Ex Oriente Lux
A letter from the US Copts Association seeking to draw attention to the recent siege of the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church by mob protesting the exhibition an 'anti-Muslim DVD' points out in passing that the Copts were in Egypt long before Mohammed was born.
As you may know, the Copts -- Egypt’s indigenous, pre-Arab Christians -- have suffered from recent escalations in militant Islamist violence, much of which has been underreported and glossed over by the Egyptian government. As of October 21, 2005, a mob of over 10,000 militants armed with explosives has surrounded the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Muharrem Bey Street, Alexandria. The mob violence currently underway in Alexandria is only the latest in a string of attacks, including this week’s stabbing of a Coptic nun by an extremist student.
The mob had gathered to protest the sale of what they believed to be a DVD insulting to Islam. Three people were subsequently killed when the Egyptian government broke up the mob surrounding the Coptic Church. The Independent describes the essential events.
A play last performed two years ago at a Christian church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria has sparked a riot in which three people were killed. I Once Was Blind But Now I See, performed in 2003 at the Coptic church of St George, told the story of a poor young Copt drawn to militant Islamists, who then try to kill him. Last week the appearance of the play on DVD rekindled the fury of local Muslims, who called it "an insult to Islam".
Copts now make up between 5 and 10 percent of Egypt's population, though they were once the majority and adherents of a branch of Christianity that is nineteen centuries old. According to Wikipedia:
The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith. ... In the second century Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.
The Arab conquest of Egypt took place in AD 641. Although the Imperial forces resisted the Arab army under Amr ibn al-As, the majority of the civilian population, having suffered persecution for the differing Christian beliefs [following one of the schismatic conflicts within Christianity] were less hostile; in some cases they welcomed their new masters. Considered "People of the Book", Christians were allowed to practice their religion, under the restrictions of the Islamic Shari'a law.
Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a mainly Christian land, although gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries had the effect of changing Egypt from a mainly Christian to a mainly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century. This process was sped along by persecutions during and following the reign of the mad Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ...
There is a tendency, especially among Leftists, to view Christianity as a 'colonial' or 'Western' religion now being challenged by Islam. From this starting point it follows that conflicts between Christians and Muslims are the story of an 'oppressive' ideology being rolled back by an 'authentic' Third World faith. But in fact, Christianity was born in the Middle East and arrived belatedly in the West. When Arab conquerors were marching into a Christian Egypt much of Britain had not yet converted to Christianity. Large sections of what are now the Scandinavian countries did not convert to Christianity until the 11th century. The historical record conclusively shows that many of the 'Green Lines' -- lines which along which Islam is contending with other faiths, in places like Lebanon, India and Russia -- predate the rise of the West and Western expansion that the Left finds so distasteful. As the US Copts Association points out, Egyptian Christianity is no less authentic and indigenous than Islam and has a right to struggle for its existence.
(Speculation alert) When the leading lay leaders of the Anglican Church were recently murdered in Iraq, Canon Andrew White hastened to emphasize that the victims were not targeted because they were Anglicans, the suggestion being that they were not murdered because of their Western connections. But Christianity is not some recent Western import whose proselytizing activities are causing resentment among traditional Muslims. Christianity was established in Iraq 500 years before Britain converted and 1,300 years before Henry VIII separated the Church of England from Rome. Pre-Islamic Iraq was actually predominantly Jewish and Christian. They were reduced to a minority by their conquerors entirely without reference to the West. Yet so strong is the idea of the West speaking for Christianity that "Church of England bishops are calling for Christian leaders to apologize publicly, at a gathering attended by senior Muslims, for the war in Iraq", without a trace of self-conciousness. The call was contained in a 101 page report prepared by the bishops.
In a preface, one of the four authors, Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, writes that for many people in the world today, "It is not terrorism, but American foreign policy and what they perceive as American expansionism which constitutes the major threat to peace." Like all major powers in history, he says, America seeks to expand economic, political and military influence. "What distinguishes it from many other empires in history is its strong sense of moral righteousness. In this there is both sincere conviction and dangerous illusion," Harries says. "This sense of moral righteousness is fed by the major influence of the 'Christian Right' on present United States policy."
Within this ostensibly progressive message is a remarkably Edwardian conceit: one which might do justice to a Viceroy of India; the assumption that individuals like Bishop Richard Harries can authoritatively frame the Iraqi debate from the central perspective of a European Christianity. This is probably why the Copts are at pains to emphasize that they are "indigenous" and "pre-Arab". They are fighting for a faith which Western church leaders have no authority to surrender.