Long read: The history of religious persecution in Egypt

In November 2018, seven Coptic Christians were killed and 18 injured when terrorists attacked the bus they were travelling in to visit the Monastery of Anba Samuel the Confessor in Minya, Upper Egypt. The attack took place in the same location where 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 23 injured less than 18 months previously by masked gunmen who opened fire on the vehicles they were travelling in.

These violent attacks are part of a wider, longer term pattern of religious discrimination and persecution faced by Egypt’s Coptic community. The term ‘persecution’ is not used lightly; according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, persecution is ‘the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.’

In order to understand the root causes of religious persecution in contemporary Egypt, it is important to examine the ideological, socio-political and cultural factors that have historically underpinned the persecution of religious minorities in the country.

Early Persecution

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has faced severe persecution for most of the past 2000 years. Persecution was first experienced under Roman rule in the first century, which intensified in 640 following the Arab conquest.

The new Arab rulers viewed Christians as polytheists and called them ‘Dhimmis’: a derogatory term that indicates a protégé status (protected subjects) for its holders and relegates them to second-class citizenship. The Dhimmi status was only attributed to Christians and Jews, who were referred to as the ‘people of the book’ in the Qur’an. Under Arab rule, Christians and Jews were given the choice of either converting to Islam, or paying heavy taxes (jizya). This heavy taxation forced many poor Christians to convert, and those who refused to convert continued to suffer or left the country.

People who were neither Christian nor Jewish were not given the option of paying a tax in order to maintain their faith, and had to choose between conversion and death.

Non-Muslims in Egypt continued to face discrimination in subsequent centuries, often guided by the Covenant of Omar which prohibited Dhimmis from various practices, including the construction of places of worship, being seen with a cross in public, dressing like Muslims, and being called by Muslim names. The Covenant is attributed to the second Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khattab (634–644), and continued to be implemented during the Abbasid (747-1252), Mamluk (1252-1517) and Ottoman (1517-1798) periods.

Examples of discriminatory laws and practices enforced under these various dynasties include the closure and destruction of churches and synagogues under the Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans, and the execution of Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam under the Almohads.

The situation improved for Egypt’s Coptic community when Mohammed Ali Pasha became the country’s hereditary ruler in 1841. Mohammed Ali introduced reforms that improved the social position of Copts: they were allowed to own land and attain government positions, and in 1874 Mohammed Ali created a council to represent the Coptic community called the ‘Majlis Al-Milli’. This was followed by the reign of Mohammad Ali’s dynasty from the 1919 ‘revolution’ to 1952, during which two Copts were appointed Prime Ministers, and Copts were able to participate actively in political and public life.

As the years passed, the Coptic community experienced further improvements and reversals in their situation under different governments.  However, what is striking is that violence has been an ever-present threat, even if the occurrence of violence has varied in intensity under different administrations. Persecution such as this is not only a political problem, but a cultural and societal one, deeply entrenched in the psyche of the nation.

The Era of the Republic

Positive developments under Mohammed Ali were reversed in 1952, when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup that overthrew the royal family. Due to his belief in Socialism and Arab Nationalism, Nasser increased the government’s control of the economy and abolished political parties and the free press. He also enforced religious education as a mandatory subject in the curricula and established Al Azhar University, which only accepts Muslim students.

The Arab-Israeli conflict exacerbated hostility towards Egyptian Jews and the political discrimination and the abuse experienced by the Coptic community. Under Nasser, Copts were barred from holding high positions in the administration and military. Nasser’s policies engendered a desperation, which caused emigration levels amongst Copts to rise sharply.

After Nasser’s death in 1970, President Anwar Al-Sadat came into power. In response to Sadat’s attempts to liberalise the economy, socialist and communist groups and labour unions organised strikes and protests. To counter and contain them, Sadat empowered Salafi groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate public space and intimidate socialists, liberals and nationalists. For example, he released their members from prisons and enabled them to control mosques, establish their own banking systems, and preach hatred against Christians on the streets and in public transport.

These groups were also able to establish their own media platforms, non-governmental organisations, aid networks, religious education institutions and paramilitary militia using vast funds from the Gulf States, which resulted in the spread of Wahhabism and Salafism in Egypt.

As they became more organised and confident, Islamists began to attack Coptic churches, houses and shops, and the police and other security agencies failed to prevent the escalation of sectarian violence – and were at times complicit in it.

Once Sadat sensed the Islamists were threatening his own authority, thousands of Islamist militants and clerics were arrested and imprisoned.

Copts protested Sadat’s decision in 1979 to make shari’a the main source of legislation. In 1980, Sadat accused Pope Shenouda III of plotting to undermine state security and exiled him to a monastery in the Sinai desert. The Pope was held under house arrest for four years until his re-appointment in 1985.

Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1981 and his deputy, Hosni Mubarak, assumed office in his place. Under Mubarak, the state continued to discriminate against Copts in areas such as university admissions, public spending and military promotions. The curriculum also excluded the Coptic era in Egyptian history and the media continued to incite hatred against Copts. Furthermore, up until 2005, presidential approval was required for repairing churches. Whilst the approval has since been delegated to local and regional authorities, applications continue to face deliberate obstructions and delays.

In June 2008, the Coptic diaspora organised a series of protests in several Western countries to raise awareness about the continuing deterioration human rights and the failure of the Egyptian authorities to protect Copts and hold hate preachers and perpetrators of violence to account.

From 2010-2011, a series of deadly attacks took place, the worst of which claimed the lives of 21 Coptic Christians who were attending a New Year’s service in Alexandria.

The aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution

Following the Egyptian revolution of 2011, President Mubarak was forced to step down and the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mouhammad Morsi, was elected in June 2012. Then, on 22 November 2012, massive demonstrations erupted in major cities after Morsi announced a temporary constitutional decree that granted him extensive powers. He viewed the decree as necessary to protect the elected constituent assembly from a planned dissolution by judges who were appointed during the Mubarak era. He also appointed a number of hard-line Islamists to different positions within the administration, some of whom were involved in sectarian violence.

The political empowerment of hard-line Islamists under Morsi appears to have in turn empowered negative forces on the ground: by January 2013 almost 100 Copts had died in sectarian conflicts, surpassing the total deaths in the previous decade.

President Morsi was removed from office and sent to prison following a military-led operation in July 2013.  Attacks against Copts subsequently escalated, as they were perceived as supporting the army actions.

Levels of violence peaked in August 2013, consisting of attacks on priests, abductions of women, and frequent assaults on churches and Christian properties. Instances of local imams affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood inciting violence against Christians were also reported.

In January 2015, Coptic leaders in Minya were forced to cancel Christmas celebrations after two policemen were gunned down whilst guarding a Coptic church.

Coptic Icon of the 21 members of the Egyptian Coptic Christian kidnapped and executed by ISIS in Libya in February 2015.
Image: Fadi Mikhail, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Current Situation: Moving in the right direction?

Despite continued attacks and harassment, Coptic community seem to have benefited under Sisi’s rule in some ways. For example, the national elections of October 2015 saw Copts win 36 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented 6% of total seats. Furthermore, Sisi has made visible efforts to engage with the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which was reflected by his attendance of Coptic Christmas Eve mass services in January 2015 – the first head of state to do so – and he has repeated this gesture in the succeeding years, earning the support of the church hierarchy.

Despite this, many Copts hold opinions that are at odds with the church leadership. In September 2016, 800 prominent Coptic figures issued a statement in which they highlighted their concerns regarding the church’s growing closeness to the regime and the negative impact this might have on the Coptic community.

State institutions continue to restrict the ability of Christians to establish and maintain church buildings. Even when they have obtained permission to renovate or construct new churches, local Muslims often block their attempts to do so. Consequently, Copts have been forced to make concessions, such as building churches without a bell or tower, which is a typical outcome of reconciliation processes which are backed by local authorities, but which regularly fail to deliver justice for victims of sectarian violence.

In addition, a new law on church construction was passed in August 2016, which many Christian activists have criticised for its normalisation of existing patterns of discrimination. The new law delegates the decision to build and renovate churches from security agencies to provincial governors. Many human rights activists have described the law as “prejudiced and sectarian,” stating it illustrates that the state favours one religion over another.

Disputes and tensions regarding church construction have played a major role in the outbreak of sectarian violence, particularly in Minya governorate in Upper Egypt. Egyptian authorities have routinely failed to protect the rights of Christian citizens and, in lieu of judicial investigations, local disputes tend to be addressed through informal ‘reconciliation’ sessions that do little to dissuade intolerance and impunity.

Throughout their history the Coptic community has witnessed improvements in its situation, only to see them swept away by new political forces, while religious persecution remains an ever-present concern due to its deep roots. To prevent the advances under the Sisi government from being rolled back in the future, a societal shift is needed to ensure equality of citizenship for all religious communities, and an end to persecution on account of religion.

By CSW’s Middle East Advocacy Officer