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18The Coptic Path

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Feb 1, 2004
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      http://www.lacopts.org/general.php?id=P1346

      The Coptic Path (Article from Wall Street Journal)

      By JONATHAN ERIC LEWIS
      Wall Street Journal
      URL for this article on the Wall Street Journal Website:
      http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB107223219966741100,00.html

      COMMENTARY

      On the day before Christmas, as we prepare to worship and to celebrate, let
      us not forget the plight of the Coptic Christians of Egypt—a people who
      are, to put it with supreme understatement, less free than we are to
      practice the religion of one’s own choosing.

      Egypt is the most populous of the Arab countries, and in many ways the most
      sophisticated. Its path will determine the fate of a region stagnating
      under archaic economic and political systems. And no group in Egypt would
      benefit more from democratization than the beleaguered Copts, particularly
      when democracy is defined not simply by voting rights but by pluralism and
      the respect for the rights of minorities. Indeed, for Egypt to democratize,
      it must end its discrimination against its Coptic population, arrest and
      prosecute the Islamic extremists who have repeatedly targeted the Christian
      community, and include the Coptic community in all aspects of civic and
      political life. This would not only go a long way to foster democratic
      change in Egyptian society, but would also serve as an impetus for other
      Arab states to begin to better include their ethnic and religious
      minorities in the region’s cultural and political life. Most significantly,
      the protection of Coptic rights within a stable, pluralistic Egypt allied
      with Washington is in America’s national interest.

      * * *
      Constituting 15% of the population, Coptic Christians, though technically a
      minority, are an integral part of the Egyptian nation. Indeed, the term
      “Copt” is the Greek linguistic root of the English word “Egypt.” Although
      castigated by Islamic extremists as agents of the West, Copts maintain
      cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions that long predate the advent
      of Egyptian Islam in A.D. 641. They trace their strong Christian faith back
      to St. Mark the Evangelist’s mission to Alexandria in the 1st century A.D.
      Although they primarily belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, they also
      maintain smaller Catholic and Protestant communities. Having had to live
      under dhimmi, or inferior non-Muslim, status for much of their history,
      Copts nevertheless produced a rich corpus of theological literature for
      Near Eastern Christianity, particularly during the 13th-century Coptic
      Renaissance.

      It was not until 19th-century Ottoman reforms, however, that Coptic
      Christians were freed from their subservient status under Islamic rule and
      were released from paying the jizya, a discriminatory tax mandated for
      non-Muslims. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Copts, like
      Christians in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a cultural
      rebirth and reasserted their distinct identity. Partially due to British
      imperial influence in Cairo, Copts began to take an active part in
      political life of the modern Egyptian state.

      Much of the 20th century, however, has not been kind to the Copts, who have
      seen their distinct identity denied and their faith assailed. Copts face
      severe discrimination in the public sector, as there are currently no
      Christian governors, mayors, or police chiefs, and they are substantially
      underrepresented in national politics. They likewise face educational
      discrimination, ranging from the lack of school curriculum on Coptic
      history to being barred from attending the state-funded al-Azhar
      University. Copts also face hostility from local officials when they
      complain about harassment and violence from Islamic extremists who continue
      to force Copts to pay the jizya under the nose of the local police.

      --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      While Americans only became aware of the dangers of Islamism terrorism on
      Sept. 11, Coptic Christians were subjected to a campaign of intimidation
      and violence throughout the 1990s when Islamists repeatedly targeted Coptic
      civilians. Given the fact that Egyptian Islamism was an incubator for al
      Qaeda, one can justifiably view Copts as the victims of the same sort of
      Islamic extremism that, left unchecked, went on to cost innocent lives from
      New York to Bali.

      Coptic intellectuals in Egypt have sought various means of addressing this
      systematic discrimination, while promoting peaceful coexistence with their
      Muslim neighbors. Many Copts, however, have chosen emigration to the U.S.
      over the alternative of living as second-class citizens in an increasingly
      Islamic Egypt, and now maintain vibrant communities in California, New
      Jersey, and Texas. This has allowed for a degree of Coptic political
      activism in the Diaspora that would be inconceivable back in Egypt. The
      U.S. Copts Association, formed in 1996, seeks to give a voice to the
      approximately 700,000 Egyptian Christians in the U.S. and to advocate on
      behalf of their brethren on Capitol Hill. This promotion of Coptic rights
      by Diaspora activists is in America’s long-term national interest. Yet
      Washington should realize that a heavy-handed approach by congressmen to
      this sensitive issue would only further enrage Egyptians already seething
      with anti-Americanism. Michael Meunier, president of U.S. Copts
      Association, has likewise warned of how “the fury expressed towards the
      United States has been manifested in hostility towards the Christian minority.”

      In officially designating Jan. 7—Orthodox Christmas—as a national holiday
      for the first time in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has finally taken a
      welcome step toward better weaving Copts into the greater fabric of
      Egyptian civic life and in countering some of the anti-Christian forces in
      Egyptian society. Such a move should be complemented by gradually
      introducing more Coptic culture and history into Egyptian school curricula
      and by curtailing incitement in the media that portrays Christians as
      infidels and America’s Middle East policy as being a “Crusade.” The
      Egyptian authorities should likewise vigorously investigate cases of
      kidnapping and forced conversions of Coptic girls and make it clear that
      the government does not tolerate such acts.

      The advancement and protection of Coptic rights should not be viewed as a
      Christian issue, but more broadly as a human-rights issue within the larger
      context of the Middle East’s democracy deficit. The Bush administration
      should promote energetically the understanding that democracy does not
      simply mean free elections and majority rule, but also the protection of
      minority rights under the rule of law. An Egypt in which Copts feel
      insecure and are subject to violence by Islamic extremists should give way
      to an Egypt in which all citizens, Christian, Muslim, and secular alike,
      can take part in the full civic life of the nation. A democratic and
      pluralistic Egypt allied with the U.S. and respecting minority rights will
      be a beacon for liberty throughout the Middle East.

      Mr. Lewis is the author of a forthcoming study of ethnic/religious
      minorities in the Middle East.
      ================================================
      Some Coptic Resources

      Coptic Church Review

      A Quarterly of Contemporary Patristic Studies Published by the Society of
      Coptic Church Studies

      http://home.ptd.net/~yanney/

      Encyclopedia Coptica
      http://www.coptic.net/EncyclopediaCoptica/

      The Coptic Network
      http://www.coptic.net/CopticWeb/