When a string of deadly attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt made international news late last summer and into the early fall, there seemed to be as much confusion over who Coptic Christians were as there was over what was happening on the Egyptian streets. Bob Simon, a correspondent for the CBS News program 60 Minutes articulated as much when he opened a December segment titled “The Copts” with this sentence: “Think of Egypt and the first thing that comes to mind is not Christianity.”
Yet as Simon would explain, Coptic Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities—and the largest Christian group and largest religious minority in the Middle East, with eight-and-a-half million members representing about 10 percent of the Egyptian population.
Febe Armanios, an associate professor of history at Middlebury, was born in Cairo, and though she emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old, she has made regular visits to her native country and was raised in the Coptic Church. Armanios, the author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt, accompanied Simon and a 60 Minutes production crew to the Middle East when they began initial reporting in early 2013.
About a year after this trip, I visited Armanios in her book-lined office in Middlebury’s Axinn Center. The original purpose of the 60 Minutes segment, she said, was to shed light on the Copts. Two years had passed since the Egyptian revolution, and the minority group was engaged in an increasingly tense relationship with the government of Muhamed Morsi. Yet very little was known about them around the world. As she told Simon in the broadcast, there isn’t a lot of awareness of Egypt’s role in the Christian story. “It’s a forgotten community, as many people have called it.”
For the next 45 minutes, Armanios gave me a brief primer on Coptic Christians. Native Christians of Egypt, the Copts split from Chalcedonian Christianity with other Orthodox churches (Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians) in 451 AD. Copts have always taken great pride in how deep-rooted Christianity is in Egypt—the first Christian monastery was established there, and one of the sites the 60 Minutes crew visited was an underground chapel where it is believed the Holy Family sought refuge after fleeing King Herod.
Christianity was the religion of the majority in Egypt until about the mid-10th century, but since that time the Copts have experienced a complicated coexistence with the Muslim majority and even with other Christians. Fiercely protective of their identity and loyal to their land and to their ancient form of Christianity, the Copts became largely isolationist, from the 15th century onward. They were suspicious of outsiders, specifically Catholic missionaries in the late 1600s and American missionaries two hundred years later. Internally, they were able to practice their religion, but their position in society ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Until the early 1880s, Copts (like all other non-Muslims) were forced to pay a special “protection” tax and were mostly precluded from holding positions of power. Subsequent reforms would eliminate the tax and would allow Copts to become more integrated into Egyptian society, a movement that coalesced when all Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—opposed British rule early in the 20th century.
When the modern Republic of Egypt was established after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Copts in Egypt returned to a tenuous coexistence with the Muslim majority. Armanios said that during the last 50 years, one can identify waves of Coptic emigration—in the early 1960s, in the late ’70s, and then a steady stream during the past 30 years under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak’s regime professed secularism, an easy way to direct attention away from other issues— like, say, a struggling economy—was to blame Copts.
“But the last three years have been a game changer,” Armanios said.
As in the other Egyptian revolutionary movements of 1919 and 1952, Copts joined with the Muslim majority to form a united nationalist front in the revolution of 2011, though the Coptic Pope initially urged his followers to refrain from actively protesting for fear of being made scapegoats. Yet after the Morsi government was established, violence against Copts grew. Tensions were rising. Shortly after the 60 Minutes crew first filmed in Egypt, unidentified extremists attacked the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, an event the Morsi government failed to condemn. And then on July 3, the Egyptian military announced it had removed Morsi from power. Standing beside General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he announced the change in leadership were other Muslim leaders—and the Coptic Pope.
“It was the first time a Coptic Pope had addressed Egyptians at an explicitly political forum,” said Armanios. “And it was on live television.”
A visible fury ensued across Egypt. “Some people think of Christians as having a secondary status, so they became an easy target,” Armanios said. Angry mobs burned homes, shops, and churches. The Copts were being blamed for conspiring to overthrow Morsi. Then, in August, after Egyptian police and military cleared two Muslim Brotherhood camps, killing close to 1,000 people, the retaliation against Copts was fierce. More than 40 churches were destroyed in just a couple of days. 60 Minutes returned to Egypt for more reporting—this time without Armanios—as the story they had started eight months earlier had taken a dramatic turn.
Sitting in Armanios’s office in early 2014, with violence against Copts still a weekly occurrence, I asked her if this was the greatest persecution Coptic Christians had faced in their 1,600 years of existence.
“That question might be moot,” she replied. “The violence is real.” Whether it’s worse or not as bad as at other times in history may not be the point, she said. She talked about the burgeoning alliance between Copts and other Egyptians and wondered if this could lead to a more pluralistic and democratic country in the years ahead. “Maybe,” she said. “But it is to be determined.”