7 March 2010
Gawdat Gabra, former director of the Coptic Museum and visiting lecturer at Claremont University, has been contributing to Watani since the 1980s. He was in Egypt to attend a recent conference on Christianity and Monasticism in Aswan and Nubia. Watani seized the opportunity to talk to him and hear his opinion on the current situation in Egypt, especially regarding Copts. It was easy to see that Dr Gabra was deeply moved as he spoke of the Nag Hammadi Christmas Eve crime against Copts, the climate heavy with fanaticism, and escalating violence against Copts.
Watani: What upsets you most about the climate currently dominant in Egypt?
Dr Gabra: Over the last 15 days I have travelled to several areas. I was dismayed to see a ‘micro police station’ in front of every church. As a specialist in Coptic history and civilisation, and as an individual who has witnessed a host of sectarian events in Egypt since the days of late President Anwar Sadat, I might say that the problem is basically cultural. It has much to do with the school curriculum.
Can you elaborate on this?
All of us know that the current negative situation has its roots in the Sadat era. In the confrontation with his political opponents, he encouraged Islamic jamaat in the universities until they became the major threat to the State—and they killed him. The problem is that those who were students in the 1970s, and saw a student forcing a professor to halt a lecture at prayer time, now hold leading posts in State apparatuses.
Some people argue that combating terrorism begins with the Ministry of Education and ends with the Ministry of Interior.
That’s right. The school teaches students that Copts were persecuted under the Roman Empire, before the Muslims came and ‘liberated’ them. It is as if there was no single bright point in the era prior to the advent of Islam. This is very dangerous, since it gives Coptic students the feeling that they have made no achievements in history. Yet history proves that, like the Romans, the Arabs came to Egypt to extract tribute and jizya (the head tax to be paid by non-Muslim subjects in Muslim-dominated areas).
What about the absence of the Coptic era from the history curriculum?
Many Copts cry foul at the absence of the six-century-long Coptic era from the school curricula. In fact, there is nothing called a Coptic or Islamic era, and history and religion are two separate areas. Or else why do we say pharaonic era rather than the pagan era? Thus we should rather say Omayyad, Ayyubid, Fatimid, Mamluk…etc. Each of these epochs has symbols of Coptic as well as Islamic civilisations. Up to the Mamluk era, the Coptic civilisation was dominant. Over the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, the Islamic symbols of civilisation took the lead.
How can an Egyptian Coptic student learn about the culture of his or her Coptic forefathers?
An Egyptian student may not learn anything about Pope Athanasius, to whom the Creed is ascribed. But he or she has to learn a great deal about the Arab leader Amr Ibn al-Ass. A student might not know that the mehrab of the mosque is taken from the niche traditionally constructed in the eastern part of the sanctuary in Coptic churches, or that Christian carpenters built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and contributed in restoring the Kaaba.
Egyptian universities should have departments for Coptic studies. In the Faculty of Antiquities in Cairo University, students can earn a diploma in different civilisations, the only exception being the Coptic one. It’s a shame that at the end of each conference on Coptic civilisation, foreign participants send messages to the Minister of Education and the President calling on them to set up departments to teach Coptic civilisation, but to no avail.
Who has to shoulder this responsibility?
Since officials are reluctant to found departments for Coptic studies in Egyptian universities, Copts should do it for themselves.
The problem, however, is that the number of professors specialising in Coptic studies is shrinking alarmingly. However, I call upon the Church and the business sector to find ways to achieve this goal. I think sending groups of young people to learn about Coptic language, art, architecture, history and so on in Coptic Studies departments in institutes and universities outside Egypt would be a good start. They could become the specialists of the future. I would like to seize the occasion to thank those businessmen who contributed to the foundation of a chair of Coptic studies at the American University in Cairo.
Has Watani contributed to raising awareness of Coptic culture?
Watani tackled several of these issues, especially since the early 1980s. A group of writers including William Suliman Qelana, Suliman Nassim, Maged Atiya and myself founded the page ‘From the nation’s chronicles’ to address issues that could help alleviate sectarian tension by highlighting the Coptic component of the Egyptian identity.
There appears to be a lot of misunderstanding about the jizya. As a history scholar, could you explain it to our readers?
Under Arab rule, all Egyptians—Muslim and Coptic—were required to pay taxes (al-khurag) which were a heavy burden on all. But Copts were subjected to the added burden of paying the jizya under the pretext that they did not contribute in military service. But in reality, neither Copts nor Egyptian Muslims were allowed to serve in the army; soldiers and officers usually came from the country of the ruler. But the Copts alone were made to pay for that.