Aziz Atiya began his 1960s account of the Coptic Church with this reassuring assertion: 'In our day, the Copts live side by side with their Muslim neighbours without discrimination.' Today, Copts are paying the price for the failure of liberalism in Egypt.
- The Catholic Herald
Atiya continued: 'They enjoy their religious freedom, and their churches increase throughout Egypt. In sum, the Copts have survived as a religious entity, otherwise completely integrated within the body politic of the Egyptian nation, sharing the privileges and responsibilities of all citizens irrespective of faith or creed.'
Just to read these words is to blink with disbelief. The Coptic Church in Egypt today enjoys no such standing. Rather, it is the victim of sustained and systematic persecution. In August of this year, the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from power by the Egyptian army, launched the most destructive attacks on Church property seen for centuries. In a matter of days, 40 churches and monasteries were destroyed. The attacks continue, albeit at lower intensity, especially in Upper Egypt.
How could it have happened? Samuel Tadros, the author of a new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, like Atiya, is a Copt. The glories of the Coptic Church are poorly appreciated in the West.
The critical importance of Alexandria as a centre of Christian thought and catechesis, the scale of Coptic missionary work especially in Africa, the bloody witness of the Coptic martyrs and the riches of Coptic culture still all too often pass us by. When Atiya wrote his optimistic assessment, the Coptic Church was already in the throes of a great revival. It was largely the fruit of the so-called Sunday School Movement and of a highly dynamic monasticism.
Despite its enduring problems, now magnified by the growing exodus of Coptic Christians to the West, the Coptic Church did, indeed, face up to the challenge of modernity with considerable success.
That cannot, however, be said of the Egyptian state, which is Samuel Tadros’s other focus. Indeed, the era of modern Coptic regeneration was also the era when Islamism tightened its grip.
Photo: Mourners at a funeral in Cairo last month after four Copts were murdered by gunmen
FULL STORY The crisis facing Christians in Egypt