WHO ARE EGYPT’S COPTIC CHRISTIANS ? 

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    Egypt’s Copts, targets of an apparent church bombing north of Cairo on Sunday, are the Middle East’s largest Christian minority and one of the oldest.

    Making up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million, the Coptic Orthodox form the largest Christian denomination in the Muslim-majority country.

    Here is a recap of their history, their status today and recent attacks against them.

    In December last year, a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS killed 29 worshippers during a Sunday mass in Cairo

    In December last year, a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS killed 29 worshippers during a Sunday mass in Cairo

    ‘Dawn of Christianity’

    The Copts trace their history to the dawn of Christianity, when Egypt was integrated into the Roman and later the Byzantine empire.

    The word ‘Copt’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘Egyptian’ in ancient Greek.

    The community’s decline started with the Arab invasions of the 7th century and the progressive Islamisation of the country, which today is largely Sunni Muslim.

    Several churches and monasteries in Egypt are built on sites Copts believe were visited by the Holy Family.

    The Bible says Joseph, Mary and Jesus sought refuge in Egypt after Christ’s birth to escape a massacre of newborns ordered by King Harod.

    Copts today

    Copts, represented in all social classes, are present across the whole country, with the strongest concentration in central and southern Egypt.

    Most adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, headed since 2012 by Pope Tawadros II. A minority is divided between Coptic Catholics and various Coptic Protestant branches.

    Tawadros, who succeeded pope Shenuda III, was chosen by a blindfolded altar boy picking his name from a chalice, according to tradition.

    The Catholic Copts, who form part of the Church’s eastern rite, have been headed by patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak since 2013.

    The Vatican says some 165,000 Catholic Copts lived in Egypt in 2010.

    Poorly represented in government, Copts complain that they are sidelined from many posts in the justice system, universities and the police.

    Authorities often refuse to issue building permits for churches, arguing it would disturb the peace with their Muslim neighbours.

    Deadly violence

    Egypt’s Copts have been the target of several deadly attacks since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

    On January 1, 2011, more than 20 people died in the unclaimed bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria.

    In March the same year, 13 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Copts in Cairo’s working class neighbourhood of Moqattam, where around 1,000 Christians had gathered to protest over the torching of a church.

    In May 2011, clashes between Muslims and Copts left 15 dead in the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba, where two churches were attacked.

    That October, almost 30 people — mostly Coptic Christians — were killed after the army charged at a protest in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt.

    The 2013 ouster of Mubarak’s elected Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi after just one year in power sparked further attacks against Christians.

    Pro-Morsi Islamists accused the Christian community of supporting his overthrow.

    They pointed to the appearance of Tawadros alongside President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on television in July 2013 as the then army chief, also surrounded by Muslim and opposition figures, announced Morsi’s removal.

    The next month, security forces used deadly force to break up two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo.

    The following two weeks saw attacks against more than 40 churches across the country, according to Human Rights Watch.

    Amnesty International later said more than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked and 43 churches seriously damaged, with at least four people killed.

    In December last year, a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS killed 29 worshippers during a Sunday mass in Cairo.

    A spate of deadly jihadist-linked attacks in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula in February prompted some Coptic families to flee their homes.

    About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video calling for attacks against the minority.

    Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II

    PHOTO 

    Egyptian President Sisi (2nd R) talks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II as he attends mass in Cairo.

    REUTERS: YOUM7, FILE

    Coptic Christians, known as Copts, are the largest ethno-religious minority in Egypt, constituting roughly 10 per cent of the country’s 95 million people.

    Although many now identify as Arabs, Copts do not historically believe themselves to be of Arab origin, but are instead acknowledged as the remaining descendants of the civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians, with Pharaonic origins.

    The word Coptic is derived from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian.

    Although they are primarily located in Egypt, they are also spread throughout neighbours Libya and Sudan. In Australia there are some 30,000 Copts.

    In Muslim-majority Egypt, Coptic Christians are often the victims of persecution and repeated attacks on their churches, and have a history of being scapegoated and marginalised by the state.

    The divisions between the country’s Muslims and the Copts were exacerbated after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, when the military overthrew the British colony and created the Republic of Egypt.

    Egyptians gather by a Coptic church after it is bombed in Tanta, Egypt.

    PHOTO People gather outside Saint George church in Tanta after a bombing by Islamic State

    REUTERS: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY

    The Republic of Egypt, part of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-Western “pan-Arabism,” was ultimately established as a Muslim country, and the decades that followed saw an exodus of Egypt’s Copts.

    Coptic Christians face constant trouble from the Egyptian state — for example, getting permission to build churches is made nearly impossible, they are frequently openly discriminated against or lynched, and the predominantly Muslim Government is subsequently criticised for turning a blind eye to their plight.

    This reality has kept the relationship between the Egyptian Government and the head of the Coptic Church — currently Pope Tawadros II — extremely precarious, with Copts often toeing a very narrow line in their push for religious freedom and rights.

    Subsequent governments have often pledged to protect Egypt’s Copts, including current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however such promises have consistently failed to materialise.

    After decades of exodus, there are now roughly over 1 million Copts around the world and over 100 churches, including throughout Australia, which has the third largest Coptic community in the world outside of Egypt.

    Copts differ from other Christian denominations in that they follow a different religious calendar and generally share beliefs and rituals similar to those of the Greek Orthodox Church.

    The Coptic calendar is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar, and hence Christmas is observed on January 7 and Easter falls usually in late April or early May.

    The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria — on Egypt’s north coast — is considered the Copts’ main centre of worship.

    A photo of a candlelit Coptic altar.

    PHOTO A candlelit Coptic altar.

    WIKIMEDIA: AFANOUS, FILE

    It is believed to have been established in the middle of the first century AD and marked one of the first Christian places of worship outside of the Holy Land — now roughly where Israel and Palestine are located.

    In the centuries that followed, Egyptian Copts faced continued persecution dating back to the ancient era via the Romans, all the way through to Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt.

    In modern Egypt, Coptic Christians and their places of worship continue to be regularly attacked.

    In December 2016 a Coptic Cathedral was bombed in central Cairo, leaving some 25 people dead, and twin attacks on Palm Sunday 2017 killed dozens.

    During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Egyptian military drove tanks over and murdered some 28 Coptic protesters and injured hundreds in what became known as the Maspero Massacre.

    Some analysts saw it as a turning point in the revolution — the point when the military government began to believe it could act with impunity against protesters.

    As an example of the level of disregard that Copts often face in Egypt, the Coptic protesters were ultimately blamed for attacking the military on state media, and the massacre was generally ignored by the public who believed the state narrative of violent Copts trying to destroy the country.

    Debris cover the floor of a church in Cairo

    PHOTO Egyptian security officials inspect the scene following a bombing inside Cairo’s Coptic cathedral in December.

    REUTERS: AMR ABDALLAH DAISH, FILE

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