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Who are Egypt’s Coptic Christians?

Posted at 10:32 PM, Apr 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-09 22:32:15-04

An ISIS-claimed attack on one of the holiest days in the Christian faith is drawing the world’s attention to Egypt’s Coptic community, a religious minority long targeted for violence.

The Palm Sunday bombings killed 43 people and injured dozens more at two Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria and Tanta, the latest in a yearslong spike of violence against the community.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the bombings, ISIS warned of more attacks. Egyptian authorities responded by declaring a three-month state of emergency. But Coptics, who have long been targeted for violence, are not optimistic the situation will change.

Here’s what you need to know about Egypt’s native Christians, who trace their origins back to ancient times.

Millions in minority

The largest Christian community in the Middle East, Coptic Christians make up the majority of Egypt’s roughly 9 million Christians. About 1 million more Coptic Christians are spread across Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the World Council of Churches.

Coptic Christians base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, according to St. Takla Church in Alexandria, the capital of Coptic Christianity.

The Coptic language descends from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, according to the World Council of Churches. The word “Copt” is a Westernized version of the Arabic “qibt,” which derives from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian, “Aigyptos.”

Hundreds of Coptic monasteries once flourished in the deserts of Egypt, but today roughly 20 remain, as well as seven convents, operated by more than 1,000 Coptic monks and about 600 nuns, according to the World Council of Churches.

The head of the Coptic Church is the Pope of Alexandria, who is based in Cairo. The church operates primary and secondary schools throughout Egypt, as well as a Coptic museum and a theological college in the Egyptian capital.

History of persecution, recent spike in violence

Coptic Christians have been targeted for violence throughout history, notably under the Byzantine Empire and periodically after the Arab conquest in the seventh century. An Islamic caliph in power around the year 1000 A.D. is said to have destroyed 3,000 Coptic churches and forced large numbers of Copts to abandon their faith, according to the World Council of Churches.

Recent political upheaval in Egypt has brought more violence to the Coptic community. Persecution and discrimination has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Dozens of Copts have been killed in sectarian violence.

On New Year’s Day in 2011, a bomb at a Coptic Church in Alexandria killed more than 20 people and injured nearly 100.

Months after the 2011 bombing, 13 people were killed during clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Cairo, after Copts turned out to protest the burning of a church the week before.

Last December, a suicide bomber targeted a small church attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, killing 25 people and wounding nearly 50 others. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Copts have been targeted outside Egypt as well: in early 2015, a highly produced ISIS propaganda video purported to show the beheadings of over a dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.

Lack of government representation

There is little Christian representation in government in Egypt, which is about 90% Sunni Muslim. The current Parliament contains 36 Christians out of 596 members, and 24 of the Christian representatives were awarded seats through a religion-based quota system, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Brookings’ report finds many Copts suffer routine discrimination despite protections under Egyptian law. The 2014 constitution guarantees “absolute” freedom of religion — but also declares Islam the state’s official religion and prohibits conversion to any other religion.

The constitution also lays out harsh punishments for blasphemy, and the government under current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has prosecuted several high-profile blasphemy cases, according to Brookings.

Attack ahead of Pope Francis visit

Sunday’s attack came just weeks before the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was scheduled to meet with Pope Francis during the Catholic leader’s visit to Cairo.

Pope Francis addressed his counterpart while speaking on Sunday against the attacks.

“To my dear brother his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to the Coptic Church and to all of the dear country Egypt, I express my deep condolences, I prayed for the dead and the wounded. I am close to the families and to the entire community. God convert the hearts of the people who spread terror,” Pope Francis said.