"Det koptiske spørsmål" diskuteres i Egypt

Country Has 13 Centuries of Inter-Religious Coexistence

ROME, FEB 16 (ZENIT).- The violence that erupted in the streets of Al-Kusheh, Egypt, at the end of last year created unease throughout Egyptian society, because it re-opened an old wound, known as the "Coptic question." This refers to the disadvantages suffered by the Coptic community as compared to the Muslim. Now, on the eve of John Paul II's visit, the debate has become a burning issue.

This round of tension began at the end of the year with a neighborhood squabble between two families, which escalated to the use of clubs and firearms. According to Coptic Christian Bishop Wissa, one of the wounded went to the police station to report the incident and, instead of being helped, a number of policemen who were outside the station, opened fire and wounded three Christians, which resulted in a revolt. Security forces did not stop Muslims from attacking shops and homes in the Christian zone. After a series of upheavals, the tragic figures for the month of January were 20 dead, over 30 wounded, and about 80 shops destroyed, belonging to both Christians and Muslims.

The American Coptic Association, with headquarters in Washington, protested. According to its members, there were Muslims who incited unification to "kill Christian infidels," a fact that is yet to be confirmed. It is certain, however, that in 1998 the very same city was the scene of a series of abuses against the Coptic population and, since then, relations between Christians and Muslims have deteriorated. This is, in essence, the "Coptic question."

In an article published this month in "Black World" magazine, a group of Christian and Muslim personalities proposed solutions to the discrimination. These include: a change in the norms on the construction and maintenance of churches; the appointment of qualified Copts to important executive posts at the national level; the ability of Copts to participate in the electoral body; the inclusion of Coptic history and civilization in school textbooks and the establishment of Coptic studies in University departments; the encouragement of Coptic participation in the media, especially television. These five points were presented to the government in February 1999, according to the newspaper "Cairo Times."

Copts have always regarded themselves as an integral part of Egyptian society, but there are those who want to keep them as a separate minority. This causes tensions in Christian-Muslim relations, and is a potentially de-stabilizing national problem for the country. Small but active violent Islamic fundamentalist groups, well known in Europe for their attacks on tourists visiting Egypt, welcome the unrest as a way of making their existence known to international public opinion.

The Coptic question is now an open debate in Egypt. Its relevance is such that President Hosni Mubarak said in a 1997 address that "Egyptian Copts are an integral part of the national fabric; they are noble citizens who have the same rights and duties as we do. Their rights are guaranteed as they are the rights of all Egyptians. They are fundamental members of a country that believes in tolerance and which has learned - ever since the 1919 Revolution, that religion is for God and the motherland is for all."

It is important to recall that relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt has a history of 13 centuries. Islam entered Egypt in 642, when Egypt was totally Christian. The two creeds have coexisted down to our times.

Therefore, there should be no reference to a "Coptic question" but, rather, to the real history of the country. It is a history characterized by inter-religious dialogue, as ancient as the history of the land of the Pharaohs. Egypt enjoys the privilege of centuries of history and dialogue among different religions. It is a unique model in the whole of the Middle East, a veritable Christian mosaic, varied and rich in churches and rites.

There are 12 Christian Churches in Egypt. In the first place, the Orthodox community: Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Apostolic Armenians. In the second place, the Catholic community with 7 groups of different rites: Maronites, Chaldeans, Greek Catholics, Catholic Copts, Armenian Catholics, Syrian and Latin Catholics. In the third place, the group of Protestant communities, among which are Lutherans, Presbyterians and Evangelicals.

While the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians are usually called "Orthodox," they actually stem from an earlier period of Church History than the Greek Orthodox. They are the result of a separation after the Council of Chalcedon over the Monophysite heresy - that Christ had only one nature. The Copts, however, stress that they never held the Monophysitism they were accused of at that time.

Copts believe that the Lord is perfect in his divinity, and he is perfect in his humanity, but his divinity and his humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Copts, thus, believe in two natures - "human" and "divine" - that are united in one nature "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration." These two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye."

Coptic Pope Shenouda III, the "Successor of St. Mark," actively seeks Christian unity, and calls the separation largely semantic. "To the Coptic Church, faith is more important than anything, and others must know that semantics and terminology are of little importance to us."

The outbursts of violence that happened in January damaged the whole of Egyptian society. They only favored those who want to stave off tourism, in order to weaken the State economically. There is also a desire to provoke confrontations between the Christian and Muslim communities in order to break the history of mutual tolerance and impose a new Islamic regime, hostile to other creeds, and aspiring to religious and civil hegemony.

Zenit - The World Seen From Rome

av Webmaster publisert 24.02.2000, sist endret 24.02.2000 - 00:27