Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

A Bloody Greeting for Coptic Christians
As They Celebrate Christmas

معايدة بالدم لمسيحيي المشرق

By Jacob Thomas

When the Islamic armies burst out of Arabia in the middle of the seventh century and began their Futuhat (conquests) of the Middle East, the local populations with differing religious beliefs, namely Jews and Christians, began to experience what would be a long ordeal of humiliation and persecution. At times, they paid the ultimate price and were martyred for their faith. At certain points in the past 1400 years persecution became so intense that violent massacres of Christians took place. Over 10,000 Maronite Christians lost their lives in Mount Lebanon during the 1860s.  

There was some respite in the persecution of religious minorities after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. However, after WWII, when several countries in the area gained their independence from the British and the French, the lot of Christians and Jews began to deteriorate. In 1957, the First Civil War took place in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims. There was reconciliation between the two factions but it was short-lived; and by 1975, the Second Civil War erupted, which lasted for decades, and nearly destroyed the country.

It seems that not much has changed over the years.  On 12 January 2010, an article appeared on the Arabic website of the daily Elaph.  It attempts to understand and interpret a horrific event that occurred in Egypt as Coptic Christians were celebrating Christmas. The headline announced it as “A Bloody Greeting for Coptic Christians as They Celebrate Christmas.” The Arabic text when translated literally, would read, “A Bloody Greeting for Eastern Christians.” (Mu’ayadat bil-Damm li-Masihiyee al-Mashreqمعايدة بالدم لمسيحيي المشرق

Here are excerpts from the Elaph article, followed by analysis and comments.

The murder of several Coptic Christians by an Islamist group in St George’s Church at Nag’ Hammadi in Upper Egypt on Christmas Eve, 7 January, 2010,1 was not a solitary act of aggression. These types of attacks against the Copts have been increasing. Their houses of worship, homes, and places of business are the targets. One could even say that such acts reflect a troubling aspect of certain parts of Egyptian social life. In fact, we may expect such barbaric acts in Egypt and in other Arab and Islamic states to increase. This is because the prevalence of “religious regimes” contributes to the rise of populations bent on murder and Irhab.

Thus at the beginning of 2010, another instance of Coptic Christians’ blood being spilled occurred as Christmas was being celebrated. ‘Greeting’ Eastern Christians in a bloody fashion is an old matter.  Not only in Egypt.  It happened not long ago in Turkey; and today it’s going on in Iraq, and tomorrow it will occur in other parts of the Arab-Islamic world. In these lands, Christians are no longer considered citizens, but subjects and hostages. So, we may expect similar attacks on Eastern Christians that change their celebrations into occasions of mourning. Fatwas have even been issued forbidding Muslims from participating in any Christian celebrations, or sending greetings to Christians during their Holy Days.

I disagree with those who have described what took place in Egypt on Christmas

Eve, as an isolated incident, similar to what goes on from time to time between Christians and Muslims. Actually, the governmental authorities have been very lax in their attitude to the radical Islamist organizations, when they attack Egyptian Christians.  Christians are the victims of the political bargaining that goes on between the Government and the Islamist organizations.

There are several dimensions to the timing of this crime.  It points to the depth of the ‘Coptic wound’ that has been bleeding for several decades. According to the ‘Center for Arab Studies Ibn Khaldun,’ more than 4,000 Copts have been killed or wounded simply for being Christians, since September, 1972; not counting the damage caused to churches and homes, amounting to around one hundred million dollars. All this happened and is still happening in the “Republic of Fear”2 and the “State of Failed Ideologies and Empty Revolutionary Slogans,”3built by Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his friends of the Free Officers Movement. It is this militarized State which is responsible for the political authoritarianism and communal sectarianism that plagues Egyptian society.

Nasser and his colleagues nationalized much of the Egyptian economy; confiscating many enterprises that belonged to the Copts. Article One of the 1956 Constitution of Egypt stipulates that ‘Islam is the Religion of the State.’  In one stroke, the principle of equality for all the citizens of Egypt was set aside. After Nasser’s death in September, 1970, Anwar Sadat became the new president.  He sought to win the support of the Egyptian street by promulgating in May 1980, the principle that Islamic Shariah must become the source of all legislation.  This contributed to the ‘Islamization of life’ in Egypt, a move that led to the strengthening of both the official and popular persecution of the Christian Copts, as well as their marginalization in society. Copts were no longer permitted to serve in high governmental positions, their religious freedoms were abridged, and no new churches could be built, nor old ones enlarged or repaired. The goal of these chauvinistic and despotic laws was to impose Islam on the Copts, eradicate their identity as the original inhabitants of Egypt, and force them to emigrate to different parts of the world.

The absence of Coptic political and national organizations that would have sought the recognition of their political and cultural rights and their religious freedoms greatly facilitated their marginalization. Thus, they have remained outside the political sphere, even though they represent approximately 10% of the 80 million Egyptians.

However, this does not imply that the Copts have accepted the injustices imposed upon them. Many of them have responded to the attacks by the Islamists by seeking to defend themselves, and by bringing to the attention of the world the awful conditions of their daily existence. Those Coptic Egyptians, who have settled in Europe, Australia, and North America, have been active in supporting their fellow-Copts back in their homeland.  They have become involved in international conferences that drew attention to the plight of the Copts of Egypt.

Coptic religious leaders have accused the local authorities in Upper Egypt of cooperating with the mob that attacked the Christians on Christmas Eve, 2010. They declared that responsibility for the murders at Nag’ Hammadi lay with them. Ultimately, it is the Egyptian State that bears responsibility for failing to protect all its citizens.

Taking into account the communal tensions in Egypt, and the fact that it is the Salafist and Fundamentalist organizations that stand behind them, such as “Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen,” (The Muslim Brotherhood,) the Christmas Eve Murders might not be the last ones. The Coptic Cause’ should not be considered as a matter of internal security, or the absence of social harmony between religious groups. It is primarily a political, judicial, and humane cause. After all, the Copts are the original inhabitants of Egypt; and they are being persecuted on account of their Christian faith. This is going on, both officially and socially. Daily they encounter severe discrimination, having become the objects of many criminal attacks perpetrated by radical Islamist groups. These problems should receive the immediate attention of governmental authorities, particularly the dominant political party of President Hosni Mubarak.  The solution must be sought within the context of granting complete and full citizenship to the Egyptian Christians, genuine equality between Copts and Muslims, and the ending of all types of discrimination that has been the way of life for the original people of Egypt. (Source)


The murder of Copts following their celebration of Christmas at Nag’ Hammadi was not an isolated case, but another manifestation of the discrimination, persecution, violence and death they have endured for centuries. Their conditions have deteriorated since the rise of the Egyptian Republic in 1952.


I am grateful to Elaph for publishing this account by a Syrian intellectual and human rights activist, thus reminding its wide readership of the injustices that go on in Muslim-dominated lands. The tragedy at Nag’ Hammadi’s Coptic Church should prompt us to pay more attention to the plight of Eastern Christians and other minorities living within Daru’l Islam, and seek an end to their persecution. 

I would like to quote from a work that I read in the early 1960s and which is still relevant today: “A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts,” written by Edward Wakin,4 and published by William Morrow & Company, New York, in 1963.

Wakin traveled throughout Egypt, and compiled much research (as a historian and sociologist,) and wrote a memorable book. These thought-provoking words were a fitting conclusion to his study:

Both Egypt and Islam, like all other countries and ways of life in the modern world, must meet the test of toleration. For Islam it is a moral challenge spread over its proverbial range from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans.   Citing its theoretical toleration does not silence the cry of its minorities. For a Moslem nation, it is the practical problem of using human resources. The Copts themselves, within the microcosm of their history and its manifestations in church, community, nation and minority, present everyman’s tale of dream and nightmare, fulfillment and frustration in a world not of their making. Insofar as the Copts have received their due -- without ignoring their blemishes -- this modern story of Egypt’s Copts is an account of the human condition. 

At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny wherever it stands, even when the tyranny is elusive and unannounced, even unintended. It begins with labeling injustice long before shop windows are smashed, icons broken, and families torn apart. This labeling is an antidote to the danger of dulled sensibilities in our time and while the Copts can be accused of hypersensitivity, their problem is by no means imaginary. They are feeling pressures that inflict suffering without mutilating, that intimidate relentlessly without exploding sporadically, that wound without bloodshed. 

The Copts are numbed and helpless as well as anxious as their historic cycles of acceptance and rejection, their recurring stages of toleration, discrimination, and persecution move inexorably in the direction of rejection.  Persecution is still the nightmare, discrimination the reality in the latest chapter of a long story of a people. They are there in Egypt and there they remain, the ‘true Egyptians,’ the ‘original Christians,’ the four million Copts of the Nile Valley, that troubled, enduring, lonely minority.”5 (Pp. 175 and 176; Hard Back Edition)

I highly recommend reading this excellent work, and am thankful that it has been republished in recent years. See note 4.


1 The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on the 7th of January.

2 “Republic of Fear” is a reference to Samir al-Khalil’s “Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq.” Pantheon Books, New York, 1990.

3 Reference to the total reorganization of the Egyptian Government and society that took place under the Republican regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, after the coup of 22 July, 1952.

4 Edward Wakin, Ph.D., was a prize-winning journalist before joining the Fordham University faculty as professor of communications, where he taught for more than forty years. He passed away on 13 November, 2009 at the age of 81.“A Lonely Minority” was republished in 2000 as a paper back, and is available at various website bookstores.

5 In the 1960s, the population of Egypt was around 50 million; as in the rest of the Arab-Muslim world, the population growth has been very high. Egypt’s population now stands around 80 million, 10% being Coptic Christians.

Articles by Jacob Thomas
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