Egyptian Christianity under Islamic Rule - A Brief Coptic Muslim History

Egyptian Christianity under Islamic Rule - A Brief Coptic Muslim History

Islam rose in Saudia Arabia early in the seventh century, then swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt fell to the Arabs by the middle of the seventh century, in large part because the rulers of both church and state were the hated imperial Chalcedonian Christians. The Coptic-speaking monophysite majority rejoiced to be free of Byzantine rule, gained a measure of religious toleration they had not known since the Council of Chalcedon, and found themselves taxed at just over half the rate they had been under the Empire.

For the first four centuries of their rule, the Arabs treated the Copts with forebearance, in part because Mohammed, whose Egyptian wife was the only one to bear him a son, had said "When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your proteges and kith and kin." The Copts were therefore allowed to practice their religion freely, and were protected as "People of the Book" as long as they paid a special tax, called the "Geyza." The Coptic population became an important source of revenue for the Islamic governors, and at one point they discouraged conversion to Islam for financial reasons. The tax advantages of becoming Muslim led to a slow decline in the Coptic population until it stabilized at just under 10% of the population.

The Copts replaced Greek speakers as the civil servants and administrators of Egypt, in large measure because they, unlike Arabic speaking Muslim rulers, spoke the language of the general population. For generations, Copts who had learned Arabic were the only scribes, magistrates, or tax collectors. From the turn of the eighth century, when Arabic became the official language of Egypt until the late middle ages, when Coptic ceased being a spoken language, the Coptic community was a bilingual community. As the Copts subsided further and further into minority status without surrendering their tradition of serving in the civil service, they became hated and vilified by the Muslim population, who occasionally rioted and burned Coptic churches and neighbourhoods.

At the turn of the millennium the Caliph al Hakim, who was probably insane, turned against Christian and Jews, and later also against Muslims, torturing and killing thousands of people. He forced all Christians to wear distinctive dress, including a five pound cross which every Christian had to wear around his or her neck. He forced Jews to wear a heavy bell around their necks, and dismissed all non-Muslims from administrative offices. Al Hakim turned loose the Egyptian mob to demolish Coptic Churches and Jewish synagogues, walled off a Jewish street, leaving all inside to die of starvation, and also walled and sealed the doors of a public bath for women, entombing alive all those who were inside. He banned all women from appearing on the streets of Egypt for any reason. At Caliph al Hakimís death, toleration returned, the center of Coptic Christianity shifted from Alexandria to the new capital, Cairo and churches were rebuilt.

The Crusades brought another dark time to the history of the Coptic Church. Coptic Christians were caught between two equally hostile forces during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Muslims came to hate all Christians in Muslim world, while Latin Christians despised the Copts as heretics. During the Crusades, Latin Christians came to control the Holy Land, but prevented the Copts from fulfilling their binding religious obligation to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land by preventing Copts from entering the holy sites.

In 1168 the Islamic capital of al-Fustat was burned to the ground by its Muslim governor, in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders, who could use it as a fortress from which to invade all Egypt. He used 20,000 barrels of naphtha lit by 10,000 torches to raze the city, which burned for 54 days. The predominantly Coptic population fled, and was made destitute overnight. Shortly afterwards the Fatimid dynasty collapsed to be replaced by Saladin and the Ayyubids. Life did not change much for the Copts through all the dynastic changes, which included the Mamaluk takeover about 1250 and the later conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1500. The major change was the death of Coptic as a spoken language under the Mamaluks. The church, however, held on to Coptic as the churchís liturgical language up to the present. The mob still hated the Copts, and unless restrained by rulers who found their administrative acumen useful, burned churches and Coptic neighbourhoods. In 1320 after a particular severe season of rioting, the Christian desert monks swept into the cities in retaliation and burned down mosques and Muslim neighbourhoods, then returned to the desert.

Patriarch Cyril IV (1854-61) took advantage of a period of toleration to initiate serious reform and rebuilding, including the construction of a Coptic Orthodox College. He endowed the college with enough funds to enable it to teach students without charging them tuition, and appointed professors in Coptic, Arabic, Turkish, French, English and Italian, as well as the usual theological and academic curriculum. In addition he opened the first womenís college in Egyptian history, and established a flourishing printing press. When the physical press arrived Cyril ordered that it be met by an official religious processional, which accompanied the press, chanting hymns all the way from Cairo station to the patriarchate. Cyril IV also arranged for nation-wide clerical education, summoning all the priests within reach of the capital to regular Sunday classes and theological discussions, and directing clergy to re-learn the proper liturgies and chants to use in services.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the Coptic Church has engaged in extensive ecumenical dialog with other Coptic Churches, as well as Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. In 1987 the Copic Church and the Orthodox Churches agreed to a common statement on the nature of Christ, and lifted the mutual anathemas they had held on each other since the fifth century, and in the early 1990s the Coptic Church and the Roman Catholic Church came to agreement on their understanding of the nature of Christ and declared one another Sister Churches.

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