The Persecution of Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt

Coptic Priest and Imam hand-in-hand after restoring peace in Al-Hurraya neighborhood.

Al Jarida Newpaper

Coptic Priest and Imam hand-in-hand after restoring peace in Al-Hurraya neighborhood.

Archpriest Arsanios Wadeed was stabbed to death while strolling in the waterfront promenade corniche in Alexandria, Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church announced its condolences, calling him a “martyr” who dedicated his life to God. However this martyr is one of many Coptic Orthodox Christians who have faced persecution simply because of the religion they practice. This recurring theme of violence and oppression towards Coptic Christians dates all the way back to the 641 CE, when the Muslims first came to Egypt.

Coptic Orthodox Christians are the largest minority in Egypt (6-7 million or 6-9% of the population) and the biggest Christian community in the Middle East. However, not all Coptic Orthodox Christians identify with the Arab ethnicity and many believe they are descendants of Egypt’s ancient Pharaonic people. The divide between these two groups has been present for centuries.

The oppression of this minority begins with the victory of the Rashidun Caliphate, Muslim conquest of Egypt. The new Arab rulers referred to the Christians as “dhimmis”–a derogatory term used for non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire)–and viewed them as polytheists. Up until the seventh century, Egypt under the Byzantine Empire had primarily practiced Orthodox Christianity freely. However, when the reign of the Byzantines came to an end and with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Christians in Egypt were forced to either convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax. Under Islamic rulers, all citizens had to follow the law of the land, Sharia Law: a subjective interpretation of how different scholars and caliphs viewed the Islamic faith and culture at that period of time. The Ottoman Empire required Coptic Orthodox Christians to wear distinct color clothing from Muslims. In addition, anyone who practiced a faith other than Islam in the Ottoman Empire couldn’t build new places of worship or repair old ones without permission from someone with authority over that region. While some rulers were tolerant of the diverse faiths in the region such as the Caliph Omar (634–644), it ranged anywhere from tolerance to open persecution.

Furthermore, even as Coptic Orthodox Christians gained the right to practice their faith freely, they remain a marginalized minority in Egypt and the Middle East overall.

While secretarian clashes continue to happen, religious leaders from both the church and mosques in Egypt continue to defend the right of religious freedom for all. Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Islam leading authority, Ahmed El-Tayyib expressed his condolences and condemned the killing of the Archpreist. Imam Tayyib said “the killing went against the teachings of Islam and warned it could be used to promote sectarianism in a country that has seen sectarian tensions flare.”

Sectarian violence was at an all time high in 2012-2013. During this period of time, President Mohamed Morsi, a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected. In 2012, he drafted the Constitution which was boycotted intensely by Christian representatives. These representatives spoke out against this draft because it included many of the same restrictions that Egypt’s 1971 predecessor President Anwar el-Sadat had previously imposed.

According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, more than 115 attacks against churches and Christian-owned homes and businesses were documented between August 12, 2013, and August 17, 2013. Even after the Egyptian Revolution, nothing changed for the Coptic Orthodox Christian community who continued to face persecution. After accusations were made by the Muslim Brotherhood that Coptic Christians played a role in the overthrowing of former President Morsi, the Middle East Director at the Human Rigth’s Watch, Joe Stork, said an outbreak of violence was bound to happen. In 2013, the Human Rights Watch (HRW), reported the looting and burning of sacred religious text in Orthodox Churches or Christian Institutions in Minya, Asyut, Fayum, Giza, Suez, Sohag, Bani Suef, and North Sinai. This happened following the “violent dispersal” of the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence was so bad that in January 2015, Coptic leaders in Minya were forced to cancel Christmas celebrations after two policemen were gunned down while guarding a Coptic church. However after the chaos of the attacks, the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Mourad Ali, issued a response that stated, “Pursuant to our party’s indivisible principles, we strongly condemn any attack, even verbal, against Copts, their churches or their property.”

Some fear was allayed for the Coptic Christians with the election of current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014. President al-Sisi has made efforts to engage with the Coptic Orthodox church and has condemned any and all violence towards Coptic Christians. In January 2015, he gained the support of the leading authority in the Coptic Orthodox Church with his attendance of the Coptic Christmas Eve mass services. However, not all Coptic Christians support the Church’s new found bond with al-Sisi. According to a blog by CSW Egypt, 800 prominent Coptic figures issued a statement in which they highlighted their concerns regarding the Church’s growing closeness to the regime and the negative impact this might have on the Coptic community in September 2016.

In October of 2015, national elections were held and Copts won 36 parliamentary seats, an unprecedented 6% of total seats. While the Christian community in Egypt may have benefited from al-Sisi’s support, Egyptian authorities continue to fail in protecting the rights of Christian citizens. The laws that restrict Coptic Orthodox Christians from establishing and maintaining church buildings, remain in place. Even in the event that they do gain permission to build or upkeep a church, often local Muslims block their attempts to do so. In order to compromise, many churches have been built without a bell or a tower.

In August of 2016, President al-Sisi passed a new law on church construction that gave local authority of the state the power to make decisions regarding church construction. While Pope Tawadros II welcomed this new legislation, it received a lot of backlash and criticism from the Christian community saying that the states favored one religion.

While the persecution of Coptic Orthodox Christians is not as prominent as in previous times, it still exists. On April 12, 2022, a youtube video of Mariam Waheeb who had been missing for week along with her 18-month-old daughter, Julie, went viral of her wearing a hijab and announcing her conversion to Islam. In the video, Waheeb appeared to be converting by her own free-will, but her face was fear stricken and her daughter could be heard crying in the background. Since Waheeb claimed she had left on her own and eloped along with converting, it left little for authorities to do. Mariam’s husband, Joseph Saad, unwilling to rest, continued to protest saying his wife and daughter were kidnapped. Two days later, authorities reunited Waheeb and Julie with their family.

Not every story has had this happy ending. Many Copic Orthodox Chrsitians have been murdered, many churches have been destroyed, and the recent death of the late Archpreist has left the community fragile. However, Imams and Priests stand hand in hand towards restoring justice and peace in the community and promoting the end of sectarian clashes.