Watani presents a study that chronicles the long quest of Copts for citizenship rights since the 19th century.
Equality in citizenship rights and duties inevitably leads to a sense of belonging, as a study by Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Aal, a political scientist in the National Centre for Sociological and Criminological Research, reveals. The study is entitled “Citizenship issues regarding Copts, a reading on the stances of Pope Shenouda III” who was patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church from 1971 to 2012 and was widely loved and revered by Copts and Muslims alike. Under his leadership the Church, which goes back to the first AD century when St Mark preached Christianity in Egypt, moved to become a modern-day, national establishment with congregations that spread around the globe. The Pope’s legendary love, wisdom, and sense of humour endeared him to one and all; and his patriotic stances made of him a national hero. Dr Abdel-Aal begins his study by defining citizenship through the famous quote by Pope Shenouda: “Egypt is not a home we live in, but a home that lives inside us.”
Dr Abdel-Aal’s study on the citizenship issue of Copts was conducted during the 2000s and has to be updated for the changes that came to Egypt during and after the Arab Spring in 2011, and Pope Shenouda’s passing away in March 2012. The study, however, derives inestimable value from offering a faithful chronicle of the modern history of the Copts as an original part of the Egyptian national group.
Dr Abdel-Aal argues against the definition of Copts as a minority. Anyone who believes that, he says, has a flawed idea of citizenship. He believes that this trend of thought, adopted by some Coptic organisations outside Egypt, is an extension of the thought of the Coptic Nation Group which was founded in the first half of the 20th century and dissolved in 1954 after its call for an independent Coptic State inside Egypt had failed.
By contrast, Dr Abdel-Aal points out, those Copts who consider themselves part of the community where they live, and not just a minority, have a high sense of citizenship. One of those was Pope Shenouda who insisted that: “The demands of Egypt’s Copts can be fulfilled through a spirit of the love and compassion shared among them and their Muslim fellow-citizens, regardless of being a numerical minority.”
Dr Abdel-Aal quotes the Pope in 2002 that Copts ask for nothing but equality, yet there is a gap between the equal rights stipulated in the Constitution and in actual practice and implementation. The Pope believed that in order to activate the citizenship principle, people had to believe in it by abandoning discriminatory practices and looking for the reasons why Copts feel oppressed in the first place.
A matter of loyalty
The issue of Copts in Egypt’s modern history, according to Dr Abdel-Aal, underwent two distinct stages. The first was in 1855 when the ruler of Egypt Saïd Pasha annulled the terms of dhimma, the terms which define the rights and duties of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, and which applied to Egypt’s Christians ever since the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. Since the principle of dhimma assumes the loyalty of non-Muslims to Muslim rule cannot be trusted, dhimmis were exempted from serving in the army and were required instead to pay a special tax, the jizya. This feeling of Copts being inferior Egyptians coloured all dealings with them by the Egyptian State and even by Egyptian Muslims. The jizya was also abolished by Saïd Pasha who thus laid the ground for full citizenship status for Copts in Egypt since the Islamic rule. Legislation stipulating equal rights and duties for Egypt’s Copts and Muslims followed.
The second stage Dr Abdel-Aal defines regarding the status of Copts involves bridging the gap between legal and actual equality, no easy task seeing that the concept of Coptic inferiority had become entrenched over the centuries. Copts, he says, only began voicing their demands following the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. The nationalist Egyptian movement that formed in retaliation to the British occupation united both Muslims and Copts under one national banner in the face of the common enemy. The Copts’ unanimous denouncement of the British invasion proved beyond doubt that their prime loyalty belonged to Egypt not to religion. Contrary to what the deep-rooted concept of dhimma hypothised, the Copts stood against the ‘Christian’ British and with the ‘Muslim’ Egyptians.
Coptic demands brushed aside
In 1897, the Coptic leaders active in the national movement presented their first official request to Prime Minister Mustafa Fahmi Pasha and British Consul-General (1883-1907] Lord Cromer. They asked for equal opportunity to hold administrative office, and the appointment of a third Copt in the Shura Council and a fourth on the Judicial Supervision Committee.
The first Coptic conference convened in 1911 and called for a holiday on Sundays and a chance of nomination to administrative positions based on competence alone. Copts also asked for representation on councils and that the State treasury should equally fund both Muslim and Coptic facilities. All these demands never saw light, however.
During WWI, Egypt was a British colony and had to side with the Allies. In return, the country expected to be grated independence once the war was over. This did not happen, however, the result being the Egyptian nationalist revolution in 1919. Copts were a major part of that revolution which ran under the motto “Religion is for God and the homeland for all”; its banner carried an intertwined crescent and cross.
Even though the revolution subsided with partial independence granted to Egypt and a Constitution established in 1923, the Constitution did not take into account Coptic demands. It declared Islam as the State religion, an article that has remained in Egypt’s consecutive constitutions ever since.
Copts in political parties
One of the leading Coptic figures of the first half of the 20th century, Wissa Wassef, said that politics should be kept separate from religion. It was because of this that Muslims and Copts were able to work side by side during the liberal, nationalist phase that lasted from 1923 to 1952. Yet it was a phase that saw a lot of political turmoil and conflict between the British, the Egyptian nationalists, and the monarchy which took one or the other’s side depending on its own interests or in submission to pressure frequently applied by the British. In July 1952, a coup overturned the monarchy, turned Egypt into a republic in 1953, and gained independence from Britain in 1954 bringing in a new era in Egypt’s modern history.
During the 1923 – 1952 phase, Copts were politically active. Many joined the liberal Wafd Party, becoming a substantial element in it. To this day the Wafd takes pride in its history as a party with no religious bias. In 1924, 1926 and 1942, Coptic representation in parliament ranged between 8 and 10 per cent, but this declined to 2 per cent in 1931 and 1938 when the Wafd was out of power. Dr Adel-Aal points out that the other parties conspired with the palace to weaken the Wafd by propagating the idea that Copts would become a majority in the party and would then seize power. The sectarian climate that resulted drove many Copts out of politics.
The dissolution of political parties and wave of nationalisation of privately owned estates and industries that followed the 1952 Revolution, drove Copts, many of whom were wealthy landowners and industrialists, to withdraw from political life. Many emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Egyptian not Arab
It took till 1976 for political parties to be allowed to operate again in Egypt. But even then, no Coptic names emerged on the political arena. A minimal number of Copts nominated themselves for the parliament and, by 2005 when the government decided to appoint 10 Coptic members, no Copts were winning seats in parliamentary and local elections. Since then the idea of appointing Copts by quota became functional. Dr Abdel-Aal believes that if the State really wanted more Coptic MPs, it would have found appropriate means other than appointment by quota.
Copts had already made a bid for equality when they presented an official plea for reform of the 1953 Constitution drawn up in the wake of the 23 July 1952 Revolution. They had asked for the removal of the statement that “Islam is the religion of the State”; for the appointment of a Coptic vice-president; for condemnation of all discrimination against Copts; for implementation of freedom of religious equality; and that the Constitution should be national and not religious, Egyptian and not Arab. As back in 1923, these demands were rejected.
In 1977, with the backing of Pope Shenouda III, Copts asked for freedom of belief, abolishment of the notorious “ten conditions” for building churches, and that Islamic sharia should not be applied to Christians. They also asked that Coptic studies be included in university programmes and for the freedom to print Christian books. Much later, in 2003, President Mubarak declared Coptic Christmas a national holiday.
The study suggests Copts had no problems regarding work as public servants until the beginning of the 20th century. On the contrary, they proved their competence and loyalty in whatever positions they held. Things began to change under the British occupation, however, when Copts were replaced by Levantine Christians. Following the 1952 Revolution Copts were increasingly excluded from government office. The Pope several times called for equal opportunity for Copts in all fields. He rejected any idea of a quota for Copts in the public sector, believing that position should be based on proficiency and skill and not on religion.
The research goes further to outline the history of church building, starting with the 1856 Ottoman Hamayouni Edict, which is still partially in force, and which requires non-Muslims to obtain a decree from the head of State to build new places of worship.
In February 1934 the then Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ezabi Pasha issued a ministerial decree stipulating “Ten Conditions” that had to be met to acquire licensing to build a church. These conditions, which are still in force, go far beyond any normal building requirements and stipulate extremely restrictive conditions regarding the nature of the land on which a church is to be built and the neighbouring public buildings or facilities. It requires the consent of the Muslim residents around, and sets a minimum distance between the church and any existing mosque. It pre-requires a minimum number of Christians in the neighbourhood for the church to be built, and that no other church should exist there.
Sectarianism on the rise
The year 1972 witnessed one of the most horrendous sectarian clashes when a church in the Cairo district of al-Khanka was attacked and burned, as were the homes and businesses of Copts there, forcing the problem of church building to the fore. A fact finding committee formed by the People’s Assembly and headed by Gamal al-Oteifi recommended that the terms of building churches should be reconsidered, and that more should be done in the direction of securing the rights of Copts; otherwise, the committee warned, sectarian conflict was bound to rise in volume and viciousness. And rise it did, since very little was done by Egypt’s successive governments.
President Hosni Mubarak, when asked about revoking the Hamayouni line, commented that it was not the right time and said that churches were already being built and licences approved. He issued more licences for church building than previous presidents, and in 1998 ceded the authority to approve the renovation or restoration of existing churches to the local governors.
According to Pope Shenouda, the real problem lay not only in the Hamayouni Edict and the Ten Conditions, but also in the administrative and security procedures that hinder the issuance of official papers needed for church construction.
Paying the price
The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 forced Mubarak to step down, and Egyptians decided to give the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) a chance at running the country. The Copts were quick to suffer; the attempts to Islamise the country fostered a culture of hatred and gave rise to horrible attacks against Copts during which their homes, shops, businesses, property and churches were targeted. The most notorious of these attacks occurred in Sole, Giza, in March 2011; Imbaba, Cairo, in May 2011; Merinab, Aswan, in September 2011, and St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo in April 2013. In other incidents Coptic families were attacked in their homes on trivial or fabricated pretexts and forcefully displaced elsewhere. The number of cases against Copts for disdain of Islam skyrocketed; court and judges were terrorised into indicting them.
The Islamisation of Egypt did not sit well with Egyptians, who have a time-honoured tradition of religious moderation. Neither did they tolerate the curtailment of freedoms and the power grab by the MB President Muhammad Mursi in November 2012, nor the economic nosedive. On 30 June 2013, Egyptians in their millions rebelled; the army gave Mursi an ultimatum which he belligerently rejected and was thus toppled on 3 July 2013. Copts, who had taken part in force in the 30 June Revolution, paid a high price for that. They became the targets of Islamist terrorist attacks; in a nationwide rampage on 14 August 2013 some 100 Christian churches and establishments were assaulted, looted, and burned; as were the homes and businesses of Copts.
Hope is in the air
Pope Shenouda had passed away in March 2012, and in November 2012 the Coptic Church elected the current patriarch, Pope Tawadros II. Predictably, the new Pope’s relation with the then Islamist authorities was at best stormy. Following July 2013, however, Egypt set a Roadmap for democratic change which the country has been ever since fulfilling with a new Constitution in January 2014 and a new President, the moderate Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, in June 2014.
The new Constitution guarantees citizenship rights for all Egyptians, Copts—naturally—included. A new law is being enacted to govern the building of churches, as is a family law for Christians. Copts are into the public arena with gusto; an unprecedented number of them has ambitions to run for the upcoming parliament and are already working on that front. Pope Tawadros has more than once declared that the Church plays no political role, but does not shy away from any national duty at hand.
It should not be long before Copts see their aspirations to be full Egyptian citizens come true. Hopes are high that this time there will be no disappointments.
9 January 2015