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Understanding Coptic history: Understanding Egyptian history

It is impossible to subtract the history of Egypt’s Coptic Christians from mainstream Egyptian history, historian Mohamed Afifi explains in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 5 Jan 2021
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It is not a particularly festive Christmas that the Copts of Egypt are celebrating today, notably because of the restrictions resulting from the winter surge in Covid-19. However, Christmas this year has been marked, as has been the case over the past five years, with an announcement of the restoration of several churches and the registration of others under construction nationwide.

For Egypt’s Coptic Church, and perhaps for the overwhelming majority of Copts, this is no small thing. It is a gesture that is as celebrated as the tradition of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to attend Christmas Mass in Cairo, started in January 2015 only six months after he became president.

These two things have been as celebrated as the decision that former president Hosni Mubarak made in December 2009 to add Christmas Day to the list of national holidays that had never previously included any Christian feasts. Unlike the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, his birth date is not contested by the Islamic authorities, whose green light is a constitutional sine qua non for any decision on official holidays.

However, over the past five years, Easter Sunday has been a de facto day off as it comes between the Friday-Saturday weekend and the Monday of Sham Al-Nessim, an official holiday that all Egyptians celebrate with the advent of spring.  

Mohamed Afifi, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cairo University and a researcher on the history of the Copts, said it was a matter of time and of incremental civil-society pressure.

In a sense, Afifi said, it had been in the interest of Mubarak to make Christmas an official holiday in 2009, as it was perhaps in the interest of the current political dispensation to court the Coptic Church. However, he argued that none of these gestures would have been possible had it not been for societal consent, the latter being the outcome of lobbying by societal and political figures.

Speaking in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly on the occasion of Coptic Christmas, Afifi said that intellectuals in Egypt, believing deeply in the principle of equal citizenship, had worked hard to support and welcome such decisions. But there had also been moments of disarray, he said.

“There have been ups and downs. However, these were not always reflected in the daily life of Egyptians who would not all be swayed by moments of political difficulty,” Afifi argued.

 

DIFFICULTIES: Over the past 11 decades, Egypt has sometimes come close to Coptic-Muslim confrontation and then seen a U-turn, Afifi said.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘civil strife’ because I don’t think it applies in the case of Egypt as Egyptians do not have different ethnicities,” he said.

In 1910, Ibrahim Al-Wardani assassinated then Coptic prime minister Boutros Ghali Pasha. “This sad and lamentable assassination was not designed to manifest anti-Coptic sentiments on the part of Al-Wardani, however. It was a political assassination designed to protest against widely contested positions,” Afifi said.

But it coincided with a debate over Egypt’s association with the declining Ottoman Empire, and there was a moment of polarisation, with angry calls being made for a Coptic Conference and an Islamic Conference and so on, however.

Yet, it is “difficult to separate Egyptians in a faith-based manner because what all Egyptians share starts from their common historic association with the Valley of the Nile and includes their otherwise almost identical social norms. It is very difficult to think of long-term civil strife in Egypt,” Afifi said.

“Whenever there is an issue of national concern, Egyptians, with or without sentiments of religion, will inevitably tend to come together,” he said. “In the run-up and during the demonstrations of the 1919 Revolution, there was a moment of civil unity, for example,” he added.

Public debate, at least in Cairo and other big cities, over Al-Wardani’s action was quickly silenced. Sheikh Mustafa Al-Qayati and Archbishop Sergious for months exchanged places at Al-Azhar and in downtown Cairo churches to express their support for the calls of freedom made in the 1919 Revolution.

From then on, Afifi said, “there was a significant political movement, which came with the growing role of the Wafd Party, that allowed for a wide and visible political role for the Copts and for Muslims. This lasted for a few decades, and there were the parallel political roles of Mustafa Al-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid,” he added.

During the rise of the Free Officers before the 1952 Revolution, Afifi said, “there was an inevitable decline in the role of Copts, as they have more often than not opted not to join clandestine movements,” Afifi said. Any movements that the Copts opted for were very few and strictly religious, unlike the case of the Free Officers who were predominantly Muslims and certainly were opposed to the state as it then existed.

“Around that time, there were Coptic members of other clandestine movements of Communist or even Fascist inclinations, but these were mostly Copts from wealthy families, and they were an exception,” he argued.

It would also be untrue to disconnect the Free Officers from any association with the Muslim Brotherhood. “It is not just former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who had an association with the Muslim Brotherhood at that time, as others did too,” Afifi said, including “Hussein Al-Shafei, Kamaleddin Hussein, Anwar Al-Sadat, and others.”

“This made it unlikely that there would be the inclusion of the Copts in the Free Officers.”

Later, “Nasser’s enormous popularity as president made up for this,” Afifi said, adding that Nasser had worked on securing a close rapport with head of the Coptic Church Pope Kyrollos.

During these years, it was less common to see Copts in top state positions compared to under the monarchy. However, he added, “the Copts were a lot more inclined to pursue successful professional careers, which also made them perhaps less interested in abandoning those careers in favour of state jobs.

“The nationalisations hurt a lot of wealthy Copts, and there was perhaps a lot more interest in rebuilding lost financial capacity, either in or outside Egypt, rather than in pursuing an association with the state,” he added.

Moreover, Afifi said, “with the elimination of what could be called a public political sphere as a result of the abolition of political parties under Nasser, there was no room for anyone, Copts or Muslims, to have a prominent role if it was not with the consent of the state at the time.”

The military defeat of 1967 then “broke national dreams and prompted a sudden rise in Islamist feeling. As a result, the Copts were left with defeated faith in the present and growing fears over the future. It was a moment of considerable Coptic migration,” Afifi said.

“This was a moment when some Egyptian Copts decided to give their children English Christian names. So instead of Boutros there were lots of Peters, along with Johns and Carolines and so on,” he added.

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DECISIVE MOMENTS: Subsequent years leading up to the October War in 1973 were a time for healing wounds and not for creating more wounds over differences.

However, Afifi said, with the rise of Islamist sentiments in the second half of the 1970s, “it was definitely an alarming moment for many Copts, made worse by the falling out between the head of the Coptic Church at the time Pope Shenouda and Sadat.

“We started to see dividing lines of faith, especially in the more economically challenged quarters, manifested in the choice of the names of children. We saw a lot of Coptic names and a lot of names from the Arab Gulf. Instead of names that carry no religious identification like Dalia, Sherine, Wael and Tarek, we got into the Boutros, Kyrollos, Girgis, Hozaifa, and Rouqaiya phase,” he stated.

“This was effectively the moment that many Copts chose to exit the stage, not just politically but also socially,” Afifi said. He added that given the isolation imposed by Sadat on Pope Shenouda in the early 1980s, this was “a moment like no other” in the contemporary history of Copts, who feared for themselves in a way that might have been worse than following the election of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi as president in 2012.

“When Pope Shenouda came out of isolation during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, he made the decision to keep up a peaceful and distant relation with the state. This was always the case even during the worst attacks against the Copts in 1990s,” Afifi argued. He said that the generally little influence that the political parties had during these years had made the Coptic interest in playing a role in those parties limited, whether in the New Wafd Party or the leftist Tagammua.

“However, for the most part, the Copts were almost all beyond the walls of the Church, physically and not metaphorically, because even when they wanted to gather to express themselves it was outside the walls of the Church,” Afifi said.

The 25 January Revolution in 2011, Afifi said, “was another decisive moment” for at least the younger generation of Copts.

“It is important to note that for Copts and for Muslims, the January Revolution was first and foremost an act of the younger generation. In 2011, the younger generation of Egyptians was perfectly capable, due to the IT revolution and social media, to connect beyond the walls without religious apprehensions,” he argued.

“It was a curious moment of history in many ways. It was almost a moment of turning the page. Mubarak had been ousted, and not long afterwards Pope Shenouda passed away, and there was the younger generation hoping for a new future,” Afifi said.

Some Copts say that they opted for a U-turn as early as October 2011 after the Maspero incidents, when some young Copts, including Mina Daniel, a prominent figure in the January Revolution, got into a violent confrontation with the then law-enforcing agencies that left close to 30 Copts dead.

Some say the wish for a U-Turn occurred on the day Morsi was elected. Others say it was in April 2012 when the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya came under attack. For Afifi, these were all moments of Coptic and Muslim fear and agony.

“Those were moments when the positions of the radical Islamists were being threaded into Egyptian society,” he argued. “This was manifested during the 30 June demonstrations, when there was a very visible Coptic presence side by side with the Muslim presence,” he said.

“Unlike the Coptic presence in the January Revolution, which was mostly of younger men and women, on 30 June there was a very strong presence of older Copts, including housewives and grandparents,” he added.

Afifi argued that 30 June brought together those who opposed the January Revolution with those who wished for an early ouster of Morsi, whether or not they supported the January Revolution. “It was a moment of an affirmative Coptic presence for the obvious and perfectly legitimate reason that the Copts feared more than anyone else the continued rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

He said that the rule of Morsi had brought back fears relating to the 1970s to the 1990s and the worst incidents of attacks against Copts and open calls for anti-Coptic discrimination. It had also brought back memories of the Middle Ages, when “Copts were said to be forced by Muslims into humiliating acts like walking strictly on the left side of the road or being forced to ride their donkeys backwards. But it was never Muslims who forced Copts into these practices, but rather the soldiers of the rulers who would also force Muslim citizens to perform such practices,” he said.

“It is also important to note that 30 June was never a ‘Coptic moment’ but was rather an Egyptian moment with a pronounced Coptic presence,” he added.

After the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, many Egyptians opted out of politics, “like some Muslim Egyptians did, including some who were at the forefront of the January Revolution,” Afifi said. And with political space being effectively suspended, he added, there has been no particular Coptic activism outside the walls of the Church that Pope Tawadros has seemed happy to gather the Copts behind.

“During the Mubarak years, the state was happy to deal with the Copts through the head of the Coptic Church. This was regained in a way after 2013, but with a lot more gestures from the state towards the Copts, like the renovation and registration of churches and the presence of the head of state at the Coptic Christmas Mass, which really brings joy to the Copts,” Afifi argued.

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CULTURE AND CURRICULA: While the history of Copts over the past century has never been on a path of its own, a grievance remains in questions of Coptic representation in the wider culture and school curricula.

“I am not talking about political representation because clearly this too has improved significantly during the past five years. I am rather talking about cultural and media representation and the representation of the history of the Copts, and for that matter of all Christians, in Egyptian school curricula,” Afifi said. In general, he said, there had been little space in literary production for Coptic content.

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz includes a prominent Coptic character, Riad Kaldas, in his novel Al-Sokariya (Sugar Street), presenting him as engaging in conversation with Kamal Abdel-Gawwad, the protagonist. Other references in contemporary literature include the works of Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and Alaa Al-Aswany, in addition to the works of Coptic Alexandrian writer Edward Kharrat and Naim Sabri, who was born to a Coptic family in the predominantly Coptic Cairo neighbourhood of Shobra, just like Afifi himself.

“The TV dramas of writers Osama Anwar Okasha and Wahid Hamed also have some Coptic representation; but in general this does not seem to be very vocal and it tends to present some stereotypes,” Afifi said.

The Tales of Youssef Tadros by author Adel Esmat is perhaps one of the more pronounced texts dealing with Coptic representation in literature. “Again, it is an incremental effort, on two sides really, the side of society to encourage full Coptic engagement and the side of the Copts to come forward without misgivings.”

Afifi believes there is room to include a lot more on the history of the Christians of Egypt in the school history curriculum.

“I would not subscribe to the idea of teaching students about the ‘Coptic Era’ in Egyptian history, which is basically a reductionist reference to the six centuries before the arrival of Islam in Egypt. It is reductionist because it assumes that after the arrival of Islam the Copts, or for that matter the Christians, of Egypt were on the margins, which is absolutely not true,” Afifi said.

Some of the most important Coptic volumes, including those by the Awlad Al-Assal, which defends the Christian faith and establishes Church regulations, were written in the 13th century, for example. The Coptic Synaxarium, a compilation of saints, starts in the fourth and continues through at least the seventh century.

“While I think we should allow children to read more and learn more about the role of Christians, especially Copts, who always were the majority of Egyptian Christians, in the making of collective Egyptian history, I don’t think we need to label eras by religious association, either as Christian or Muslim. I think it makes more sense to talk of the Byzantine era and Fatimid rule rather than of the Coptic era or of Islamic rule,” he said.

There is also a need to re-engage the Coptic language, based on ancient Egyptian, and not see it only as an element of the Coptic Orthodox faith. “It is such a pity that we give it so little attention,” he argued.

Teaching religion in schools Afifi believes deserves an alternative approach. “It is one thing to teach history and another to teach religion in the way it is done now,” he said. There is already some confusion between teaching religion and teaching the history of the followers of a certain faith. “I think there should be another way to teach children about their religion without making it part of the school curriculum. School should be about the things that we all share and we can all discuss,” Afifi said.

“I remember Pope Shenouda used to say that the ultimate moment of equal citizenship was the one when graduates of secondary schools apply to university. At that moment, only their grades should get them in or deny them the discipline they wish to study. This should be the spirit around which education should be based,” he added.

Afifi is convinced that the history of Christianity merits more attention, especially in university departments and not just at undergraduate level. When Afifi started a PhD in the mid-1980s about the Christians of Egypt under Ottoman rule, he was one of very few graduate students to approach this theme.

Today, he is proud to say, there are many graduate students, both Muslims and Christians, who are interested to learn more about the story of Egypt’s Christians, especially the Coptic majority.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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