From the Arab invasion to the Arab spring
Christians in Egypt: A minority under siege and persecution
Christianity was brought to Egypt sometime between 55-61 AD, at the
hands of St. Mark the Evangelist, nephew of Apostle Barnabas, author of
the Gospel of Mark, and one of the seventy apostles that Christ
commissioned to preach the Gospel in His name. St. Mark was martyred in
the city of Alexandria in 68 AD, after founding an evangelistic ministry
in Egypt that still continues to bear his name in our present time.
AD, the Arabs conquered Egypt, under the leadership of Amr Ibn al-Aas, a
famous Arab military commander and companion of Islam's Prophet
Muhammad. The Arab invaders forced Egyptians to choose between embracing
Islam, being killed, or paying a Jizyah
tax. Christians who opted not to renounce their faith were forced to
pay a Jizyah. According to Tamer Leithy - Assistant Professor at New
York University, who holds a doctorate degree in History from Princeton
University - this tax would have been equivalent to the wages of about
twenty weeks of work for the average or poor worker. This amounts to
almost half of the annual income of an average individual when tax
collection expenses are included. Adding insult to injury, the
collection method was determined by Islamic rules that were meant to
emphasize the humiliating subjugated status of non-Muslims. Caliph Omar
ibn Al-Khattab, an influential companion and successor of Muhammad,
dictated a number of harsh conditions on non-Muslims in
Islamic-conquered lands, historically known as “The Pact of Omar”, which
established persecution, humiliation, contempt, and racial
discrimination as daily facts of life for Egyptian Christians,
who were called "Copts" by the Arab invaders, which is a phonetic
alteration of the word "Aigyptus" used by the ancient Greeks in
reference to Egypt. From that day on, the Egyptian Christians became
known as the "Copts".
conquerors caused irreparable damages to Egypt on the economic, cultural
and human levels, as they ransacked the country, plundered its wealth
and subjugated its people. When Omar ibn al-Aas invaded Egypt, it had a
population of more than 15 million, but by the time Napoleon conquered
Egypt in 1798, this number had dropped to about 3 million only! Under
Islamic subjugation, many indigenous Egyptians nations lost their lives
due to persecution, killings and epidemics. The agricultural land shrunk
from six million acres at the time of the Arab invasion to less than 3
million acres at Napoleon's time.
642 A.D. and 1805 A.D., when the modern Egyptian state was founded by
Muhammad Ali, Egypt was governed by more than 315 walis (foreign
governors sent to rule Egypt by the Muslim Caliph), under the command of
94 Caliphs, starting with Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab and ending with
Abdul Majid II, the last Ottoman Caliph. This means that every three
years or so, Egypt was handed to a new governor who would exploit the
country and steal its riches, to be replaced shortly by another governor
who would do more of the same.
century after Muhammad's death, Muslim Arabs have taken control of
two-thirds of the old Christian World, converting it to Islam by the
force of the sword. Ancient civilizations of the Middle East and North
Africa were severely devastated, and their cultural heritage was
plundered and attributed to Islam.
passed, the status of Egyptian Christianity grew weaker, and the Coptic
Church in Egypt became isolated and cut off from the Western Christian
short, Arab-Islamic colonization of Egypt and the entire region is a
very dark chapter in the history of these countries.
The Founding of Modern Egypt
Egypt was trapped in this dark chapter, the first ray of light came to
Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt in 1798. Equality for
all, regardless of religion, was one of the values of that foreign
culture, and Egypt's exposure to these values caused a small
breakthrough. In addition, a cultural scientific mission, which was part
of the campaign, played a major role in uncovering the secrets of the
ancient Egyptian Civilization. At that time, Egypt was mired in
ignorance, regressive thinking and dissolution, and its non-Muslim
population was suffering from widespread religious persecution. After
being subjected for long centuries to colonial invasion and to
unspeakable persecution and humiliation, the campaign offered Christians
a glimmer of hope that their situation could change for the better.
Napoleon's departure, Egypt was governed by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an
Ottoman wali of Albanian origins, who established a dynasty that
ruled Egypt for many decades. Under his rule, Egyptians gradually began
to experience religious tolerance for the first time since the Arab
conquest. In 1855 A.D., his successor, Said Pasha abolished the
dhimmi status and Jizyah tax system imposed on Egyptian
Christians since 642, and launched a major endeavor to modernize Egypt
following the Western European model.
British occupation of Egypt in 1882 A.D. maintained Egypt’s contact with
the West and marked the beginning of a Golden Age for the Copts, which
lasted until the Egyptian army coup of 1952, and the end of the British
occupation of Egypt in 1956.
the British occupation, Copts managed to hold the highest political
office, with Boutros Ghali serving as Prime Minister in 1908, and
Youssef Wahba holding the same position in 1919. Copts held other
significant political posts such as Head of Parliament, Minister of
Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Defense. Copts thrived during the seven
decades of British occupation as they enjoyed equality and freedom, and
through their diligent work, they turned into a wealthy and influential
class in the Egyptian society.
A return to Egyptian Rule in 1952
Abdel Nasser and a group of Egyptian army officers known as "The Free
Officers" cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement to overthrow
the monarchy, end the rule of Muhammad Ali's dynasty, and drive the
British out of Egypt. Thus began the period of national rulers. Gamal
Abdel Nasser dragged Egypt into constant confrontations with the west
and wars with Israel throughout his reign. He also ordered the
nationalization of properties owned by the upper class, which severely
harmed the affluent Coptic minority. Freedom and human rights suffered
under his rule, and Arab nationalism with Islamic links became his main
obsession. The political and economic status of the Copts also suffered
under his rule, as their participation in Egypt's political life
diminished and they were relegated to marginal symbolic roles.
The Islamic Awakening and the Havoc in Egypt and the Middle East
seventies of last century, an "Islamic Awakening" began at the hands of
Faisal, the late king of Saudi Arabia, followed by Sadat in Egypt,
Jaafar Nimeiri in Sudan, and Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, while Khomeini led
the Shiite wing of the “awakening” in Iran. The revival of a Jihadist,
aggressive and violent version of Islam was at the core of this
“awakening”, which left its mark on most aspects of public life. One of
the outcomes of such “awakening” was the emergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS
later, as well as the worldwide wave of Islamic terrorism.
prices rose, the increasingly wealthy Saudi Arabia went on to fund
Islamic extremism in most Sunni countries, to the extent where we
can rightly say that we are experiencing a new kind of Islamic
Caliphate: a Wahhabi Caliphate that uses oil money to promote an
extremist, aggressive and insular Islam.
this “awakening”, which began four decades ago and has not abated,
Christians in Egypt and the rest of Middle East have been subjected to a
new and on-going wave of Islamic persecution.
The Arab Spring and the Coptic Situation
the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in
Egypt, we thought that the Arab region had finally broken the "Arab
Exception", launching the fifth wave of democracy to join the four waves
that covered most corners of the globe since the end of World War II.
However, it later became obvious that this “Spring” has turned into a
nightmare at the hands of the anti-democratic Islamic forces that have
been lurking in the region for long centuries, and Christians in the
Middle East ended up paying an extremely high price for that so-called
Copts’ situation after the revolution of January 25, 2011 is similar to
the situation of the rest of the Middle East Christians, as both
suffered terrible loses due to those uprisings. In Egypt, Coptic civil
forces were involved in the revolution, and in the period between
January 25, 2011 and the fall of Mubarak on February 11, 2011, Tahrir
Square was a beautiful example of national unity, with the absence of
religious and sectarian slogans or anti-American anti-Israeli
expressions. Nonetheless, the situation changed right after Mubarak’s
fall, when Islamic forces that hid behind the revolutionary slogans of
democracy revealed their true faces and hijacked the uprising.
factors paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power in
Egypt, marking the beginning of a difficult period for the Copts who
dreaded a repeat of the old history of persecution. Their fears were not
unfounded, as confirmed by former Muslim Brotherhood Spiritual Guide,
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who stated in a public lecture in the city of
Zagazig: "We would accord no rights to the Copts other than those
defined by the Quran", i.e., as dhimmis who are required to pay
Jizyah, which is the system that had remained in place since the
Islamic invasion of Egypt in 642 AD and until it was abolished by Said
Pasha in 1855. That statement basically meant that, in a state ruled by
the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts would be denied rights of citizenship, and
will be forced to live under the rules (from the seventh century) that
apply to non-Muslims living in an Islamic State.
was first established in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood movement has been
harboring a plan to force Jews and Christians to leave Egypt and set up
an Islamic Caliphate. They succeeded in getting the Jews out of Egypt,
following the series of bombings that targeted their businesses and
homes in 1948 and 1949. However, they had to put their designs for the
Copts on hold after their clash with Abdel Nasser in 1954.
came to power in 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leaders started fantasizing
once more about driving the Coptic population out of Egypt, and though
more than 200,000 Copts did actually leave Egypt (with 100,000 leaving
during Mohamed Morsi's one-year presidency). This number is still quite
small compared to the total number of the Coptic population which
exceeds 15 million people. For these reasons, the Copts participated
heavily in the second revolution against Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013,
as a patriotic community making a stand against the encroaching
Copts have continuously endured significant losses since January 25,
2011. Hardly a day goes by without a violent incident of some sort
including murders, the abduction of Coptic women, large ransom demands,
the destruction and looting of a Coptic properties, forced removal of
Coptic families from their villages, and church destructions. Hundreds
of Copts have been killed in separate incidents since the Revolution and
more than 500 Coptic girls have disappeared with their whereabouts being
unknown. More than a hundred churches and institutions were set on fire
and destroyed during that period, including about 80 churches and Coptic
institutions in a single day on August 14, 2013. Hundreds of Coptic
homes, shops and businesses were set on fire and destroyed during that
Brotherhood's aim was to devastate the Coptic economic structure, using
fear and intimidation tactics to drive the Christians out of Egypt,
echoing what happened to the Jewish community of Egypt in 1948 and 1949.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders have made a point to state publicly, more
than once, that those who do not like living in an Islamic State can
leave Egypt. The persecution did not stop at the Egyptian borders but
spread into neighboring Libya, where poor Coptic laborers had traveled
looking for work. Two Coptic churches were set ablaze, four persons were
arrested on charges of proselytizing, and one of them was tortured to
death. Abuse and insults became an everyday occurrence for hundreds of
Copts. The abuse escalated into murder, as eight Copts were shot dead, a
physician and his wife who served the Libyan community were killed,
besides the well-known horrific incident where 21 Copts were beheaded by
ISIS as they shouted Jesus' name. Sadly, the Coptic community in Libya
is still being terrorized.
Furthermore, Copts were victims of highly disturbing types of incidents
that have not been seen since Napoleon’s campagin to Egypt in 1798. The
following are examples of such incidents:
2011, Salafis gave an order to cut off the ear of a Copt named "Ayman
8, 2011, Army troops used live ammunition to shoot Coptic protesters in
Manshiet Nasser, Cairo, killing 13 individuals and injuring more than a
October 9, 2011, the Army used armored vehicles to attack Coptic
protesters in Maspiro, Cairo, crushing 27 Copts to death under their
15, 2013, in Cairo, a Copt named "Saber Helal," was set on fire alive.
Helal was dragged out of his car and questioned about his religion, when
he replied that he was a Christian, he was stabbed repeatedly and then
burnd alive in broad daylight in one of the main streets of Cairo. Six
other Copts were killed also in that incident.
17, 2013, The Coptic Cathedral, headquarters of the Coptic Pope, was
attacked with Molotov during the funerals held for the victims of the
August 14, 2013, a wide-ranging attack was launched by the Muslim
Brotherhood on Coptic churches and homes. In a single day, they set fire
to 80 churches, Christian schools and institutions, in addition to
dozens of homes and shops that belonged to Copts in Upper Egypt. The
attack also targeted a historical 1300-year-old monastery and a thousand
year old church in al-Delga village, in al Minia Governorate. On the
same day and at the same place, a Copt named "Alexander Tous" was
slaughtered. The horror did not end with his death, as his body was tied
to a tractor and dragged through the streets of the village, and after
the burial, his remains were exhumed and further desecrated.
28, 2014, Mary Sameh George was killed in Cairo, while on her way to
deliver medicine to an elderly Muslim woman. She was stopped by Muslim
Brothers who saw a cross in her car. Enraged, they attacked the car from
all sides, forced her out and beat her brutally, then shot her dead.
addition, the number of charges of blasphemy or contempt of Islam
brought against Copts has never been as high as it was during the rise
of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Forty cases were sent to
prosecutors' offices and courts, with many of those charged and unjustly
imprisoned without fair trials.
question here is whether the reluctant Egyptian authorities have been
seriously lacking in their efforts to protect the Coptic population.
answer is a resounding Yes.
the beginning of Sadat's era, the Egyptian state has been an accomplice
in the crimes committed against Copts, through negligence and collusion.
Impunity and lack of justice are common characteristics of the responses
to the acts of violence against Copts in the last four decades. After
the Muslim Brotherhood rule collapsed on June 30, 2013, the Egyptian
state claimed that Copts would be protected from the Muslim Brotherhood,
but in reality, the same policies that were applied during the Mubarak
era are still in place today, with no change in sight.
three decades, under Mubarak's rule, the Copts have experienced
persecution as they were subjected to more than 1,500 assaults. Prior to
that, they also had a difficult time during Sadat's rule. After
Mubarak’s fall, the attacks became even more intense, and reached a
brutal point during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, even
though the Brotherhood is no longer in power, the Copts find themselves
in the crossfire of the conflict between the Military and the Muslim
Brotherhood and other Islamists. The fact is that through different eras
and under different governments, little has changed for the beleaguered
indigenous Coptic minority.
Status of Copts Two Years into al-Sisi's Rule
two revolutions that saw active Coptic participation, with a significant
role against the Muslim Brotherhood during the June 30, 2013 Revolution,
Copts are nonetheless suffering from the same problems that have plagued
them throughout Mubarak’s era. It can be said that al-Sisi era is in
some ways an extension of Mubarak's rule. With the exception of al-Sisi
visiting the Coptic Cathedral during Christmas mass (he only visited the
church during Christmas celebrations and refused to visit during Easter,
since Muslims recognize the birth of Christ but do not recognize His
Crucifixion and Resurrection), which was a mere courtesy visit, there is
nothing to indicate meaningful progress or tangible changes.
what the picture looks like two years into al-Sisi's rule:
security and Intelligence agencies are still in charge of the Coptic
dossier, profiling the persons and institutions of the Coptic minority.
are still markedly absent from government institutions, such as General
and Military Intelligence, National Security, the Presidency, the
Republican Guard, governorship and mayoral posts, military leadership,
appointment rate of Coptic individuals as public prosecutors, members of
the judiciary, diplomats, or university faculty members remains in the
range of 1-2%, which is the same rate as during Mubarak's era, or
perhaps a bit less.
Egyptian Constitution allowed a discriminatory article requiring the
issuance of a separate law for churches in the first session of
Parliament, succumbing to Al-Azhar rejection of a unified law for places
of worship. The government submitted an ill-conceived bill to the
Parliament that would, for all intents and purposes, leave the security
services in charge of the process involved in building churches, making
the current situation more difficult.
of so-called “reconciliation sessions” in cases of sectarian violence
against Copts, in lieu of the regular civil or criminal justice system,
is still widespread or it may have actually increased during this
to Mubarak’s era, the number of contempt of Islam or blasphemy charges
has increased under al- Sisi, reaching a ridiculous level when four
Coptic children were jailed because they made fun of ISIS in a
26-seconds video clip.
Coptic soldiers were killed in their military units, for religious
reasons. The crimes were not properly investigated, and the perpetrators
were never punished.
disappearance of Coptic young women, a phenomena that started years ago,
has continued throughout this period. The lack of efforts to resolve
this issue on the part of the government and lack of condemnation by
al-Azhar suggests a cover-up and a certain level of complicity. This
human trafficking phenomenon continues to grow at an alarming rate.
properties are still being destroyed, punitive damages are still imposed
on Copts in some areas, and the demands for large ransoms to release
abducted Copts have not ceased.
first time in Egypt's modern history, an elderly Coptic woman was
stripped naked, shamed and paraded in the streets of her hometown among
forces attacked several churches and closed them down under the pretext
that they were built without a permit. They arrested and incarcerated
the Coptic worshippers, for no charges other than worshipping.
Furthermore, there are signs indicating that Security forces are
colluding with the mobs that assault churches.
presidential decree is still required to build a church. Since 1952 and
until 2016, the average number of churches that were authorized with a
presidential decree is two churches per year, as blatant disregard of
the annual growth in the number of Copts, who currently number 15
the Constitution has approved the participation of a reasonable
percentage of Copts, 6% of the representatives, in the new Parliament as
a one-time affirmative action, the interference of security services has
led to the selection of Copts who are known to cooperate with the
security forces and the state. Thus, ensuring that they will serve
government policies and interests rather than serve and promote Coptic
interests or causes.
What do Copts Want from al-Sisi's Government?
To open all positions in the Egyptian State, including sovereign
agencies, to qualified Copts, at a minimum rate of 10%.
To promptly issue a law that would allow churches to be built
upon a notification to the concerned authorities. Police protection
should be provided during and until the completion of the construction
process; and individuals charged with attacking a church under
construction should be prosecuted in the criminal court.
To reopen the churches which were closed down, whether they were
built with or without prior permission, and to provide security for
To declare illegal the so-called “Reconciliation Sessions”, and
put an end to “Family House” or "Beit al Eila" and similar
institutions established by Al-Azhar that support and legitimize these
To reinstate counseling and guidance sessions for converts to
Islam, giving them the right to leave Islam and to revert to their
original faith whenever they wish, and provide them with new identity
cards immediately. These sessions were to investigate whether the person
converted by free will or under duress. If by free will, the person is
left to his or her decision.
To abolish penalties imposed over charges of contempt of
To issue a law, similar to hate crimes in the US, criminalizing
assaults on Coptic individuals, properties and houses of worship, and to
criminalize religious discrimination against non-Muslims.
To conduct an immediate independent investigation into the murder
of Copt recruits in their military units, and to court martial those
To abolish the divisions of Coptic Affairs in the National
Security, General Intelligence, and other state security agencies, along
with the anti-Christianization and Atheism Divisions.
To issue a religious freedom law, as defined by international
conventions, so that religious conversion would be strictly motivated by
personal choice, completely independent of the influence of state
summary, Copts are still suffering from discrimination and persecution,
even after two revolutions against tyranny, corruption and religious
state. While they paid a high price during the chaos that ensued, their
role and sacrifices remain unrecognized and unrewarded.
In Regards to The Middle East Christians
mounting negative repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring continue to
hit Christians in the Middle East, with persecution turning into
concerted efforts by Islamic terrorist groups aiming to end the
Christian presence in the region, and given the region's governments'
deliberate failure to protect the peaceful Christian minorities,
Christians in the Middle East seem now to be facing one enemy and
sharing one destiny. That enemy is Islamic extremism and the feared
destiny is an end to the Christian presence in the Middle East.
now become an international issue, and it is past time for the
international community to get actively involved, and refer the matter
to the UN Security Council to take the appropriate measures. The main
responsibility for the protection of these peaceful minorities falls on
Europe and the United States, through the Security Council, and within
the context of protecting vulnerable minorities against possible
Magdi Khalil, the author of this paper, is the founder and director of
the Middle East Freedom Forum since 2007, and a main founder and member
of the Executive Board of Coptic Solidarity. Magdi Khalil is a
researcher, activist, political analyst and author of several books.
For more details
about The Pact of Umar and the dhimmi system,
refer to "Expatriate Copts", written by Magdi Khalil,
published by Dar al Khayal, Cairo, 1999.
In 2015, the Middle East Freedom Forum in Cairo published a
650-pages reference textbook, written by Magdi Khalil and Hamdi
al-Assiouti, about legal cases of contempt of Islam in Egypt.
This is the first book in Arabic to address this topic. However,
Al-Azhar issued a warning to Egyptian bookstores to impede its