar.
Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, brutally drove the jihadists out of Egypt and thus once again reduced the number of atrocities committed against the Copts. Pope Shenouda III, who was consecrated in 1971, decided to make an ally out of Mubarak, and to work with him behind the scenes. Over time, however, the policies of Mubarak’s government came to resemble Sadat’s more closely, and the jihadists now enjoy much support among the Muslims of Egypt. Egyptian state-controlled media regularly broadcast the anti-Judaic and anti-Christian sermons that jihadist religious leaders preach on Fridays, and the history lessons in the state-controlled schools rarely mention the centuries when Egypt was a majority-Christian province of the caliph’s empire. On the contrary, the books portray Christianity as a foreign, colonial implant in their Muslim country.
Though his alliance with Mubarak has grown increasingly tense, ShenoudaIII’s pontificate has re-shaped the Coptic church. Prior to his reign, the church suffered from a long tradition of episcopal inertia. In the past, the Pope of Alexandria was merely the first among equals, and reform movements had foundered on the autonomy of Egypt’s bishops. Shenouda in the past generation has centralized the church to reform it. He increased the number of dioceses and made sure that reformers, like himself, who had been formed as young men by the Sunday School Movement, received these new sees. Shenouda subjected monasteries, long immune from episcopal control, to his papacy. Administrative ability, as well as saintliness, now loomed larger in episcopal appointments. Each diocese established a bureaucracy to administer pastoral, educational, and charitable endeavors, as well as economic development projects. Many of the new bureaucrats were Western-educated laymen. In the past, Copts often complained about the length of their liturgies (sometimes up to three hours). Complaints are scarcer now, although many liturgies are longer because today’s priests preach more often, especially on Sunday. The priests are now better educated, which makes them more effective preachers, and the laity eagerly and patiently heed their sermons.
Under ShenoudaIII, the Coptic church has also been more determined to reach out to children and teenagers. The temptation for young, ambitious, and educated Christians to convert to Islam for social and economic reasons is powerful, as Christians have little prospect of obtaining coveted positions in government and education, regardless of their credentials. These youngsters represent the future of Christianity in their country—a Christianity first preached in their land by the Apostles themselves.
Hasan’s narratives are far superior to her interpretations, which sometimes rely on odd historical parallels or inappropriate sociological models that impede, rather than enhance, her understanding of the plight of the Copts. She is not herself a Copt, and the reader may sometimes feel that she does not give sufficient weight to the religious motivations of the people she studies. Nonetheless, her remarkably vivid description of this enduring and beleaguered Christian community overcomes the book’s shortcomings. Hasan is to be praised for this groundbreaking work, and anyone interested in oriental Christianity, as well as in questions of human rights and religious freedom, ought to read it.
Robert W. Shaffern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton.