Egypt, one year later…

January 6, 2011

Today is Christmas Eve for the twenty million or so Coptic Christians in the world. Deviating from the western (Roman) and eastern (Greek) Christian traditions in the fifth century CE, which were then still somewhat tenuously unified under their belief in the dyophysite explanation of Christ’s nature, the Coptic faith became an early example of segregation and  subjugation. As an isolated subgenre of Christianity, it has survived remarkably well in these 1500 years, placed as it is amidst the complexities of and competition from Holy Land claimants. Before the Copts, there were the Jews. Now somewhat-friendly neighbors with Israel, we must remember that a great deal of the Egyptian legendary lies with the Jewish faith and stories within the Pentateuch. The late- or even post- exilic books (Exodus primarily, but also Leviticus and Numbers, as well as the older Deuteronomy) offer a glimpse at the ancient world of Moses and the lands surrounding the kingdom leading to Canaan, following the mass slaughter of first born Egyptian children and other plagues of Egypt. Well after the Jews came the Muslims. So too must we remember the newest religion to possess popular appeal in Egypt and remark upon the surprising steadfastness of these Copts. Beginning two centuries after the great Christological heresies at Chalcedon that singled the Coptic faith out, the Muslim conquest of Egypt began, spreading into northern Africa. While Islam took an effective hold on political power, religious majority would not be assured until the late twelfth century. This stretch of time no doubt produced a more equitable and enduring religious coexistence, which would later be advantageous to socio-political harmony.

Between Jews and Muslims exist the Christians. After all, it is within Christianity that Copts were first debased as heretic pariahs.  Not as though that EVER happens in the modern Christian community between different sects. Like the Hebrew books, Christians believe that they have some historical claim on Egypt. Apparently, Joseph and Mary took refuge in Egypt, coming from Judea with a young Jesus and staying until Herod died. In addition, fragments of the Gospel of John were written in Coptic and early Christians in Egypt spoke Coptic. Tack on the Torah’s lore, which Christians take on as their own some of the time, and you’ve got strong ties to Egypt. That explains the Christianity there, but why Coptic?

A full 95% of Egyptian Christians are Coptic. This number is striking, indeed. It seems easy to pretend that all Christians in Egypt support the views of their fifth century church, concerning the dual, in-balance nature of Christ. But these are real people. Doctrinal phallacies are confounding and irrelevant to modern piety. Coptic survives, in my view, as a cultural tradition and no more. Native Egyptians who spoke the language were overwhelmingly Christian as opposed to their Greek fellow citizens. It was their identifying action, their practice. Christianity spread to less affluent areas, not on the wings of popularity or mandate but through local customs, syncretism, and the language itself. The religion is not divisible from the makeup of the people: one can be identified by the other.

Not much has changed over the course of 1500 years, I suspect. Coptics still hold to their religion firmly, which is their right and is set out in their rites. One year ago, I made two closely-dated posts, expressing my concern over worrisome developments in Egypt. The first discussed a new mandate that required identification cards listing one’s religious affiliation on them and the struggle in obtaining these cards for Coptic Christians. An empirical discriminatory technique, I argued that the card’s necessity brought up issues of religion’s necessity in Egypt and how it was impossible to live there without it (through my own experiences) in spite of the pitfalls this ID card of religion offered. I also discussed the undercurrent of religious turmoil now plaguing the country. About a week later I posted a second article on Egypt, following a fatal drive-by shooting that saw six Copts and one Muslim murdered after an accusation of rape was made by a young Muslim girl against a Coptic man. I vented my anger at the Egyptian government for letting factions take control of local authority and failing to address and condemn any violent actions taken by either side.

One year later, I am here again, worrying.

As reported on the BBC, twenty-three people were killed in an Alexandria church on New Year’s Day. Perhaps rightfully, the Copts have spent days protesting and blaming the government “for encouraging discrimination and not doing enough to protect them.” This is while radical websites have continued to post ludicrous calls for all Muslims to continue the violence on their websites. It’s filthy, outrageous, and disgusting. Who says shit like this? I am not religious myself, but I thank God that most of the world’s faithful are level-headed. Who are these radicals and haven’t they heard the old adage about not being able to say something nice? If you don’t, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

To those who take place in the vigils surrounding these churches tonight and other nights, Muslims, Christians, Jews and all, I hope you are safe. And wow, you’re just amazing people!


Updates in Egypt…

January 7, 2010

Add this to the disturbing list of trends being passed (or permitted) by Egypt’s government, as reported in my long article Egypt, Still Divided.

Six Coptic Christians have been murdered, as well as a security official, in a town outside of Cairo following the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man. Caught by surprise in a drive-by shooting, the seven were exiting a midnight mass celebration on this their Christmas Day, January 7th. At least ten others were injured in the attack.

The rape that is believed to have incited this violence occurred in November against a twelve year old female. Nearly a week of angry protests followed, during which Christian properties were the target of arsonists and other damage. BBC analysis asserts:

The most serious cases are usually in poor, rural areas where the trigger is often a dispute over land or women, which spills over into sectarian violence. Whole communities can become involved. Local authorities’ handling of such cases is often criticised. Police are accused of delaying their response to reports of fighting and then simply arresting equal numbers of individuals from each faith.

I am worried for Egypt. The government’s refusal to intercede and mediate the religious disparity is alarming. Effectively, they are offering arms to radicalism. Pacifying or ignoring these extremists on both sides leads only to more violence and repression. We need to educate (or, better yet, using the radicals’ terminology, indoctrinate) tolerance.

I am beginning to see that prior to eradicating religion altogether, Egyptian society (and all of them, really) must allow peaceful, tolerant coexistence. How can we ever get beyond these issues if we never address them through the correct channels?

Egypt, still divided…

December 28, 2009

(En)Forced identity crises in 2009 Egypt. This bullshit troubles me. Let me start with my background…

I was introduced to the difficulties of religion in Egypt three years ago. While discussing my aspiration of pursuing an Egyptology career with my then Mortuary Archaeology of Ancient Egypt professor, Ann Macy Roth, I was told about the various dig opportunities open to someone in my position. Field schools in Arizona were easy to access, but difficult to fund. Canadian digs were cheap and simple to sign onto, but would provide relatively little useful knowledge. Egyptian excavation projects were tough to find and tougher to get: miles of paperwork and background checks completed would still often result in unavailable funding or cancelled digs.

However, Professor Roth told me, it certainly would be worthwhile to try.  So we discussed what I could do and walked through negotiating the paperwork. And what I will always remember the most about that walking through was a simple question saying, “What is your religion?”.

Well, that’s easy enough. Atheist, I thought.

No. No, no, no, no, no.


No. You can be Christian.You can be Muslim. You can be Hindu. You can be Buddhist. You can be any religion you find interesting or fun. But you cannot NOT have a religion. Your application will be rejected at once, and you will be forever blacklisted by the antiquities commission.

Eke. What on earth are we to make of this state-authorized detestation of the religionless among us (the plural hyperbole of me)? I wonder if the agnostics or the (rapidly increasing) number of people identifying as spiritual would be accepted within these requirements. Unclear as my understanding likely is, I suspect they would not be. Christian, Muslim, Jew: those are labels with real meaning, points of reference. You can make any kind of harsh judgment much easier if you define yourself in those terms.

But if all this comes to is denomination, affiliation, Egypt is guilty of enforcing the institutionalization of faith. [Note, radicals among us: I said faith not morality. Faith is a decision and one that must be made individually. Morality is intrinsic in whatever form it assumes and we share the experience of inheritance whether or not we share values. Yes, I think it is that clear cut. And, yes, you can be a good person without faith.] This enforcement troubles me. We must collect ourselves, they say, and communally believe in different angles of one thing, complete trust in the unprovable. It is ridiculous.

That is what makes a new report on BBC Online all the more disturbing. Written by Christian Fraser, the report describes the difficulties Coptic Christians face in acquiring identity cards in the country. The ID cards, which Egypt requires for “employment, education and access to any public services,” carry details similar to a passport. But, more interestingly, they note an individual’s religious affiliation, which some human rights activists have found leads to discriminatory hiring practices.

For those interviewed, the issue was hardly as simple as facing the rejection of their CVs and job applications. The ID cards are meant to be the empirical, cliff-notes version of an individual’s real identity. Instead, this group of Christians are being asked to provide evidence for their religion, to prove their religious identity. Part of the problem lies in the 80% to 90% Muslim majority of the country. The Islamic idea that a “father determines the religion of his children” just screams brainwashing to me. Yes, a father who abandons his family should have his religion impressed upon them as a momento that can live with them since he cannot. That is bullshit! These thoughts develop over time: religion should not be indoctrinated nor should it be assumed to be possessed by lineage.

Then there is the danger of apostasy’s punishment. Some interpretations of the Qur’an suggest that leaving the Islamic faith is punishable by death. And to be incorrectly grouped or simply appropriated a faith where such conditions exist (possibly without your knowledge), you risk severe consequences. While I do think it is entirely wrong that these Christians are unfairly punished, I would without a doubt prefer to take steps validating my religion than risk any strict interpretor taking justice into his own hands. But I do not imagine this to be the dominate Islamic teaching any more than I imagine that the Coptics are free from fault.

It all goes back to the necessity of religion in Egypt. The ID says you must have something, and that is not why the ID is an issue to Egyptians (only to me, it seems). Why this ID is so contentious lies in the necessity of having it agree with your actual religious beliefs. You do have religion. But, and this is key, is it the right religion for the government? Did Jesus get it right or was he just another prophet misinterpreting God’s word? Breaking it down like that seems an awfully sad prospect. The icon (western puppet?) of the Middle East falls into the ages old trap.
Back to the source of my ignorant leaps…The ID card cannot be excised from the Egyptian’s everyday life as religion cannot be removed from the card itself. Religion is life in Egypt even to this day, and the battle is between Christians and Muslims. Those complaining want Christian ID cards. As one refused a Christian identity card, this woman interviewed says, “You need a card for everything in Egypt, even to be buried.” Ok, fair enough, it is a necessity. But she adds, “Where will they put me when I die? I don’t want to be put in a Muslim grave.” Hot button stuff.

The Narmer Palette, discovered in 1898 in Hierakonpolis

The legendary unification of Egypt, occurring circa 3100 BCE, brought together two different and independent regions. The name of that mythic hero responsible for uniting Upper (Southern) and Lower (Northern) Egypt has been obscured by time and conflicting scholarship. Yet whether you believe it to be Menes (of the ostracon) or Narmer (of the famed palette, pictured left), you must admit that another of that sort would be welcome. A divided Egypt still exists, different demographically and geographically from before, but facing similar challenges of unity.