In recent months, we have heard several news stories about attacks on Christian churches as well as street clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt. This is probably news to many Americans who think of Egypt as an “Arab” nation and its population as almost totally Muslim. But it is not, or at least not any more than Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (or America for that matter) are “English.” It’s only that the English at one time or another invaded or colonized these other countries and the use of the English language and much of the British way of doing things stuck.
The same is true of a major part of the so-called “Arab World.” When, in the seventh century of the Christian era, Arab invaders swept across North Africa, they brought their new religion, their language (and even their alphabet) with them, persuading (by one means or another) most, but not all, of the inhabitants of that region to adopt their Islamic faith and way of doing things. But in Egypt, one of the three oldest civilizations in history, not all the native population converted to the new religion. Many remained, as they had been for the previous four centuries or more, Christian.
Today, in Egypt, these Christians remain what is known as Coptic (from a Greek word meaning Egyptian) Christians – one of the very oldest Churches in the history of Christianity, having been founded, they claim, by St. Mark the Evangelist. Their language of worship remains basically the same as that once spoken up and down the Nile river valley at the time of the ancient Pharaohs, only written in the Greek alphabet rather than hieroglyphics. Their churches are organized in the same pattern long known as the Apostolic Tradition, with their Patriarch (whom they call their “pope”) responsible for maintaining the unity of their various local bishops, who are in turn assisted by their parish priests (elders) and deacons. Also very prominent in Coptic Church history has been the place of the monastic life that began under the influence of desert recluses like St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony of Egypt, and St. Pachomius, even as far back as the third and fourth century. Even today, monastic life is still held in high regard by Egypt’s now estimated eight million Christians. In fact, if there is trouble between Muslims and Christians today in Egypt, it is not all due to Islamic fundamentalism. When I visited there some thirty years ago, it became evident to me that Coptic Christianity was undergoing a revival of sorts, and that a part of it was the feeling that they, the Copts, were the only true and loyal Egyptians – not a prudent thing to say in a country that is 90% Muslim!
Nevertheless, I think it is imperative that we who are fortunate to live in that part of the world where Christians are still a majority owe our support to our Christian brothers and sisters in those parts of the world where they are an embattled minority. We must do this, first of all, by realizing that we all, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew, all worship the same God and by insisting, both through our own example and the public policies that we set, both here at home and abroad, on the freedom of religion all around the world, the freedom of people to worship as they see fit. If Christians here in America or in Europe start, as we have seen in recent years, restricting the freedom of Muslims to express their faith in our own countries, should we be surprised when we find the same tactic being used against Christians in countries where Muslims are a majority? What happens to Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, to a large extent depends on how Muslims are treated in Europe, the U.S.A., or elsewhere.
PS: I wrote this short piece just two days before the mass demonstrations began to break out in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. It was hardly meant to be a prophecy, but I think it further illustrates the touchy complexity of the situation that the United States faces in Egypt if democracy
results in an Islamic takeover.
R W Kropf 1/22/11 Egypt’s Christians.doc 11-01-22.html