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The persecution of Copts and the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians are historic and widespread issues in Egypt. They are also prominent examples of the poor status of Christians in the Middle East despite the fact that the religion is native to both the country and the region. Copts (Coptic: ⲟⲩⲣⲉⲙ'ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ 'ⲛ'Ⲭⲣⲏⲥⲧⲓ'ⲁⲛⲟⲥ ou Remenkīmi en.E khristianos, literally: "Egyptian Christian") are the Christ followers in Egypt, usually Oriental Orthodox, who currently make up 15%[a][b] of the population of Egypt—the largest religious minority of that country. Copts have cited instances of persecution throughout their history and Human Rights Watch has noted "growing religious intolerance" and sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in recent years, as well as a failure by the Egyptian government to effectively investigate properly and prosecute those responsible.[19][20] Since 2011 hundreds of Egyptian Copts have been killed in sectarian clashes, and many homes, churches and businesses have been destroyed. In just one province (Minya), 77 cases of sectarian attacks on Copts between 2011 and 2016 have been documented by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.[21] The abduction and disappearance of Coptic Christian women and girls also remains a serious ongoing problem.[22][23][24]

Ancient era

Roman rulers

St. Mark the Evangelist is said to have founded the Holy Apostolic See of Alexandria and to have become its first Patriarch.[25] Within 50 years of St. Mark's arrival in Alexandria, a fragment of New Testament writings appeared in Oxyrhynchus (Bahnasa), which suggests that Christianity already began to spread south of Alexandria at an early date. By the mid-third century, a sizable number of Egyptians were persecuted by the Romans on account of having adopted the new Christian faith, beginning with the Edict of Decius. Beginning in 284 AD the Emperor Diocletian persecuted and put to death a great number of Christian Egyptians.[26] This event became a bloodshed in the history of Egyptian Christianity, marking the beginning of a distinct Egyptian or Coptic Church. It became known as the 'Era of Martyrs' and is commemorated in the Coptic calendar in which dating of the years began with the start of Diocletian's reign. When Egyptians were persecuted by Diocletian, many retreated to the desert to seek relief, though relief of the spirit and of its worldly desires to attain peace and unity with Christ the Creator, not escaping the persecutions. The practice precipitated the rise of monasticism, for which the Egyptians, namely St. Antony, St. Bakhum, St. Shenouda and St. Amun, are credited as pioneers. By the end of the 4th century, it is estimated that the mass of the Egyptians had either embraced Christianity or were nominally Christian.[27]

In 451 AD, following the Council of Chalcedon, the Church of Alexandria was divided into two branches. Those who accepted the terms of the Council became known as Chalcedonians or Melkites. Those who did not abide by the council's terms were labeled non-Chalcedonians or Monophysites (and later Jacobites after Jacob Baradaeus). The non-Chalcedonians, however, rejected the term Monophysites as erroneous and insisted on being called Miaphysites. The majority of the Egyptians belonged to the Miaphysite branch, which led to their persecution by the Byzantine imperial authorities in Egypt. First persecutions occurred during reigns of emperors Marcian (450–457) and Leo I (457–474).[28] This continued until the Arab conquest of Egypt, most notably under the militant monotheletist Cyrus of Alexandria.[29] Tragic conflicts between Eastern-Orthodox Greeks and Oriental-Orthodox Copts during that era, from the middle of 5th to the middle of 7th century, resulted in permanent divisions and consequent emergence of anti-Eastern Orthodox sentiment among Copts and anti-Oriental Orthodox sentiment among Greeks.

Islamic era

The Muslim conquest of Egypt

See also: Islamization of Egypt

The Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in 639 AD, during the rule of the Roman Emperor Heraclius. The Muslims relegated Copts to the status of dhimmi and enforced the Pact of Umar. Its points were as follows:[30][31][32][33][34][35][page needed]

This pact (or some version of it) would remain in place for centuries, influencing the 1856 Hamayouni Decree which mandated that the Ottoman Sultan must issue permits for any construction or maintenance of churches, and the Coptic Pope had to apply for all such permits,[36] and the 1934 Ten Conditions of Al-Ezabi which remained in place until December 28, 1999. The prohibition against raising the cross was revoked as a result of the martyrdom of Sidhom Bishay.

The most notorious persecutor of the Copts was Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who decreed that the Christians could no longer celebrate Epiphany or Easter.[37] He also outlawed the use of wine (nabidh) and even other intoxicating drinks not made from grapes (fuqa) to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike,[38] producing hardship for both Christians (who used wine in their religious rites) and Jews (who used it in their religious festivals). In 1005, al-Ḥākim ordered that Jews and Christians follow ghiyār "the law of differentiation" – in this case, the mintaq or zunnar "belt" (Greek ζωνάριον) and 'imāmah "turban", both in black. In addition, Jews must wear a wooden calf necklace and Christians an iron cross. In the public baths, Jews must replace the calf with a bell. In addition, women of the People of the Book had to wear two different coloured shoes, one red and one black. These remained in place until 1014.[39] On 18 October 1009, al-Hakim ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre and its associated buildings, apparently outraged by what he regarded as the fraud practiced by the monks in the "miraculous" Descent of the Holy Fire, celebrated annually at the church during the Easter Vigil. The chronicler Yahia noted that "only those things that were too difficult to demolish were spared." Processions were prohibited, and a few years later all of the convents and churches in Palestine were said to have been destroyed or confiscated.[37] It was only in 1042 that the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX undertook to reconstruct the Holy Sepulchre with the permission of Al-Hakim's successor.

Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained mainly Christian, but Copts lost their majority status after the 14th century,[40] as a result of the intermittent persecution and the destruction of the Christian churches there,[41] accompanied by heavy taxes for those who refused to convert.[42] From the Muslim conquest of Egypt onwards, the Coptic Christians were persecuted by different Muslims regimes,[43] such as the Umayyad Caliphate,[44] Abbasid Caliphate,[45][46][47] Fatimid Caliphate,[37][48][49] Mamluk Sultanate,[50][51] and Ottoman Empire; the persecution of Coptic Christians included closing and demolishing churches and forced conversion to Islam.[52][53][54] They were only made legally equal with Muslims for a short time during Napoleon's rule in Egypt.[55][56]

Modern era

Observers note a large gap between rights for Copts and other minorities that exist under the law and what exists in practice. Critics cite that while in 2016 the parliament worked to pass a bill making it easier for Christians to get government permission to build churches, in practice security officials have stopped actual construction.[57]

In Egypt the government does not officially recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity;[58] also certain interfaith marriages are not allowed either, this prevents marriages between converts to Christianity and those born in Christian communities, and also results in the children of Christian converts being classified as Muslims and given a Muslim education.[citation needed]

The government also requires permits for repairing churches or building new ones, which are often withheld.[59] Article 235 of the 2013 draft constitution requires the next legislative body to create a law that would remove the restrictions on the building of churches.[60] Foreign missionaries are allowed in the country only if they restrict their activities to social improvements and refrain from proselytizing.[citation needed]

Copts complain that disputes between Christians and Muslims are often put before "reconciliation councils", and that these councils invariably favour Muslims. Some Copts complain that the police do not respond when crimes are committed against them. Copts also have little representation in government, leading them to fear there is little hope of progress.[57]

In 1981, President Anwar Sadat, internally exiled the Coptic Pope Shenouda III accusing him of fomenting inter-confessional strife. Sadat then chose five Coptic bishops and asked them to choose a new pope. In 1985 President Hosni Mubarak restored Pope Shenouda III.[citation needed]

The government and other Egyptian sources blame tribal behavior in rural Egypt for much of the violence.[61][62][63][64]

During Mubarak's regime (following that of Anwar Sadat), Copts were still struggling to avoid persecution but there were two appointed Coptic Ministers and one governor, in addition to one Copt (Naguib Sawiris) known as one of the most successful businessmen in the world (and residing in Egypt at the time). As of 2018 Copts face heightened persecution and marginalization as their churches are systematically attacked.

Specific incidents


During this time terrorists increased the frequency of their attacks and widened it to include those whom they viewed as collaborators with the security force, launching an attack on the eve of the Adha Eid using automatic weapons killing Copts as well as Muslims.[66]


Main article: Kosheh Martyrs

Al Kosheh is a predominantly Christian Village in southern Egypt. After a Muslim customer and a Christian shoe-store owner fell into an argument, three days of rioting and street fighting erupted leaving 20 Christians (including four children) and one Muslim dead. The killings were not committed in the village of Al Kosheh itself, but in surrounding villages where Muslims are the majority. In the aftermath, 38 Muslim defendants were charged with murder and possession of guns in connection with the deaths of the 20 Copts. But all were acquitted of murder charges, and only four were convicted of any (lesser) charges, with the longest sentence given being 10 years. After protest by the Coptic Pope Shenouda, the government granted a new trial.[69]

Main article: Nag Hammadi massacre

Machine gun attack by three MBs from an Arab tribe called Al-Hawara on Coptic Christians celebrating Christmas. Seven are killed (including a Muslim officer who was on service).[73]

Main article: 2011 Alexandria bombing

A car bomb exploded in front of an Alexandria Coptic Orthodox Church killing at least 21 and injuring at least 79. The incident happened a few minutes after midnight as Christians were leaving a New Year's Eve Church service.[78][79][80]
A dispute started over claims that several women who converted to Islam had been abducted by the church and was being held against her will in St. Mary Church of Imbaba, Giza, ended in violent clashes that left 15 dead, among whom were Muslims and Christians, and roughly 55 injured. Eyewitnesses confirmed the church was burnt by Muslims who are not from the neighborhood, by the committee of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Copts converting to Islam are usually advised by the police to take out restraining orders against their families as the Coptic community does not tolerate converts to Islam. These incidents have fueled strife and problems between Copts and Muslims as in the famous case of Camelia.

Main article: Maspero Massacre

Main article: Maspero demonstrations

The events came against the backdrop of tensions simmering due to the violent military breakup of a sit-in staged at Maspiro by Coptic demonstrators a few days earlier to protest the burning of the church of Marinab in the Governorate of Aswan by Muslims of the region.
According to The Guardian, four Christians and one Muslim were killed in sectarian clashes that broke out north of Cairo after children allegedly drew a swastika on Islamic property. On Sunday Christians gathered in Cairo to remember the dead in a service that ended by further escalating sectarian tensions resulting in two Christians and one Muslim being killed. Local news reports that the sixth Coptic victim who has died was set on fire during the clashes died in hospital a few days later, while according to other media sources the second Muslim victim died from a fractured skull.[96] Doctors and Interior Ministry officials said bullet wounds accounted for most of the deaths, including that of Mina Daniel, a young political activist a doctor said had been shot in the shoulder and leg.
Christians complained revolution, and the first time the Cathedral had been attacked.[96]
Following the July 3 coup d'état against President Mohamed Morsi – a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – Muslim Brotherhood supporters burn dozens of churches throughout Egypt and killed at least 45 Coptic Christians.[57]

Abduction and forced conversion of Coptic women

Agape Girgis, 13-year-old Egyptian girl, abducted from Nahda, el-Ameriya, near Alexandria, on December 23, 2012, published by the Assyrian International News Agency[140]
Agape Girgis, 13-year-old Egyptian girl, abducted from Nahda, el-Ameriya, near Alexandria, on December 23, 2012, published by the Assyrian International News Agency[140]

Coptic women and girls are abducted, forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men.[141][142] In 2009 the Washington, D.C.-based group Christian Solidarity International published a study of the abductions and forced marriages and the anguish felt by the young women because returning to Christianity is against the law. Further allegations of organised abduction of Copts, trafficking and police collusion continue in 2017.[143]

In April 2010, a bipartisan group of 17 members of the U.S. Congress expressed concern to the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Office about Coptic women who faced "physical and sexual violence, captivity ... exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion of the victim."[141]

According to the Egyptian NGO Association of Victims of Abduction and Forced Disappearance, between 2011 and March 2014, around 550 Coptic girls have been kidnapped, and forced to convert to Islam. According the same survey around 40% of the girls were raped prior to their conversion to Islam and married their captors.[144]

Post-revolution anti-women radical trend afflicting Copts

The synchronization of fatwas by Abu Islam's and fatwas by other scholars which categorize certain groups of women (basically Coptic women) as women who are 'asking for it' just because they are not in the radical boat, or because they oppose the regime, have been seen as unacceptable and degrading to Egyptian women in general, to independent women (widows and divorcees) in particular, and more specifically, to the Coptic women who were categorized as Crusaders, sharameet (prostitutes), women who were lewd and therefore willing to be raped.[145] Salma Almasrya, an Egyptian Activist said that what the scholar has claimed comes in harmony with the official declaration from state men which blamed the female activists for the rape crimes which they were subjected to,[145][146][147][148][149] then comes the un-deterred harassment on the part of the Ministry of Media for two media female interviewers in two different situations calling one (hot) on air while asking the other to (come and I will show you where!) when she asked about the freedom of expression, a phrase that was considered very offensive by the media[150] causing many activists to believe that there was a state-orchestrated campaign of terrorism against female activists by humiliation and intimidation rather than force which has been condemned by many media people around the country.

See also


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