After years of debating the right of Copts to build their places of worship, the Egyptian parliament finally approved a new law that regulates the construction of churches. The novelty of this law is that it gives governors the right to approve or deny the construction and restoration of churches, while previously a security approval was required.
While some have welcomed the new law, many have opposed it. The right of Copts to build places of worship in Egypt has been a complex issue dating back more than a thousand years, to the time when the Muslim armies of Amr ibn al-‘As conquered Egypt in 641 CE to spread Islam.
It is a history that would require going through many references and much research in order to understand the changing conditions of Copts in Egypt. Below are some examples from a few important periods showing Coptic life under different Muslim regimes both Sunni and Shiite.
The conquest and the rule of the Righteous Caliphs
Amr ibn al-‘As, the conqueror of Egypt, gave non-Muslims – namely the Copts and Jews of Egypt – who pay the Jizya (a yearly tax) protection for themselves, their people, their wealth, their churches and their crosses. This is reported from Al Tabari by British historian Alfred Butler in his book The Arab Conquest of Egypt. Amr’s treaty with non-Muslims, did not however specify any laws concerning the construction of places of worship.
In Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, American researcher Kurt Werthmuller writes that the Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab imposed on non-Muslims who live under Islam to wear specific colors as well as scarfs and hats that are different from those worn by Muslims. Subsequently, Egypt’s Copts were famous for wearing black and blue only. Umar also banned non-Muslims from riding horses, preaching, and performing their rituals in public, in addition to banning church bells.
These regulations were not always enforced however, as every ruler had the liberty to impose them or not. Nevertheless, the Righteous Caliphs incited the rulers of Egypt to collect as much Jizya money as they could.
The rule of the Umayyads
The rule of Abdelaziz Ben Marwan (685-705 CE) over Egypt was a period of peace and prosperity for Copts, especially for the clergy and for rich families. Under the Umayyads, many Copts started to rule alongside Muslims. They held official positions that were previously reserved for Muslims.
One of the most famous examples is Athanasios Bar who worked as a secretary and teacher for Abdelaziz and was responsible for the collection of the Jizya with a direct mandate from the Caliph Abdel Malek Ben Marwan. According to historians Iris Habib Al Masri and Muriel Dibier, coptic life prospered in Egypt in general under Abdelaziz who allowed Copts to build new churches and convents.
This margin of freedom came at a high price however. In addition to paying the Jizya, they had to provide the necessary funds to build their churches, in addition to providing gifts and generous donations in order to gain the support of rulers.
But then came the rule of Amr Ibn Abdelaziz (717-720 CE) which brought with it hard times for the Copts after a period of relative stability. His rule witnessed high levels of growth and he was known as the “fifth Righteous Caliph”.
The grandchild of Ibn Al Khattab was known for his religiosity and he was adamant to apply a number of segregating policies that his grandfather had imposed earlier. According to Luke Yarbrough, he gave Copts two options: Either convert to Islam and live in safety, or leave Egypt. He also ordered that the testimony of Copts be inadmissible, banned church bells, and ordered them to wear specific clothes and colors. These conditions pushed many to convert to Islam.
Needless to say, since the Caliph wanted all his people to convert to Islam, building churches was certainly out of the question.
Under the Umayyads, the situation of Copts kept oscillating between peace and stability sometimes, and repression and injustice at other times, depending on the personality and desires of each governor or Caliph. It remained the same under the Abbasids until the Fatimids came and established their rule in Egypt. During this period, Christians would enjoy a relative prosperity, at least at the beginning.
The rule of the Fatimids
Fatimids followed the Shiite Muslim doctrine known as Ismaili. Hence, they were a minority ruling a majority of Sunni Muslims, which made them less restrictive towards Copts on the one hand, and more reliant on them when it came to ruling, on the other. Under the first Fatimid Caliph Al Moiz Li Dinallah (969-975 CE), the construction of churches was allowed, and the Hanging Church was restored. According to Al Masri and Werthmuller, Copts were also protected from attacks perpetrated by some Muslim youth groups in the Nile Delta. Coptic religious, political, artistic and social life flourished in Egypt under Al Moiz and later under his son Al Aziz.
Under Al Hakem Bi Amrallah (996-1021 CE) things got more complicated. During the first seven years of his rule, he was forgiving with the Copts, but after that, his policies shifted in general.
According to renowned Egyptian historian Taqi Al Din Al Maqrizi who documented the Fatimid period, Al Hakem required Copts to wear heavy wooden crosses around their necks, and imposed black as an uniform for all Copts. He even ordered the destruction of a number of churches and convents, confiscating their contents and building mosques in their place. Fear spread among the Copts during most of his rule, and many converted to Islam, or at least pretended to, in order to avoid his harsh policies.
Oddly, during the last years of his rule, Al Hakem changed his policy once again. He permitted the reconstruction of churches, and allowed many Copts who had converted out of fear, to go back to their religion without punishment. Soon after, he mysteriously disappeared.
The rule of Saladin the Ayyubid
Saladin was a minister for the Fatimids since 1169 CE. After declaring independence, he founded the Sunni Muslim Ayyubid state. Saladin was adamant on spreading the Sunni doctrine on the expense of the Copts in order to establish his state. He ordered the construction of Sunni schools in place of preexisting churches, he removed Copts and Christian Armenians from their official positions in the Fatimid state, and banned the decoration of the remaining churches. He even ordered the facades of some churches to be painted in black and crosses to be burned.
Such policies naturally pushed many Muslims to hate Copts, which in turn led to the burning of churches by people who are not taking their orders from Saladin. It is important to note that this was taking place while the Crusades were happening and this amplified the feelings of hatred and suspicion towards Eastern Christians in general.
The Ottoman state
The Ottomans arrived to Egypt in 1517 CE. Copts who had been the majority of the population when Islam arrived to Egypt, had turned into a minority that represents 10 to 15 % of the population. The Ottomans did not give Copts any official status as a minority however. They were not treated as non-Muslims or Ahl Dhimma, which is not a status that the Copts sought at the time. Relatively, it was a period of tolerance.
The rule of Mohammad Ali came to Egypt and brought with it more openness. For the first time since the advent of Islam to Egypt, Copts were officially allowed to build churches and were asked to join the army.
Mohammad Ali’s children followed his path. Under Khedive Ismail (1863-1879 CE) the monetary council for the management of Coptic affairs was established. Copts started to build schools as a reaction to the growing presence of Protestant and Catholic missionaries in Egypt. Coptic public and political figures started to appear, and under Khedive Abbas Hilmi (1892-1914 CE), Botros Ghali became prime minister.
The present dilemma
Despite the rosy image that Arab history draws about Muslim rulers honoring Egypt’s Copts, a closer look reveals that history is filled with periods and incidents where Copts suffered various sorts of discrimination and injustice. This is a natural context to the ongoing debate about their rights as a minority.
Despite the progress that took place on the level of organizing the construction of churches and the participation of Copts in political and social life in the 19th century, the 20th witnessed a regression and a return of laws that limited or even banned the construction of churches. One look at the history of the Copts in Egypt shows that what is needed is a complete transformation in the religious culture as well as the social and political standards of the state, only then can we expect to see discriminatory laws disappear.