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06 February 2011

Egypt: The Land of the Copts



Pyramids, Pharaohs, Papyrus, The Nile, Aswan Dam and sometimes even The Muslim Brotherhood are terms that pop up in casual conversation when talking about Egypt.However, not much is known outside of the country about the post-Pharonic inhabitants of Egypt known as the Copts.
The oldest Christian community in all of the Middle East, Coptic Christians make up 12 per cent of Egypt’s population of about 80 million. A stroll through the narrow streets of old Cairo takes us back in time, (despite the call to prayer from the local muezzin) to the pre-biblical era when Egypt was ruled by the Romans.
According to Egyptologist Bassem Morcos, “The Copts are the original inhabitants of Egypt. They were the first ones to welcome the holy family of infant Jesus, Mother Mary and Joseph the carpenter into Egypt as they were fleeing persecution in Bethlehem.”
In fact the St. Sargius Church in old Cairo claims to have been built around the crypt in which the holy family took shelter. The cave also has a recess in the wall where Mary used to put infant Jesus to sleep.
Once Christianity was introduced in Egypt in 42 ACE by St. Mark, the Copts who up until then worshipped the Greeco-Roman Gods converted to Christianity. For the next 600 years Christianity became the predominant religion in Egypt, up until the Arab invasion in 641 ACE.
Many Copts converted to Islam and those who didn’t, paid poll tax (Jizya)[for protection and exemption to military service]. It was at that point onwards that followers of the Christians faith continued to be called Coptic Christians across Egypt.
However, after the invasion of Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Albanian who ruled over Egypt in the early 19th century, the position of the Christian Copts began to improve. Often referred to as the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha abolished the Jizya tax and allowed all Egyptians (Copts as well as Muslims) to enroll in the army. In fact, the first half of the 20th century is often described as the Golden Age by the Copts when Egypt enjoyed a period of liberal renaissance.
It was during that time when Christian Copts were allowed to and willingly did participate in the Egyptian national movement for independence and occupied many influential positions.
A relatively educated minority, one of the most famous Egyptian Copts to have graced the world stage is Boutros Boutros-Ghali who served as United Nations Secretary-General from 1992-1996. His grandfather Boutros Ghali was the Prime Minister of Egypt from 1908 until he was assassinated in 1910.
Most Copts across Egypt owe allegiance to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. However, there are some protestant Copts who owe allegiance to The Evangelical Church of Egypt, but they number less than 25,000.
Recent news about the Copts being persecuted in Egypt has sounded alarm bells across the globe. “It is this lack of understanding and the creation of two solitudes that is the root cause of this problem. A few people in the name of religion are causing this situation to flare up,” adds Morcos, himself a Coptic Christian who also works as a tour guide.
“If it was widely known that an entire chapter of the Koran was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was married to Maria Qupthiya- also called Maria the Copt, then followers of Islam would think twice before harming their fellow brethren,” Morcos goes onto add.
The late Markos Pasha Semeika, founder of The Coptic Museum in Cairo in his now famous address to a group of Egyptian students sums it up quite succinctly: “All of you are Copts. Some of you are Muslim Copts, others are Christian Copts, but all of you are descended from the Ancient Egyptians.”