Earlier this year as the world witnessed some of the worst religious violence in decades among Muslims and Coptic Christians living in Egypt, Egypt’s predominantly Muslim majority must not forget its rich and tolerant and liberating history towards faith-based minorities. Tragically, dozens of people have been killed in clashes between Egyptian security forces and mainly Coptic Christian demonstrators protesting against attacks on churches. Yousef Sidhoum, editor of the Coptic news paper al-Watani, warned that the situation for Egypt’s Coptic Christians have worsened since recent Egypt’s Revolution.
Egypt’s initial uprising, consisting of both Muslims and Christians whom flocked to Tahrir Square and called for more rights and social justices, was reminiscent of how some Islamic successors and caliphates to Prophet Mohammad were greeted as political and ecclesiastical liberators and messianic economists for both Christian and Jewish communities. Throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, institutions and infrastructures had collapsed due to Emperor Justinian’s final attempt to re-conquer the Western Roman Empire and complete enormous building projects and fund the luxuries of the court.
As Justinian’s imperial army drained much needed resources and impoverished the peasants, the Church alienated many by imposing religious conformism. Not only was Paganism brutally attacked and temples ransacked and demolished, but there were repeated attacks on the Jews and bloody persecutions against adherents of the Monophysites, or Coptic Christians. Therefore, when Arab-Islamic armies marched into Egypt, which was dominated by the Eastern Roman Empire, Egypt’s Coptic Christians greeted Muslims as liberators and hoped their economic lives would be improved.(1)
Coptic Christians and others were not disappointed. Muslim leaders rebuilt roads and canals, vastly improving infrastructure. New irrigation and farming techniques increased the production of foods. At the same time, Muslim rulers emphasized learning and toleration, especially towards the Coptic Christians and Jews who were considered People of the Book. Trade, commerce and economic opportunities revived as new goods and skills flooded Egyptian communities. Still, Egypt’s Coptic Christians benefited from Islam’s House of Wisdom that produced the latest scientific innovations and medicines.
The Monophysite Church, or Coptic Christians, experienced religious freedom under Islam. They believed that instead of the divine and human natures joining to form one person in Jesus, Jesus possessed but one nature in which divine life and human were indistinguishable. It was this doctrine, then, the “one nature” doctrine, which is more comparable to Islam and Monotheism, that caused the Eastern Roman Empire and Orthodox Church to persecute Coptic Christians. Under Islam, Coptic Christians became the largest Christian body in Egypt and completely separated from Eastern Orthodoxy.
It should also be remembered that Coptic Christians were the main inhabitants of Egypt at the time that Muslim-Arabs conquered the region. Even though some converted to Islam, Coptic Christians still supported many Islamic policies. However, the arrival of Western European and Christian crusaders forced Islamic empires to become more defensive and aggressive in defending their Islamic rights, laws and customs. More recent Westernized market economies, support of dictators, and militarization has caused Islamic extremism to surge. It also has helped produce anti-Coptic unrest and Muslim-Copt clashes.
The Qur’an states, “Be merciful; slay neither old men, children, nor women.” It also encourages Muslims to be just to all people and to show “kindness to the young, generosity to the poor, to have forbearance with enemies, and respect to the learned.” Still, the law of life requires one to treat others as one expects to be treated. There is no room in Islam, nor in Egypt, for unprovoked violence towards Coptic Christians or in attacking Coptic churches. With at least ten million adherents, Egyptian Muslims and authorities should be vigilant to prevent more hostilities towards Coptic Christians
Over the years, Coptic Christians have served admirably in prominent political positions. Others have experienced a beneficial standard of wealth and education. Egyptian Muslims should consider de-regulating the building of new churches and the renovation of existing ones. They should allow Coptic history to be taught in schools, recognize Coptic language, and implement fair representation in Egypt’s new parliamentary government.(2) This will ensure a tolerant Muslim-Coptic society and avoid tragic conflicts of the past, like the Kosheh Pogrom. Such actions will show how Islam is liberating and democratic.
(1) Harman, Chris. A People’s History Of The World. New York, New York: Verso Publishers, 2008., p. 119.
(2) Sela, Avraham. The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. New York, New York: Continuum Press, 2002., p. 257.