When Egypt’s Copts mounted a rebellion against their Muslim overlords back in the ninth century, the ruling caliph did not take kindly to the challenge. In a bid to make sure the insurrectionists learned their lesson, Al-Mutawakkil issued a raft of discriminatory legislation directed against the perceived infidels in his midst.
Christians were forbidden from riding horses and were forced to wear special clothes to distinguish them from their Muslim countrymen. Perhaps most provocatively, Egypt’s Copts were told that they would have to bury their dead according to Islamic doctrine. More than one thousand years later, as the country’s Christians came together to celebrate the Coptic Christmas yesterday, many were feeling a renewed sense of persecution. After the adoption of a constitution which opposition figures and Copts feel is heavily orientated towards conservative Islam, some are questioning what the future holds for Egypt, a country which has the largest Christian population in the Middle East. Amir Ramzy, a Coptic Christian judge, explained that he was using Christmas to pray for a “better Egypt.”
Delving deep into the history books, the future of the Coptic Church has not always looked so bleak.
“Christians are approaching Christmas with disappointment, grief and complaints, fearing not only their problems but Egypt’s situation in general,” he said, speaking to the Associated Press news agency. “During the reign of [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak and the [military rulers], mainly Christians were facing problems, but now with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, each and every moderate Egyptian is facing problems.”
If we delve deep into the history books, we can see that the future of the Coptic Church has not always looked so bleak. Admittedly, many centuries ago, it got off to a shaky start when Mark the Evangelist, disciple of Christ and Egypt’s patron saint, was murdered in Alexandria for preaching against idolatry. But soon the new creed began to expand rapidly—so rapidly, in fact, that the Roman authorities initiated a series of second century persecutions in which nearly 150,000 Egyptian Christians were said to have perished.
When the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the teachings of Christ as his state religion there was no going back; the Coptic Orthodox Church subsequently developed into one of the main schools of eastern Christian philosophy. For four centuries after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 640CE, Christians remained in the majority. Even in the mid-1500s, around 40 percent of the country followed the Coptic doctrine. By the start of the eighteenth century, in the wake of feverish proselytising by the new Ottoman conquerors, their numbers had dwindled to around a quarter of the population.
In recent years, relations between Christians and Muslims, though largely peaceful, have been marred by disputes over church-building permits, work discrimination, and inter-religious love affairs. Following the election of Pope Tawadros II last November, many Christians were hopeful that the change would bring a new sense of urgency into their calls for more effective representation in Egypt’s circles of power. Instead, the turmoil of the past six weeks has renewed fears about what life after Mubarak might bring. On the back of familiar domestic grievances, which have led to religious tensions that pre-date the 2011 uprising, many among Egypt’s Coptic community are feeling increasingly forlorn about the future.