Posted: 12/24/2003 6:42:17 PM EDT
The Wall Street Journal
December 24, 2003
The Coptic Path
By JONATHAN ERIC LEWIS
On the day before Christmas, as we prepare to worship and to celebrate, let us not forget the plight of the Coptic Christians of Egypt -- a people who are, to put it with supreme understatement, less free than we are to practice the religion of one's own choosing.
Egypt is the most populous of the Arab countries, and in many ways the most sophisticated. Its path will determine the fate of a region stagnating under archaic economic and political systems. And no group in Egypt would benefit more from democratization than the beleaguered Copts, particularly when democracy is defined not simply by voting rights but by pluralism and the respect for the rights of minorities. Indeed, for Egypt to democratize, it must end its discrimination against its Coptic population, arrest and prosecute the Islamic extremists who have repeatedly targeted the Christian community, and include the Coptic community in all aspects of civic and political life. This would not only go a long way to foster democratic change in Egyptian society, but would also serve as an impetus for other Arab states to begin to better include their ethnic and religious minorities in the region's cultural and political life. Most significantly, the protection of Coptic rights within a stable, pluralistic Egypt allied with Washington is in America's national interest.
* * *
Constituting 15% of the population, Coptic Christians, though technically a minority, are an integral part of the Egyptian nation. Indeed, the term "Copt" is the Greek linguistic root of the English word "Egypt." Although castigated by Islamic extremists as agents of the West, Copts maintain cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions that long predate the advent of Egyptian Islam in A.D. 641. They trace their strong Christian faith back to St. Mark the Evangelist's mission to Alexandria in the 1st century A.D. Although they primarily belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, they also maintain smaller Catholic and Protestant communities. Having had to live under dhimmi, or inferior non-Muslim, status for much of their history, Copts nevertheless produced a rich corpus of theological literature for Near Eastern Christianity, particularly during the 13th-century Coptic Renaissance.
It was not until 19th-century Ottoman reforms, however, that Coptic Christians were freed from their subservient status under Islamic rule and were released from paying the jizya, a discriminatory tax mandated for non-Muslims. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Copts, like Christians in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a cultural rebirth and reasserted their distinct identity. Partially due to British imperial influence in Cairo, Copts began to take an active part in political life of the modern Egyptian state.
Much of the 20th century, however, has not been kind to the Copts, who have seen their distinct identity denied and their faith assailed. Copts face severe discrimination in the public sector, as there are currently no Christian governors, mayors, or police chiefs, and they are substantially underrepresented in national politics. They likewise face educational discrimination, ranging from the lack of school curriculum on Coptic history to being barred from attending the state-funded al-Azhar University. Copts also face hostility from local officials when they complain about harassment and violence from Islamic extremists who continue to force Copts to pay the jizya under the nose of the local police.
While Americans only became aware of the dangers of Islamism terrorism on Sept. 11, Coptic Christians were subjected to a campaign of intimidation and violence throughout the 1990s when Islamists repeatedly targeted Coptic civilians. Given the fact that Egyptian Islamism was an incubator for al Qaeda, one can justifiably view Copts as the victims of the same sort of Islamic extremism that, left unchecked, went on to cost innocent lives from New York to Bali.
Coptic intellectuals in Egypt have sought various means of addressing this systematic discrimination, while promoting peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbors. Many Copts, however, have chosen emigration to the U.S. over the alternative of living as second-class citizens in an increasingly Islamic Egypt, and now maintain vibrant communities in California, New Jersey, and Texas. This has allowed for a degree of Coptic political activism in the Diaspora that would be inconceivable back in Egypt. The U.S. Copts Association, formed in 1996, seeks to give a voice to the approximately 700,000 Egyptian Christians in the U.S. and to advocate on behalf of their brethren on Capitol Hill. This promotion of Coptic rights by Diaspora activists is in America's long-term national interest. Yet Washington should realize that a heavy-handed approach by congressmen to this sensitive issue would only further enrage Egyptians already seething with anti-Americanism. Michael Meunier, president of U.S. Copts Association, has likewise warned of how "the fury expressed towards the United States has been manifested in hostility towards the Christian minority."
In officially designating Jan. 7 -- Orthodox Christmas -- as a national holiday for the first time in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has finally taken a welcome step toward better weaving Copts into the greater fabric of Egyptian civic life and in countering some of the anti-Christian forces in Egyptian society. Such a move should be complemented by gradually introducing more Coptic culture and history into Egyptian school curricula and by curtailing incitement in the media that portrays Christians as infidels and America's Middle East policy as being a "Crusade." The Egyptian authorities should likewise vigorously investigate cases of kidnapping and forced conversions of Coptic girls and make it clear that the government does not tolerate such acts.
The advancement and protection of Coptic rights should not be viewed as a Christian issue, but more broadly as a human-rights issue within the larger context of the Middle East's democracy deficit. The Bush administration should promote energetically the understanding that democracy does not simply mean free elections and majority rule, but also the protection of minority rights under the rule of law. An Egypt in which Copts feel insecure and are subject to violence by Islamic extremists should give way to an Egypt in which all citizens, Christian, Muslim, and secular alike, can take part in the full civic life of the nation. A democratic and pluralistic Egypt allied with the U.S. and respecting minority rights will be a beacon for liberty throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Lewis is the author of a forthcoming study of ethnic/religious minorities in the Middle East.