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The recent events in Egypt have brought some attention to the Copts, a Christian Orthodox minority that comprises almost 10% to 15% of Egypt's population of around 90+ million.
The Copts are ethnic natives of Egypt, direct descendants of its ancient Pharaonic civilization. Their Christian roots originate since the dawn of Christianity; began when St. Mark the Evangelist, an Apostle of Jesus, preached the gospel and founded the Church of Alexandria in A.D. 42, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. The Coptic Church has been a distinct rite, since the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451; it has its own liturgy and Pope, based in Egypt but has a worldwide following.
"Motherland Lost" is essentially two sections. The first is an overview, but not a detailed history, of the Copts for the last two millennia. It lays out the treatment and persecution of the Copts at the hands of successive conquerors of Egypt; the Romans, the Christian Byzantines, and the Muslims their multiple iterations from the Umayyad, the Abbasid, the Mameluks, the Ottomans until the present day. The Umayyad and their successors imposed heavy taxes (Jizyah) and and treated them as inferior "dhimmis" or a vassal people. It was not until the relatively enlightened rule of Mohamed Ali and his grandson, the Khedive Ismail (who received a European education) that the Jizya tax was abolished in 1863 and Copts were included in the military, judicial and executive branches of the government with full citizenship and political rights.
The British invasion of Egypt in1882, ostensibly to protect the newly built Suez Canal and the lives and interests of European colonialists, did little to improve the lot of the Copts. The British government decreed that only Muslims be appointed to the highest positions and refused to allow equal access to education, the abolition of anti-discrimination laws in the public sector, Sundays off work and the representation of Copts in government; a major set-back for the Copts in their homeland by their co-religionists.
"Coptic history has been an endless story of decline and despair," Tadros writes, "but it has also been a story of survival."
The status quo did not much improve for the Copts even after the 1952 Revolution by a bloodless military coup of the Free Officers. There continued to be an unofficial, covert, and often overt discrimination against all Christians in the public sector, universities and major private Egyptian enterprises. Copts were not represented in significant leadership positions in proportion to their percentage of the population.
The situation for Copts has become much worse and exponentially more dangerous with the rising tide of Islamists and the ascendency of the "Ikhwan al Muslimun" (Muslim Brotherhood). Since the fall of President Mubarak in 2011, it has been an open season on Christians in Egypt (the worst since the 1321 massacres); a pogrom of mob attacks, mass murders in major cities and countryside, the wholesale burning, desacration and sacking of churches (over 50), and the looting of holy relics, that often go unpunished. These events have caused more than 100,000 Christian Copts to flee their country with many more to follow.
About 30 years ago there were 2 Coptic churches in the USA, today there are 202, and more are being planned to harbor the recent exodus.
The Copts, who normally preferred to remain in their homeland, are joining other minorities in their exodus from the Middle East; the Jewish diaspora from Iran and Arab countries, and the mass migration from of Christians from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.
The second section, the core subject of the book (chapters 3 to 6) deals with the history of Egypt as a whole and its struggle with modernity, trying to overcome the rigidity of traditional dogmatic conservatism of Islam and open its society to liberal ideology and progressive practices. The simple importation of modern Western ideas, practices and technology could not fill the wide gap between the stagnant, sclerosed culture of Egypt and the ultra modern societies of the West. Many thinkers and intellectuals viewed Islam as the obstacle but the Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood saw it as the solution (Al Islam Hoowa Al Hal / Islam is the solution). Tadros explains how the struggle of the Copts to modernize is intertwined with that of their countrymen, in spite of been segregated from public leadership and rewards.
Sadly, the fall of the dictatorship of sequential military governments from Nasser to Mubarak did not bring any improvement in the fortune of the Copts. But on the contrary, the Islamist dictatorship of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood unleashed a reign of terror on all Christians; this became even more virulent after the fall of the Islamists, who found the Copts easy scapegoats and blamed them for their ouster from power.
The new Egyptian Constitution, written, edited, redacted and passed in 2012, by the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies (after their so-called legitimate election) confirmed Islam as the state religion, as well as, the seclusion and second-class status of Egyptian Christian Copts; leaving the latter no other alternative but to emigrate to more hospitable lands.
Chapter seven is mainly about the Coptic modernization movements in Egypt and abroad. The internal clash within the Coptic Church, between traditionalists and reformists, was overtaken by young intellectual progressive revivalists who eventually succeeded in reshaping the Coptic identity. The "Sunday School" movement has been a catalyst for the coalescing of different streams of political and (Christian) religious philosophies into a Coptic national identity with its historical roots firmly planted in Ancient Egypt's civilization. The Coptic language evolved etymologically from ancient Egyptian speech. For their effort, the Copts, in Egypt and foreign countries (Akbat al Mahgar), have been depicted by the Islamists, as separatists, conspirators and even traitors.
The book concludes with the poignant "The bitterness of leaving. The peril of staying", a Hobson's choice; to abandon their homeland or remain steadfast in the face of unrelenting persecution? I believe Egypt will be the poorer if Copts abandon it.
Samuel Tadros has written a timely book that is a valuable source of information, pertinent to the turmoil and tribulations of contemporary Egypt. It should be required reading for politicians, policy wonks, foreign service operatives, newsmen, as well as anyone interested in the Middle East and the existential threat to Jews and Christians in that part of the world.