Egyptian Copts are the biggest Christian community in the Arab world. Estimates of their numbers vary, but generally range between 4.7 and 7.1 million. They are proportionately most numerous in Upper Egypt. Most Copts are working class peasants and labourers, although there is a Coptic business upper class and a middle class of urban professionals and small landowners. Copts are present in most institutions of the state, and there are Coptic members of all registered political parties.
Copts believe themselves to be the descendants of Egypt's ancient Pharaonic people. They were first converted to Christianity with the arrival of St Mark in Egypt in 62 CE. Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 CE, and the Egyptian Church was separated from the Christian community in 451. The Muslims arrived in 641 CE, but did not constitute a majority until about three centuries later, mostly due to the conversion of the Egyptian populace. From the ninth century onwards the Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers, in turn Arab, Circassian and Ottoman. Churches were destroyed, books burnt and elders imprisoned. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882, Copts had been reduced to one-tenth of the population, mainly as a result of centuries of conversion to Islam.
Arab Muslims governed Christians and Jews by the rules of the Islamic sharia. By Islamic law, as dhimmi people, they had to wear different colours and clothes from Muslims, could not build new places of worship or repair old ones without permission, or construct them in such a way as to overshadow those of Muslims. They were subject to a heavy poll tax. With the Arabization of governmental positions, Coptic clerks sought to study Arabic and teach it to their children, given the tradition of inheriting jobs. There was a gradual change to the use of Arabic, with the Coptic language being abandoned except as a liturgical language, and many Copts converted to Islam.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt under the Ottomans, who became hereditary ruler of Egypt in 1841 after a political settlement with the sultan, reconstructed the administration, modernizing industry and creating a modern education system. Copts were employed in financial and accounting positions and were appointed rulers in a number of local governorates.
They had rights of land ownership, and a large financial and commercial bourgeoisie developed. A lay council, the Majlis al-Milli was created in 1874 to represent the Coptic community. Religious freedom and equality in employment were guaranteed. The peak of Coptic integration was in the liberal period from the 1919 ‘revolution' to 1952.
Christians united with Muslims in their fight for independence against the British colonialists. There were two Coptic prime ministers during this period and widespread political participation as MPs and in the media. The British tried to separate Copts and Muslims, attempting to isolate Copts from the nationalist movement by inciting sectarian strife. Copts opposed British intervention in the Egyptian constitution and did not call for rights for religious minorities in the 1923 constitution.
The revolution in 1952 brought in nationalization and agricultural reform. Middle and lower class Copts benefited, as did their Muslim counterparts. However, the Coptic elite lost 75 per cent of their property through nationalization; hitherto they had controlled a major share of transportation, industry, banking and agricultural land. Nasser also issued two decrees which had implications for Copts: one enforcing religion as a basic subject in the curricula rather than complementary to it, and a second in which Al Azhar University was confined to Muslim students.
Copts sided with Arabs in the conflict with Israel in the 1940s, but when Arabs demonstrated violently against Jewish settlement in Palestine, Copts were often victims of political abuse and physical assault. The dissolution of political parties with significant Coptic membership, such as the Wafd Party, the seizure of Coptic endowments in 1957 and the limitation of landholding to 200 acres, created an atmosphere of tension and led to increased emigration of Copts.
At the onset of the Sadat era in 1971 the dissolution of economic centralization benefited upper class Copts. However, as social frustrations mounted in the 1970s with the rise of Islamic radical movements, strikes and protests, Sadat initially flirted with the Islamists, politicizing religion and using Muslims as new allies in confrontation with the left. Old scapegoats were sought out. In 1972 Coptic churches, houses and shops were burnt. Islamic groups became increasingly organized and violent, until the government began to confront the militants, arresting thousands.
Copts demanded the annulment of discriminatory laws and protested the use of Sharia law as the basic source of legislation. Numerous confrontations took place in 1978 and 1979 between Muslims and Copts in Upper Egypt. In 1980 Sadat tried to implicate Pope Shenouda III in a plan to undermine state security: the Pope was stripped of authority and exiled to a desert monastery, while lay activists were arrested, Coptic associations banned and all Coptic publishing concerns closed down. The Pope was kept under house arrest for four years until his re-appointment in 1985.
Sadat's assassination in 1981 left behind a divided nation. As economic recession deepened, violence against Copts again erupted in the second half of the 1980s, continuing sporadically up to the present. Other Coptic concerns included restrictions on the building and repair of churches - which limit their freedom of worship and often cause sectarian confrontation - and the educational curriculum, which distinguishes between Copts and Muslims and ignores Coptic culture in general. Furthermore, some elements of the mass media were accused of frequently promoting hatred and division.
Copts under Mubarak continued to face state discrimination in such areas as university admissions, public spending, military promotions, and require authorizations for the building or repair of churches. Up until 2005, presidential approval was required for repairing churches. Although since then the decision has rested with the regional authorities, in practice many Copts still complain of obstruction and difficulties.
In response to the growing number of violent incidents in the last decade of the Mubarak regime, in June 2008 Coptic diaspora groups organized demonstrations in Europe and the United States, accusing the government of ignoring the rising insecurity. These concerns were confirmed by a spate of deadly attacks against the Coptic community in 2010-2011, the worst of which resulted in the death of 21 Coptic Christians attending a New Years service in Alexandria. It was the worst violence against the Coptic Christian community in over a decade.
Despite the apparent unity of different groups against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, the post-revolution era has witnessed a continuation of many of the same negative trends for Copts and other minorities. This included the drafting under President Morsi of the 2012 constitution, a document that was boycotted by Christian representatives who saw it as replicating the restrictions of its 1971 predecessor.
While the current revisions to the suspended 2012 constitution may open up the possibility of greater freedoms for Copts and other minorities, it remains to be seen whether there will be a substantive legal and policy shift towards addressing the deep-seated discrimination Copts have faced in public office, education, political participation and other areas of civic life.
Religious conversion to Christianity remains a difficult issue. Although there is no problem converting from Christianity to Islam, conversion the other way is prohibited under some interpretations of Islam. Those who do convert often prefer to do so in private, because of fear of harassment from the authorities and Islamist organizations.
Sectarian violence has also become an increasingly prominent issue in post-revolutionary Egypt. In the first two years after Mubarak, until January 2013, almost 100 Copts died in sectarian violence - more than in the entire previous decade. This included a clash between Muslims and Christians in March 2011 following the burning of a church, with 13 dead and 140 injured, as well as a military assault on a Coptic demonstration in October 2011that led to 28 deaths and 212 injured.
The situation of Copts remained fragile after the election of President Morsi, with another major outbreak of sectarian violence occurring in El-Khosous in April 2013. Since 3 July 2013, when Morsi was forcibly removed from office by the military, there have been several attacks on Copts, in which churches and homes of Copts were burnt and several people killed. As before, security forces have been criticized for failing to prevent these incidents. An attack on a Coptic church in October 2013 left four dead, including an eight-year-old girl.