Among the many heartening images coming from Egypt’s winter revolution in Tahrir Square was a photograph of a Muslim and a Copt holding up, respectively, a Koran and a crucifix. While the President of Iran, with motives that were all too plain, nervously hailed what had happened in Egypt as an ‘Islamic revolution’, many of the demonstrators vehemently contradicted him: ‘No — it is our democratic, secular revolution.’ Even spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood insisted that it had been a revolution made ‘by men and women, Muslims and Christians’.
Does this mean that the ancient Coptic community of Egypt — possibly 15 per cent of the population — has nothing to be afraid of? We might remember that the ancient Christian communities in Iraq are being persecuted virtually to extinction, thanks to the war unleashed by those fervent Christians, Blair and Bush, whereas they previously had enjoyed the protection of the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. The other country in the Middle East with the best record of protecting its Christian minorities — indeed, where they flourish — is the equally secular Baathist regime in Syria.
The Copts are intensely proud of their identity. In Aswan, Coptic children in a church — even in the street — were eager to show me the cross tattooed on their wrists. In a country where the hijab is almost universal, Coptic women go about unveiled. But Copts insist on their Egyptian patriotism. The Copts split from the larger Christian church in the fifth century because their emphasis on the divinity, rather than the humanity, of Christ was deemed heretical. Sick of persecution by the Greek emperors, they supported the Muslim-Arab invasion of Egypt.
In much of the Middle East, the ancient Christian communities are subject to a creeping defamation of them as somehow foreign — even though Jesus Christ, unlike Mohammed, was a native of Palestine, knew Jerusalem intimately, and had lived in Egypt.
In modern Egypt the fortunes of the Copts have been mixed. In the nationalist movement against British domination before 1952, Copts and Muslims really were equal. The Wafd — the old secular nationalist party — supported full equality. There were Copts among the top Wafd politicians, and, incidentally, there were also many Coptic names in the communist movement. Under Nasser’s dictatorship, from 1952, all political participation came to an end, so the Copts did not feel more excluded than anyone else. But Nasser saw Egypt as a fully secular state — which helps explain why gunmen from the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate him. He moved ruthlessly against political Islam. The Brotherhood were imprisoned and exiled, and all attempts to mix religion and politics were suppressed. Copts and Muslims had full civic equality.
It was Anwar Sadat who breathed life into the Islamist movements. He called them to his aid when he turned against the Nasserist left, and chose to become the client of America rather than the Soviet Union. Under Nasser the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood had decamped to Saudi Arabia. Under Sadat they began to return and were allowed some public role. When he made peace with Israel, naturally they killed him.
The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda, has always seen himself as a super-patriot and has led his flock up some tortuous paths. Shenouda denounced the Camp David accords, and Copts who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem were suspended from the sacraments. (The Copts do not always distinguish between their ancient anti-Judaism and hostility to the state of Israel. I asked one influential Copt if his church still clung to the accusation of deicide, and he replied: ‘The Jews are the superseded religion. They are guilty of the death of Christ. It was sacrilege to set up a Jewish state in Palestine.’)
But under Mubarak, many Copts worried that Shenouda had virtually identified the church as a pillar of the regime. This went against the Coptic wisdom that it was dangerous to ally with secular rulers. It is related that an emissary of Tsar Alexander III went to see the Coptic pope, with the Tsar’s gracious offer to proclaim himself Protector of the Copts. ‘Is the Tsar of Russia immortal, or will he die like other men?’ asked the Pope. ‘He will die, as do all men.’ ‘In that case, we shall depend for our protection as we have always done — on Him who is immortal.’ We know now that Mubarak was not immortal.
By and large the Egyptian state has protected the Copts — but it has tacitly allowed discrimination against them. There are stories of Copts being regularly refused entry into certain faculties of Cairo University. I visited a Coptic centre in Cairo. Its church was overshadowed by an enormous mosque, built long after the church. Many suspect that it is policy on the part of the authorities to overbear churches with huge mosques. Under an old law which had fallen in disuse, but has been revived, state permission is required for any new church — and even for minor repairs.
There are far more alarming stories, especially from Upper Egypt. One is of a surgeon transplanting the kidney of a dead Copt into a Muslim, who made a full recovery. The local Islamists apparently complained that the doctor had ruined the Muslim’s chances of going to paradise.
There is a worse story. It might be true — although it does savour of classical atrocity stories which turn out to be urban myths. A Muslim in Upper Egypt had a great friend who was a Copt, whom he loved and admired. Moved and impressed by his friend’s religious life, he decided to convert to Christianity. He applied to the local bishop to be received into the church. Understandably alarmed, the bishop refused. Then the bishop did something quite unaccountable — unless he was simply protecting himself. He consulted the man’s family. The result, so the story goes, was that the would-be convert was confined to a mental hospital. Shortly afterwards, his Coptic friend was murdered.
The Copts do fear — and they may have reason. Yet my own impression of Egyptian Muslim piety is that it is intensely respectful of the piety of others. In the countryside of Upper Egypt I once got into conversation with a peasant, owner of one donkey, who had been saying his prayers in the middle of a field by the Nile. What did he most want to talk about? He wanted to know what were the Christian equivalents of the Muslim names for the four archangels. To my shame, I could only remember three of them.
The Copts are intensely proud of their identity – but they also insist on their Egyptian patriotism
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 19, 2011