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The ’Splainer: Who are the Copts and why are they persecuted?

(RNS) The Copts are the largest Christian community in North Africa and the Middle East and are one of the oldest Christian sects in the world.

Relatives mourn the victims of the Palm Sunday bombings during the funeral at the Monastery of St. Mina (Deir Mar Mina) in Alexandria, Egypt, on April 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Once again, Egypt’s Copts are in the news; once again, as the victims of violence. On Palm Sunday (April 9), bombs exploded in two churches, including one in Alexandria where the Coptic pope had been delivering the liturgy. Scores of people were killed, and many others were wounded. So who are the Copts and why are they persecuted?

Who are the Copts?

The Copts are the largest Christian community in North Africa and the Middle East, and one of the oldest Christian sects in the world. The church is officially known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and was founded by the Apostle Mark in the year 42.

Copts are an Oriental Orthodox church, which means they differ doctrinally from churches in the Eastern Orthodox family and from the Roman Catholic Church.

As with their Eastern Orthodox counterparts, married men can be ordained as priests. Coptic priests often have other professions before they enter the priesthood.

Copts believe that Jesus’ divinity and humanity were united in one nature, not two as Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches maintain.  

Other Oriental Orthodox churches are found in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria and Armenia.

Pope Tawadros II on June 3, 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Dragan Tatic

Do they recognize the pope?

The Copts have their own patriarch, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, who took office in 2012 after having his name picked from a glass chalice by a blindfolded boy. Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has been very vocal in his support of the Copts and is scheduled to meet with his counterpart in Egypt later this month.

After the Palm Sunday bombings, Francis sent his “deep condolences” to Tawadros.

Where do Copts live?

Most Copts live in Egypt, where the community comprises an estimated 10 percent of the country’s population. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church shared a patriarch with the Coptic Church in Egypt until 1959, when it was granted its own patriarch, so the rituals of the two churches are very similar.

Copts are also the largest Christian denomination in neighboring Libya and Sudan.

Spires, called “lighthouses” in Egypt, dot the skyline of the Coptic Christian town of Al-Kosheh, Egypt, on March 14, 2017. RNS photo by Fady Hadny

The U.S. has the biggest group of Copts in the diaspora, and, though there are no good figures, it is estimated at hundreds of thousands. There are also relatively large Coptic concentrations in Canada and Australia.

Famous Copts include renowned heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub, former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy for President Trump.

Are Copts Arabs?

This is a touchy question that highlights political differences as much as anything else. Before the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, Egypt was a predominantly Coptic country and the Coptic language, which today exists only in the church liturgy, was widely spoken.

Because the Coptic language and religion predate the arrival of Arabs in Egypt, many Copts don’t consider themselves to be Arabs. But the word “Copt” itself is derived from the Greek word for the indigenous people of Egypt, so some modern Muslims identify with the word “Copt” as well. As with many issues of identity, this one is complicated, and personal. In general terms, though, Copts do not identify as Arabs.

What is life like for Copts in Egypt?

There are two contradictory answers to that question, and both are true.

On the one hand, Copts are integrated into Egyptian society. On the other hand, they suffer routine discrimination in ways both insidious and obvious and are frequently the victims of sectarian violence.

Official discrimination against Copts is somewhat cyclical, although they have suffered it in one form or another steadily since the Muslim conquest. While Copts have achieved success in many arenas in Egypt, discrimination against them has been subtle, and there is a glass ceiling for Copts in many military and government institutions.

Violence against Copts has been a problem for many decades, although it is often sporadic. The community was seen as complicit in the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi, and in the days after his ouster, scores of churches across the country were set on fire and Christian-owned businesses and Coptic organizations came under attack.

Damage from an explosion on Dec. 11, 2016, is seen inside Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

With the rise of the Islamic State group in Egypt, the situation has grown more dire. The terror group claimed the deadly December bomb attack at St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Cairo, which sits adjacent to the seat of the Coptic pope. In February the group put out a video declaring Copts their “favorite prey.” Around that time, several Copts living in the Sinai were murdered, prompting hundreds of families to flee their homes. The Islamic State group took responsibility for the two Palm Sunday bombings.

Copts are reliant upon the Egyptian government to protect them. In 2013, Amnesty International issued a report saying that security forces had failed to do that.

(Monique El-Faizy is a freelance journalist based in Paris who has written extensively on the Copts)

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