Different Views of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and their Muslim Neighbors

Different people see Coptic Christians and the relation to their Muslim neighbors in different ways.

One way to see Coptic Christians and their relations to Egypt’s majority Sunni Muslims is as a tourist. As a tourist, my perception is extremely limited since I only visit Cairo’s old Coptic quarter and St. Anthony’s Monastery near the Red Sea.

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I visit the old Coptic quarter. Before entering, I walk through a security checkpoint. Several police men, not with revolvers, but with automatic rifles, stand behind metal bulletproof shield. I walk to St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the Hanging Church. There I see devout men and women kiss the icon, light a candle, and say a prayer. Above us in the balcony, young children sing Coptic hymns. Walking toward the Church of St. George, I pass by several stalls. There are so few of us that I feel sorry for the merchants; however, not so sorry that I buy their souvenirs. At St. Anthony’s Monastery, a smalI group of monks continue the ancient monastic traditions. I am the only western tourist there. Two Coptic Christians from Alexandria are in a chapel participating in an centuries-old Lenten Service.

I see a struggling Coptic community. I see a group who maintains tourist sites. I see a small community at St Anthony’s Monastery. This community, which at one time was so religiously vibrant  that it created a new institutional expression of Christian living, the monastic community, now has maybe twenty monks.

Another way to see Coptic Christians and their relation to Muslims is through the eyes of Copts who live overseas. On the Nile Cruise, I talk to Maher and Kokab who are Coptic Christians. Although they grew up in Egypt, and are returning to visit their family, they left Egypt 30 years ago for Los Angeles. They are faithful, yet fearful. Before eating our breakfast, Maher prayed a very simple prayer. After the prayer, Kokab said that they initially planned on visiting their Egyptian family at Christmas time. However, “troubles” in Egypt made them postpone their trip from December to March. When I asked how they feel, Kokab said: “I’m nervous for my family. There are so many more Muslims than Christians.” Coptic Christians overseas see Egypt’s Copts as having to to be faithful in a context of hatred and fear.

Anther perspective about Coptic Christians comes from Muslims. I asked Mustafa, my main tour guide for my Egypt trip, about the bomb at the Coptic basilica. “All Egyptians felt sad. It was tragic.” A practicing Muslim, Mustafa always excused himself around 12:30PM so that he could participate in the noonday prayers. When in St. Mary’s Hanging Church, Mustafa asked me if I wanted to take time to pray. While the narrative identity of Jesus is different between Christians and Muslims, Mustafa also affirmed that Muslims recognize Jesus as one of the prophets. Mustafa tries to convey a sense of oneness between Muslims and Christians, of being “Abraham’s sons and daughters.” Mustafa is aware of tension, but does not feel the tension is deep or threatening.

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A final perspective comes from Coptic Christians who live in Egypt. I have a long conversation with Robert, my guide in Luxor and Karnack. When I mentioned that I had talked to Maher and Kobab, he smiled. From his point of view, Copts outside of Egypt have a certain view of the present reality in Egypt. Without saying anything directly about Maher and Kobab, Robert described  that his relatives in Australia constantly call him or his parents when there are news reports of problems. “They always ask in a nervous way: Are you okay? Did you go to work during the disturbances?” For Robert, his relatives only listen to the news which is sensationalized. They don’t know the situation here. He acknowledged that there is trouble from time to time. He described the origin of one neighborhood fight. Two apartment owners got into a fight because water dripped from drying clothes on a porch onto the porch below. Harsh words led to each side’s extended family getting involved. For Robert, such incidents usually involve “the uneducated.” Most Muslims and Christians get along fine. Each group is simply trying to make it through these tough economic times. He does not feel unduly fearful for his or his family’s life.

These four different views of Coptic Christians and the relation  to their Muslim neighbors are quite real. Are they all accurate to some degree? They are. However, they need to listen and learn from others. In the complex world of Egypt, there is no one way in which Coptic Christians and Muslims interact.

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