Little could dampen the enthusiasm of 13-year-old Tony Atef as he wore his soccer outfit and headed to Egypt’s most successful club, Al Ahly, to partake in the team’s junior soccer tryouts. After Tony scored two goals, a coach approached him, asking for his name to record among those accepted. But his dream of making the team died quickly, when the coach noticed the small tattoo of a cross on his wrist. Tony was quickly sent home. There would be no place for a Coptic Christian on an Egyptian soccer team.
Tony’s case soon went viral, after his brother took to social media to decry bigotry and discrimination. Embarrassed, the club invited Tony for another tryout, but it was too late. Similar stories soon emerged of other Coptic kids being rejected by other soccer teams. A newspaper pointed out that there wasn’t a single Copt among the league’s top 540 players. In fact, there had been only five Copts among the league’s players in the last few decades, and some of them spoke out about the discrimination they faced.
During Mass this past Sunday, an Islamic State suicide bomber made his way inside St. Peter and St. Paul’s Coptic Church in Cairo and detonated his bomb, leaving 25 people, mostly women, dead. The bombing, the deadliest since the 2010 New Year’s Eve bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, drew swift condemnations from governments around the world. But as much as such attacks remind the world of the plight of Copts, it is their daily encounter with discrimination and persecution that poses the greatest threat to their future.
Apart from Coptic women not wearing the veil and the cross most Copts proudly tattoo on their wrists, there are few differences in the physical appearances of Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Nor have the two communities lived in separate cities or regions, as is common in other Middle Eastern countries where the survival of ethnic and religious minorities has been deeply intertwined with geography.
The word Copt is derived from Aigyptios, the Greek word for Egypt. From the moment St. Mark the Evangelist spread the gospel in Egypt, the Church of Alexandria became a pillar of Christianity in the Late Antiquity period, with its fathers shaping the tenets of the faith and its deserts giving birth to monasticism. Separated from the rest of Christianity after a theological dispute over the nature of Christ in the Council of Chalcedon 451, the Coptic Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches that includes the Armenian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Syriac Churches.
For centuries, Copts and Muslims lived side by side, with relations between them often fraught with discrimination and persecution, interspersed with periods of coexistence and assimilation. This would lead Lord Cromer, the British ruler of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, who had a very low opinion of Copts, to say: “For the purposes of broad generalization, the only difference between the Copt and the Muslim is that the former is an Egyptian who worships in a Christian Church, whilst the latter is an Egyptian who worships in a Mohammedan Mosque.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Being a Copt was never a simple matter of attending different places of worship, but rather a salient feature shaping their lives. A Copt was a Dhimmi—the Islamic term used to refer to Christians and Jews, which means “protected person”—a tolerated second-class citizen, constantly reminded of his inferiority, and expected to behave. Even at the height of Egypt’s experiment with liberalism from 1923 to 1952, a Copt could never escape his Coptic identity, nor, paradoxically, bring it to the public square. Under Egypt’s military rulers the Copts’ plight only worsened.
Despite proclamations of equality by the state, a Copt has never been an equal Egyptian citizen in the eyes of the law. Egyptian laws are, in fact, designed to remind him of his second-class nature. For him, building a church remains a herculean task. He must follow Islamic inheritance laws, and cannot adopt children. Egypt’s blasphemy laws almost exclusively target him. Legally, he is not barred from being appointed to any position. But functionally, this is the reality. The exclusion of Copts from important government positions is pervasive: The current government has only one Coptic minister, and not a single Copt serves as a governor, university president, or university dean. An unofficial one percent quota for Copts is maintained in the military, police, judiciary, and foreign service, while no single Copt is allowed in the state security or intelligence services. Even his history is not immune to discrimination, with Coptic history and the contributions of Copts to Egypt through the centuries excluded from the country’s textbooks.
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