Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1997, Pages 87-88

Special Report

Egypt's Coptic Christians: Caught Between Renewal and Persecution

By Rev. Don Wagner

A March 1997 travel seminar to Egypt by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding gave the 29 participants remarkable access to both Coptic Christian and Muslim leadership, as well as insights into the problems members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority face daily.

The tour began with a three-day retreat at the Wadi Natroun monasteries in the Egyptian desert, where Christian monasticism has continued since the late third century. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, served as host to the American delegation and addressed the meeting twice on various aspects of Coptic history and spirituality. Pope Shenouda is the 117th successor to St. Mark, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Egypt and is the author of the second book in the New Testament. The pilgrimage to the Wadi Natroun area included visits to three historic Coptic monasteries, all of which are flourishing and preparing to expand their facilities. Most of the monks come from professional careers—physicians, academics, or businesspeople who have decided to adopt the demanding life of the monastery.

Upon returning from the monastery, the EMEU group visited St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where participants were enthusiastically welcomed by over 7,000 worshippers in the regular Wednesday evening service presided over by Pope Shenouda. This unique two-hour service included prayer, singing and an extended discussion period in which the Pope answered questions on a variety of topics, including dating, marital relationships, vocational decisions and Biblical interpretation.

On the next evening the group ventured into the Zebalin district, where over 150,000 poor residents of Cairo make their home in one of the city's major garbage dumps. One small road leads into the poverty-stricken region where one sees men and children on donkey-drawn carts returning from collecting garbage for a small fee. On arrival, the garbage is sorted and families receive payment for what is recycled. Approximately 90 percent of the Zebalin garbage collectors are Christians, and the three Coptic Churches (Orthodox, Protestant-Evangelical and Catholic) have important ministries there, including clinics, literacy projects and worship.

On Thursdays, a fascinating worship service takes place at St. Samaan Orthodox Church, a relatively new (9-10 years old) facility, a portion of which is carved out of a cave and rises adjacent to the stone mountain in Cairo's northeast sector. Upon entering the church one walks down a ramp, as did the EMEU group, and begins to hear beautiful music from the choir, an instrumental group, and congregation. Entering the massive outdoor sanctuary, one sees a 20-foot television screen with words to the hymn, interspersed with camera pans of the congregation and lead singer. Over 12,000 worshippers were in attendance that evening. The sermon was delivered by Fr. Samaan, the priest of the church, who left medical practice more than 10 years ago and began with a small congregation. Today the St. Samaan Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest church in the Middle East. Its inspirational worship services are matched by ministries of healing, literacy, vocational assistance and health clinics.

But all is not well in Egypt, where over 200 Coptic Christians have been killed in the past two years and an unknown number wounded by attacks by illegal Islamic militias. Most attacks have been concentrated in Upper (southern) and Middle Egypt, population centers for the Christian minority. Estimates of the size of Egypt's Christian population vary from the low government figures of 6 to 7 million to the 12 million reported by some Christian leaders. The actual numbers may be in the 9 to 9.5 million range, out of an Egyptian population of more than 60 million.

A scheduled visit by the EMEU group to a Christian village on the Nile in south-central Egypt was canceled due to a bloody assault on the village of Ezbet Dawood on March 14th. Gunmen from an Islamic militia killed 13 villagers after randomly opening fire on everyone in sight in the predominantly Christian village. The attack was the second of its kind in March, marking one of the bloodiest periods in a campaign that has frequently targeted Christians during the past 10 years. Previously, on Feb. 12, Islamic gunmen killed nine Coptic Christians, most of them young people, during a church-sponsored youth meeting in the village of Abu Qurqas, in Middle Egypt.

Some of the Coptic leaders interviewed by EMEU stated that they believe the attacks are politically motivated, with the actual target being the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Evidently, the goal is to create sufficient unrest so as to discourage tourism, bankrupt the economy and embarrass the Mubarak regime by killing Coptic Christians, who are easy targets. Christian leaders believe the Egyptian government is doing too little to protect the Copts and, in fact, there is speculation that some Egyptian security forces are involved with the militias.

Egyptian human rights organizations and many Muslim leaders, including the Grand Sheikh of the world-renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo, have denounced the attacks on the Coptic community. This was confirmed when EMEU visited Al-Azhar and met with several officials of the university. While the major militant Islamic group, the Gamaat Islamiyya (IG), denied involvement in the Ezbet Dawood attack, a new group took responsibility for the March 14 attack, suggesting a split within the IG.

The Coptic Christian community bears the brunt of significant government discrimination, such as the 19th century Ottoman law that rigidly restricts their ability to build or repair churches. Recently a church was fined for repairing its toilet facilities without previously receiving a permit, even though such a permit had been requested two years earlier but was never approved. New church construction is rare in Egypt, but mosques are constructed freely with virtually no restrictions.

A 1994 report by Middle East Watch noted the connection between official government discrimination and the general social intolerance that exists in Egypt, stating that the discrimination "fuels intolerance and, intentionally or not, it sets the stage for anti-Christian violence by Islamic militants." In the past year the Mubarak government has posted guards at some Coptic churches, and the EMEU group noted police escorts of their tour bus on some occasions. However, Coptic leaders view these gestures as random and having little effect outside of Cairo, particularly in Upper Egypt, where a significant number of Christians live in increasing insecurity.


Rev. Dr. Don Wagner is director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago. EMEU will hold its annual convention at First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX, Nov. 6-8, 1997, featuring Susan (Mrs. James) Baker, plus several Middle Eastern and U.S. Evangelical leaders. Contact EMEU at 3225 West Foster Ave., Chicago, ILL 60625 or phone (773) 244-5786 for details.

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