Copts and robbers: The making of the newest global crisis

By J Brooks Spector 17 September 2012

It’s been a long time since Coptic Christians and their circumstances were an important element of a major, front-page, above-the-fold news story. But it is still a story with lots of questions attached. Daily Maverick’s J BROOKS SPECTOR looks more closely at one of those – the circumstances of the Coptic Christians in the midst of all this. 

Protests across the Middle East and the sacking of the US consulate in Benghazi coincided with the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US. Those demonstrations and protests may have had a connection to calls by some al-Qaeda groups to avenge the killing of a senior Libyan-born al-Qaeda leader last month. And then there is the curious fact that these protests have come right in the midst of a US election campaign. Was this somehow timed in some way to emulate that embassy hostage-taking 32 years ago in Tehran that destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency? And why is an émigré member or two of the Coptic diaspora mixed up in all this? Lots of questions and still few answers, but let us make a start on the Coptic connection.

Right off the top, there is at least one place in the Middle East breathing easier, now that the apparent truth about the film has become public due to some thorough reporting. As the leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, wrote, “The shadowy ‘Israeli-American real estate developer’ who had supposedly received $5 million from ‘100 Jewish donors’ to produce a movie portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a violent and stupid child-molester was actually a convicted scammer from California belonging to another faith with a grievance against Islam – the Coptic Christian Orthodox Church.” 

But what are the Copts doing mixed up in all this? This is a Christian community with ancient rites and rituals that has been in Egypt for nearly two millennia and whose liturgy is the last surviving link to Egypt’s ancient Pharaonic language. The very name “Copt” is a word derived from the Arabic word “Qubt”, meaning “Egyptian”. 

According to tradition, St Mark the Evangelist first established this community when he arrived in Egypt and successfully converted  members of Alexandria’s then-thriving Jewish community. Following a failed Jewish revolt in Alexandria against Roman rule, more Alexandrine Jews converted to Christianity – and the new religion spread rapidly throughout Egypt. 

From 380 AD – when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, until the Arab conquest in the seventh century, Coptic Christianity enjoyed its “golden age”. Its monasteries became centres of scholarship and artistic excellence. Some of these, such as St Anthony’s near the Red Sea, remain. And it still has thousands of unique manuscripts only now being fully evaluated. Eventually, the Christians and their messianic faith overwhelmed the earlier multi-theistic Roman and Greek religions – events depicted in that recent swords and togas film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Greek philosopher Hypatia, heir to the Hellenistic rational tradition. 

The Egyptian Coptic Church split with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in 451 AD in a dispute over Christ’s essential nature – but they kept using the Orthodox religious calendar and they still share many rituals in common. Even after the conquering Islamic army gained Egypt in 639 from the Byzantine Empire, it was not until the 12th century that adherents to Islam outnumbered Coptic Christians.

As the Coptic population has declined, its fortunes have increasingly depended on the plans of the nation’s various conquerors. One caliph in the Fatimid dynasty confiscated their possessions, forced them out of public life and ruined their monasteries while another ruler, Salah al Din, after defeating the Europeans in Palestine, allowed the Copts to return to holding government positions. Then the Ottomans, after their conquest of Egypt in 1517, reversed the process.

The Copts now are around 10% of the Egyptian population. In recent years, despite various tensions, the Coptic population has often been reasonably well integrated with the surrounding Islamic society. Some Coptic Christians like Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt’s former foreign minister and then UN secretary-general, have risen to important positions. However, violent incidents directed at the community have arisen in tandem with waves of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and led many Copts to emigrate. In the last days of the Mubarak regime, for example, a mob in the town of Sol destroyed dozens of Copt homes and sacked the Church of St Mina and St George when stories of an intimate relationship between a Muslim woman and a Coptic man spread widely.

In that attack, a church custodian told the Smithsonian, “Before the January 25 revolution there was security for their community. But during the revolution, the police disappeared,” After Mubarak’s overthrow, and despite the growing influence of Islamist groups, the Egyptian army sent a team of army engineers to reconstruct the church. But mending the emotional traumas will take more time the church custodian said. “At the beginning I was filled with hate, (but) I realized that not all Muslims are the same. I have started to calm down.”

Then there was the New Year’s Day 2011 bomb in front of al-Qiddissin church, Alexandria’s largest Coptic church, just as worshipers were leaving midnight Mass. That bomb killed 21 people. Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Watani (Homeland), a Coptic newspaper in Cairo, said Alexandria “has become a focal point of the (Islamic fundamentalists), a breeding ground of violence.” 

Other observers noted that following the New Year’s Day bombing, attacks against the Coptic community have risen. While the decay in law and order can be blamed for some of this, a second factor has been the emergence of the Salafist Muslim sect that had been repressed during Mubarak’s days. To Sidhom, the Salafists have “announced that their role is to defend ‘real Islam,’ and that the tool they would use is the early Islamic penal code.” Sidhom noted that when a rumour spread that a female convert to Islam had been kidnapped and held as a captive in a Cairo church, Salafist-led crowds converged on two Copt churches and by the time the fighting was over at least 15 people were dead, 200 injured and the churches burned to the ground. 

The situation has parallels with the situations in other Arab countries. The rise of Islamic militancy – in tandem with the end of authoritarian regimes – is encouraging fear among many Christian communities. In Bethlehem for example, about half the town’s Christian population has departed in the past decade. And in Iraq, about half of its Christian population has apparently left that country since the US invasion in 2003. 

Until Mubarak’s overthrow, The Smithsonian explained, “the Copts have maintained an uneasy relationship with Egypt’s military rulers. During the 1970s, Copts suffered a wave of attacks by Muslim extremists, and when President Anwar Sadat failed to respond to their demands for protection in 1981, Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Coptic Church, cancelled Easter celebrations in protest. Sadat deposed Shenouda in September 1981 and exiled him to the Monastery of St Bishoy in the Nitrian Desert. The pope was replaced by a committee of five bishops, whose authority was rejected by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church…. Shenouda supported Mubarak’s repressive policies as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Yet Christians continued to suffer from laws that made building a church nearly impossible (most are constructed illicitly)…. Coptic participation in public life has remained minimal. In the first days of the 2011 revolution, Shenouda continued his support for Mubarak, urging Copts not to join the protesters in Tahrir Square.” 

Many Copts rejected Shenouda’s leadership at that point, but following the post-Mubarak upheaval, perhaps 100,000 Copts have now left Egypt permanently. Some believe that if the Muslim Brotherhood consolidates its political power further, that figure could grow exponentially. 

At this point, there are at least 300,000 Copts living in the United States. And as things stand now, requests for asylum in the US by Copts have quadrupled from 2009 through 2011. And some are pushing for a stronger stand on Copt asylum rights. Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of its human rights subcommittee, said that since the US helped Soviet Jews and Christians from South Asia make new lives in America, it should do the same for the Copts. “The Copts are the canaries in the coal mine – they are the barometer of Egypt – and the canary is gasping,” Smith said.

Human rights groups in Egypt estimate as many as 100,000 Copts may have left Egypt since the Revolution. One American immigration lawyer told the media that his New York City-based practice is now focused on Coptic Christians and that he’s hired a native Egyptian paralegal to coordinate a team of Egyptian translators. Many of his clients are young doctors, pharmacists and businessmen. “If they have money, they are getting out,” the attorney said. 

A May 2012 Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics report found the number of Egyptians who received asylum in the year ended September 2011 was 1,028, nearly twice the year before, although that number may include Egyptians other than Copts. 

Clearly many Coptic Christians now find they have mixed feelings over Egypt’s erratic democratic evolution, some fearing it will lead to yet more discrimination against them. And as three Coptic men appear to have been central to the making of the film that ignited this wave of violence, Innocence of Muslims, it may well mean there are Copts in America who feel impelled to do more than just have strong feelings about the situation in Egypt. It will take more time, however, to unravel the connections between such people and other less savoury types like the Rev. Jones and professional hater Steven Klein, both of whom have been associated with the film in some way.

Despite their worries about the future of the Copts in Egypt, American Coptic Christian leaders have now distanced themselves from the infamous anti-Muslim film, denouncing Copts who reportedly produced and promoted the film. “We reject any allegation that the Coptic Orthodox community has contributed to the production of this film. Indeed, the producers of this film have taken these unwise and offensive actions independently and should be held responsible for their own actions,” the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of America said. 

Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii added that he “strongly rejects dragging the respectable Copts of the Diaspora” into the controversy. Serapion said he learned late last week that a long-lost member of his congregation is the same man federal authorities believe was behind the film. Regardless of the men’s protestations of innocence in the matter, the church’s ire is now firmly directed against Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and Morris Sadek, the American Copts who have emerged as the putative producers and promoters of the Innocence of Muslims”. Nassralla, head of a Christian charity, and Nakoula, a convicted felon, both live near Los Angeles. Sadek, meanwhile, lives near Washington and he is known as an incendiary activist. Coptic leaders now say they are trying to understand what ties the three men have to more mainstream Copts in America.

But by the time all their relationships are out in the open, there may well be some truly unsavoury truths revealed about the ugly connections between American and immigrant religious zealots and miscellaneous political zanies – and how those relationships may have unintentionally worked hand in hand with religious fanaticism in the Middle East. It will be ugly stuff. DM

Read more:

  • “Coptic Christians In U.S. Fear ‘Terrible’ Reaction In Egypt To Muhammad Film,” on NPR 
  • “The Copts and the Arab Spring,” on The New York Times 
  •  “A New Crisis for Egypt’s Copts,” on Smithsonian Magazine 
  •  “Egypt’s Embattled Christians Seek Room in America,” on the Wall Street Journal

Photo: Egyptian Christians mourn at the funeral of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, outside the Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo March 20, 2012. Thousands of mourners dressed in black gathered in Cairo on Tuesday for the funeral of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Pope Shenouda, who spent his final years trying to comfort a community disturbed by the rise of political Islam. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori


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