Dubai: Copts, an ethno-religious group of native Egyptian Christians, are the largest Christian community in the Arab world.
The exact number of Copts is still considered classified information by Egypt. However, Coptic sources estimate that they are between 15 and 20 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people.
Islamic sources, which include the state, put them at around 10 per cent of the population. The population issue and representation in different government institutions, in addition to the freedom of building churches in different parts of the country, top the volatile issues that have been causing a growing communal conflict over the past 20 years.
On the other hand, a low birth rate and high emigration rate, mostly to western countries, have been affecting the proportion that Copts make up of Egypt's population.
From a sectarian point of view and regardless of their size in the country, Copts form a homogeneous ethnic and religious group. The majority of Copts fall under the Orthodox Church whose Pope is in Alexandria.
Only 10 per cent of them subscribe to Catholic and Protestant churches in Egypt.
Historically known as Copts, Egyptians or Aigyptos as they were called by the Greeks, were among some of the earliest nations to embrace Christianity. This changed in the 7th century when the majority chose to embrace Islam after Muslims conquered Egypt during the early days of Islam. Just less than 20 per cent of Egypt's total population remained Christian. The word ‘Copts' became a reference for non-Muslim Egyptians from then on.
Beginning of tensions
Copts enjoyed national and religious freedom under different Islamic rulers throughout the 13 centuries of Islam in Egypt. They lived in peace and harmony with their native Muslim Egyptians till 1972, the year that witnessed the first communal clash between the state and Copts. This clash led to tensions between the Muslim majority and Christian community.
The incident occurred during Anwar Sadat's rule as president. Sadat publicly promoted himself as the leader of the believers. Police and security forces stormed a school in Khanka village, Qalyoubiya province, that was illegally used as an unofficial Coptic church.
The incident, widely considered as the first clash between Christians and Muslims, raised the issue of Christian places of worship in Egypt.
Following the 1972 Khanka incident, the Egyptian parliament formed a committee headed by the parliament's undersecretary, Dr Jamal Al Otaifi, which formulated 10 major points, which sub-branched into 50 topics, that had to be corrected to avoid further communal clashes in Egypt.
The main issues highlighted by the committee cover matters of equality of all citizens under the constitution and tries to avoid the development of communal hatred in religious sermons and in education.
The government was told to enforce a set of unified rules regarding the building of churches and mosques in Egypt. Al Otaifi's report called on the media and schools to instil harmony among the different sections of society and to promote a culture of forgiveness.
However, Muslim and Christian community leaders said that none of Al Otaifi's recommendations were implemented and that this led to a significant escalation in communal tensions the following year.
Kamal Jabrial, a secular Coptic activist, told Gulf News that the history of conflict between Copts and Muslims started long before the Khanka incident in 1972.
In his opinion, the tensions between Christians and Muslims started with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The event, he said, split the nation into a majority of believers entitled to enjoy full rights of citizenship and a minority, regarded as unbelievers and who were second-class citizens with restricted rights.
"The rise of political Islam under Sadat gave greater power to Muslims against their Christian countrymen. The lack of a unified national goal under Sadat as compared to Jamal Abdul Nasser's era also played a role in dividing the society.
"All those elements resulted in the alarming Al Khanka conflict, which unfortunately failed to alarm the government [into taking] corrective actions," Jabrial said.
The author of Copts and Liberalism said the Coptic Church, the government and certain Muslim groups had all taken a stance against the integration of Copts into Egypt's society, leading to unprecedented communal tension.
However, despite the grim picture Jabrial paints about the current situation in Egypt, he believes that society is moving forward towards the establishment of a liberal nation where the rights of citizenship are based on the contributions of nationals, who are equal before the constitution and where there are no advantages of religious subscription in the nation.
Yassir Al Adl, a liberal Muslim writer and university teacher, told Gulf News that he blames the rising communal tensions on both political and religious authorities in the country.
"Both authorities are moving nationals to strengthen their power and influence in the society instead of helping them to improve their living conditions and [fighting] poverty," he said.
He said that with 45 per cent of Egytians living in poverty, everything remains possible in Egypt — even if it means communal confrontation and breaking up the social peace Egypt has enjoyed for centuries.
Al Adl said the problems stem from the constitution, which fails to grant equality amongst nationals in the face of the law.
"The law did not allow freedom to practise religious duties to Copts as compared with Muslims and the government and the judicial system have played [a] negative role in ensuring the equality of nationals," he said.
Furthermore, the nation has to agree on a set of national goals and the mobilisation of the efforts of all citizens to achieve them.
"Simple Muslim or Christian citizens have very limited goals for their lives [that] focus on feeding themselves and their families. Fanaticism is growing because of poverty and the intention of powerful people to enhance their authority and their wealth," he said.
Al Adl said groups embracing fanatic ideologies should be barred from spreading their teachings across society. He said the Muslim Brotherhood should not be allowed to spread its views through mosques, TV channels and in universities.
Dr Essam Al Erian, a Member of the Council of Guidance of the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the allegations levelled against his group.
"Blaming a group that is still unrecognised by law 82 years after its formation is nonsense and is [an act of] intentionally or unintentionally misleading the opinion of the public," he said.He said he believed that both Copts and ordinary Muslims were victims of the government and the regime that failed to allow any level of freedom for the nation.
"The Muslim Brotherhood never [preaches] in mosques, this is the responsibility of the government. The group never said that the perpetrators should not be arrested. What [has been] happening in Egypt recently is very dangerous and can lead to [the] destabilisation of social peace in the country," he said.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has initiated a country-wide programme to tackle communal tension and has reached out to Copts to reassure them that this is against the true teaching of Islam. We hope to work with enlightened circles of Copts to eliminate tensions between the two sides and to enhance harmony in the society," he said.
What steps can the government take to quell recent tensions among Copts and Muslims in Egypt? What are some alternative ways to breed tolerance amongst the Egyptian people? What are the main obstacles to this?