ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


Land of Alexandrian Christianity

Ethnic Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, which derives from the Greek “Aigyptios,” meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They received the Gospel from St. Mark, who in the middle of the first century sowed the faith in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Centuries before the ascendancy of the Arabs and Islam, Alexandrian Christianity blossomed. It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for Christianity’s explosive expansion in the Greco-Roman world. Alexandrian Christianity introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the church with some of its greatest saints and scholars.

Demographics. Egypt occupies a choice position. It lies mainly in northeast Africa, but also includes the Sinai Peninsula. It controls the Suez Canal, which provides the shortest commercial shipping route between Asia and Europe.

About 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Though the state is secular, the central government champions Sunni orthodoxy and remains on guard for any signs of dissent, such as Shiism or Saudi-inspired fundamentalism. The government supports the country’s mosques (which number over 75,000) and selects the head of the preeminent center of Sunni learning in the world, Al Azhar University in Cairo.

The Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing more than 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80.5 million, the Copts belong to three groups.

About 95 percent belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is led by Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. This church developed independently after breaking communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Despite centuries of relative isolation and on-again off-again discrimination, the Coptic Orthodox Church has, since the middle of the last century, experienced a revival.

Other Copts belong to the Coptic Catholic or Coptic Evangelical churches. Other Christian communities are found mostly in the urban centers of Alexandria and Cairo. The largest is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria and All Africa, led by Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. Others include the Anglican; Armenian Apostolic; Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac Catholic; and Syriac Orthodox churches.

Sociopolitical situation. Modern Egypt was born when a military coup d’état in 1952 ousted King Farouk and the remnant of British imperial authority, which had controlled Egypt since the late 19th century. Shortly after the coup, its chief architect, Gamal Abdel Nasser, assumed power as president. Over the years of his long presidency (he died in 1970), Nasser initiated reforms that included the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the centralization of economic planning.

War with Israel in 1956, 1967 and 1973 — all part of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict — led to the territorial loss of Sinai and Gaza as well as the erosion of Egypt’s position in the Arab world. This was made definitive with the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League after Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979. Since Sadat’s assassination in 1981 by Islamist army officers, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak has governed the country authoritatively.

At present, most decision-making authority remains vested in him. While opposition parties do exist, they pose little threat; harassment, intimidation and arrest of opposition leaders, including suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood, ensure they remain weak and fragmented. This has hampered any political democratization.

Some of Egypt’s regional allies criticized the Mubarak administration for its handling of the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, when Egypt tightened its borders with Gaza. This worried some allies, who expected Egyptian interests and expatriates to be targets of symbolic vandalism or violence. Since Israeli commandos took over a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in the spring, however, Egypt has reopened its borders to the densely populated strip.

In the past several years, homegrown extremists either affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaeda have carried out a string of small attacks in the country. Most have been directed at tourist areas, particularly in Sinai. In response, the government has enacted a set of “emergency laws” that permits authorities to detain suspects indefinitely and, in certain cases, deny them the right of appeal. Activists, journalists, Islamists and members of the political opposition have decried the measures as undemocratic. Dozens have been arrested.

The Egyptian government has long nurtured strong bilateral relations with the United States. Over the years, these relations have deepened, due partly to a shared commitment to a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict; the preservation of Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; and the maintenance of overall regional peace and security. After Israel, Egypt remains the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, but the annual amount is decreasing. This aid has financed infrastructure projects, strengthened economic and social reform programs and enlisted U.S. technical expertise. Moreover, trade between the two countries remains robust and, recently, U.S. foreign investments in Egypt have picked up after a brief slowdown.

Economic situation. The Egyptian economy is the second largest in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia. It is also one of the fastest emerging markets for real estate. Until the late 1990’s, Egypt’s economy was highly centralized — the legacy of Nasser’s socialist-inspired economic policies. But from 2004 to 2008, the country underwent major economic reforms and experienced a dramatic increase in foreign direct investment, slowed only by the global recession. In 2009, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell to 4.7 percent from 7 percent just one year earlier.

Poverty and unemployment remain high. About 18 percent of the population lives below the poverty line (almost 40 percent in Upper Egypt). Another 20 percent straddles the poverty line.

Unemployment is rising, increasing to 9.4 percent in 2009 from 8.4 percent in 2008.

Since 2008, rising inflation has threatened the Egyptian economy. Multiple factors have contributed to inflation, including the country’s persistently unstable currency, an imbalance between exports and imports (Egypt imports the majority of its food and raw materials) and a dearth of profitable industries.

Though the government has made strides in privatizing and modernizing its industries and public services, its involvement in the economy remains extensive. Government subsidies are higher than ever, which suggest that the benefits of economic growth are not reaching the majority of the population. Subsidies on food and fuel are outpacing government spending on health care and education. While a small group of prominent businessmen and financiers has prospered, building posh communities that compare favorably to similar gated compounds in Amman, Boca Raton or Patmos, Egypt’s middle class and working poor struggle.

Religious situation. Not since the earliest days of the Alexandrian church have two men impacted St. Mark’s spiritual descendants more than Coptic Orthodox Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-71) and his successor, Pope Shenouda III. Drawn from the ancient Coptic monasteries of the desert, these men spearheaded a revival in catechesis, particularly among the youth, that has spawned a resurgence in monastic life, renewed liturgical life and stimulated theological learning and Scripture study — the latter a result of the influence of Protestant missionaries in the early 20th century.

For decades at the papal cathedral in Cairo, lessons in Scripture led by the pope have attracted huge crowds of young Copts. After a lengthy exegesis of that day’s lesson, the pope answers questions often centered on items of a personal nature, e.g., marriage, family, relationships and work. Many young men have entered the priesthood or monastic life as a result of these gatherings.

Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns; social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense of identity for the young, many of whom are emigrating to the West.

Despite stalwart leadership, Egypt’s Copts and other Christians remain an endangered minority. Islamic radicals regularly attack Christians and their property. Some reports have indicated that security personnel have failed to undertake the necessary measures to protect Christians, despite receiving warnings of impending violence.

Reports of discrimination are common, especially in education and employment. The government places restrictions on the construction or repair of churches — restrictions that do not apply to mosques. A permit from the regional governor is required before a church may be renovated. Permits to build churches require presidential approval, which often take as long as ten years to obtain. Even with this go-ahead, security forces must investigate whether neighboring Muslim communities object to the construction. If they do, the church may not be built.

Circumstances such as these hamper the church’s growth in Egypt. Disenfranchised and alienated from the Muslim majority, thousands of Copts convert to Islam each year while tens of thousands emigrate.

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