Egypt’s Coptic Tensions


FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: The church is carved out of El Mokattam or the mountain, a giant bluff just outside Cairo. Egypt’s Coptic Church is one of Christianity’s earliest, brought here by Mark, writer of the oldest New Testament gospel. The liturgy closely resembles those seen in other Eastern Orthodox churches, though the Copts’ leader, or pope, has always been based in Egypt. This church was actually built in the 1990s, a tribute to its ancient heritage, modern engineering, and the affluence of some in Egypt’s Coptic minority. But that wealth is in small pockets of Egypt’s upper class and a Copt diaspora in rich countries. Most of Egypt’s Copts live in poverty, sometimes dire poverty. Surrounding this church is one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods called Medina Zabaleen, literally “Trash City.” For decades, the zabaleen, or trash collectors, have gone door to door and hauled home what the people of Cairo threw away. They aren’t paid for this. Their entire income comes from recycling. They’ve been uprooted repeatedly as the city has grown and, activist Laila Iskander says, only grudgingly tolerated.


LAILA ISKANDER: The government realized, well, if we evict these people from here and tell them to vanish, who’s going to service the city? So there was always this recognition that these people were important, but we don’t like them. Five evictions later, into the ’70s, they figured there’s going to be a sixth eviction, it’s too easy, and the city will grow and catch up with us. Let’s go into the belly of the mountain, this limestone rock here, and they did that.

DE SAM LAZARO: Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and many say Zabaleen City is a metaphor for their struggle in this predominantly Muslim country, a struggle to preserve traditions and livelihoods, both of which, they say are imperiled by Egypt’s growing religious conservatism and by government policies. In 2009, the Egyptian government, responding to the swine flu epidemic, ordered all pigs killed in the country. Some 300,000 of the animals were culled. Pigs are considered unclean in Islam, but the Christian Zabaleen were suddenly deprived of a source of both income and protein, and health experts agree the animals were never a flu threat.

ALAA AL ASWANY: I don’t think the decision was anti-Christian. I think the decision was just another example of the incompetence of the government.

DE SAM LAZARO: Author and democracy activist Alaa Al Aswany also blames poor governance for Egypt’s persistent poverty. He says the resulting frustration has often fueled sectarian tension, and beginning in the 1970s so has a steady rise in the Wahabi brand of religious conservatism, imported and financed from Saudi Arabia.


ASWANY: You have, for example, in Egypt more than 17 TV channels every day promoting the Wahabi ideas, and this way of understanding the religion is very exclusive in the sense that they are against anybody who is different. They are against Shia, people of Iran. They are against even Muslims who are for democracy, like myself, accusing me of being secular, against the religion. They are against Jews, of course. They are against Christians. They are against everybody who is not with them.

DE SAM LAZARO: Egyptians who grew up in the 50s and 60s see the growing influence of Wahabism. Most Egyptian women cover their hair today, and growing numbers don the niqab, covering all but their eyes. It’s evident even in cemeteries like this one, where you can see disagreement over allowing inscriptions on tombstones.

AHMED THARWAT (reading inscription): This is “the most merciful” whatever, and then somebody says we’re not supposed to do that, he wipes it, and you actually see the culture clashing in print, right before your eyes.

DE SAM LAZARO: Ahmed Tharwat has lived in Minnesota for 25 years, where he hosts a TV show for the region’s Arab-American community. He recently visited the Nile Delta village where he lived in as a young man.

THARWAT: This is all Muslims, this all, as you can see, all Muslim in this section.

DE SAM LAZARO: He says one Christian family lived in the village. But there was no Christian cemetery nearby, so they’re buried alongside Muslim neighbors. This departure from custom prompted some debate, but it was resolved by community leaders.


THARWAT: I remember when the neighbor, my uncle said he didn’t hurt us when he was alive, why would he hurt us when he dies? And I think it really sums up the whole story.

DE SAM LAZARO: But some say that kind of acceptance has given way to much more awareness of a religious divide—and tension.

PROFESSOR REFAT LAKOUSHA (Alexandria University, speaking through translator): You will always find a religious interpretation of any conflict between Coptics and Muslims because we live in an era of tension between the religions that I’ve never seen registered at this level, and that’s why in any conflicts between Muslims and Coptics, in the subway or the market, it will always end up being taken in the religious context.

DE SAM LAZARO: The most violent recent example occurred in southern Egypt outside a Coptic church on the Orthodox Christmas Day. Six worshippers and a Muslim security were gunned down. The killings were apparently retaliation for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. There were riots and clashes with police during the funerals.

ASWANY: This intolerance has been existing in the society because of the Wahabi people, but also it has been transmitted as an infection to the other side, so you have also some Coptic fanatics, and you have also Coptic channels who are trying to make the point that the religion of Islam is a whole bunch of nonsense.


DE SAM LAZARO: In the end, religious leaders from both communities tried to bring calm after the Christmas shootings. Copts and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, with occasional spasms of sectarian violence. The key question is: are things different this time? Will the current tension escalate into an enduring religious conflict?  Author Aswany thinks it’s not in the Egyptian character.

ASWANY: It could be repeated, but I don’t think this is an opening of an era of killing in Egypt, because as I said, the Egyptian culture, which is very old and very civilized, will never tolerate it. So we have had before, you see—probably this is one positive aspect to be belonging to a country which has been existing for 60 centuries, 6000 years, because everything you are having now you will discover that it happened before many times.

REZK YOUSIF (speaking through translator): Our problem is not with the average Muslim. Our problem is with the extremist and the Wahabi thinking about Islam. That’s where most of the problem is. Average Muslim—no problem.

MANSOUR KHADDIS (speaking through translator): And we wish the government and society in general would recognize that we are a vibrant community, not just “the trash people.”

DE SAM LAZARO: Back in Medina Zabaleen, church elders say they can only hope the historic tolerance prevails in Egypt, a society that may not have fully embraced the Copts, but one that nonetheless recognized their citizenship as one of Egypt’s ancient, original people.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Cairo, Egypt.

  • alinalotte031009

    What great sadness it is,that such a great nation,so richly blessed by God- “Bless my people Egypt” /people=inhabitants of the land of Egypt /,so favored by Him from the time of Abraham does not realize it’s greatness and does not comprehend it’s blessings nor the value of lessons from it’s past : Abraham did not hold on to God’s promise,failed to excersize his spiritual leadership,followed Sarah’s ill advice and begat by Hagar,her egyptian maid servant Ishmael,of whom it was prophesized” he would be wild donkey of a man whose hand would be against every man and every man’s hand against him”. Isaac- the son of the promise was born of barren Sarah in her old age, for nothing is impossible for God.When Isaac had twins by Rebekah,she was told by the Lord she was carrying two nationsand the older child will serve the younger:Essau sold his birth right,because he worried more about his daily meal,not considering his most highly valued possesion-his heritage as the oldest son.Younger,Jacob-mother’s favorite got Isaac’s fatherly blessing by deceit /yet according to Lord’s decree and once imparted it could not be taken away-Isaac told Essau he would live by the sword,but one day he would break free from serving his brother.Essau was so angry he determined to kill Jacob,but their mother protected her younger son by sending him away.Years later when the brothers met Jacob bowed to his brother seven times /-Lord,how many times shall we forgive?”/ Essau run to meet Jacob and embraced him in forgiveness.At last they united as truly brothers,each blessed by God.Jacob favored Joseph,his youngest son and made him a coat of many colors,a garment very different from the usual clothing his sons wore/ one out of ten chosen, Mother’s favorite,covered by her coat of dazzling colors,the mantel of protection of Mary,Lady of Zeitun- oh generation do ye see the signs in heavens,why do ye act traitourously against your brothers,Cain where is your brother??? Adam,why you are hiding your face from Me?” God made man in His image and likeness and He said :”Keep your marriage bed undefiled.Ye shall not kill.And for My sake they will persecute you ,deliver you to prison and kill you and in doing so they will THINK they are doing a favor to God.Take heart,fo I OVERCAME the world.They say salam,salam,where there is no peace.Come to Me and I will give you peace that the world can not give.And I will bless My People Egypt.” –The LIVING WORD of the One True God. Take heart,keep faith,hold on to promises of Christ. “Choose this day whom ye shall serve.For ye are no longer slaves under the law,but also my friends and while friends also sons and while sons also heirs.” May we all become worthy of the promises of Christ

  • Valerie Kolarik

    I am a huge fan of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. Was trying to vote 5 stars on the Egypt;s Coptic Tentions story, but it came out as 1 star! Oh, no! Post ID says it was vote #5786. When I tried to vote again, it said I couldn’t, that I had already voted. I may have ms and be less that 100% physically able, but I am 100% sure I want to give this show 5 stars, not 1. Please correct. And thank you again for a fantastic show, the best on TV.

  • Mary Papsco

    I spent 3 weeks in Egypt last May visiting my daughter who attends school and lives in Cairo. I entered Egypt a week or two after the swine flu outbreak and was greeted at customs by women dressed in full veil and wearing medical masks to check us as we entered the country. The pigs of Cairo had already been slaugtherd and this caused an unintended disruption to the trash system of the city.They are an integral part of the trash system because they eat all the food waste that can’t be recycled. My daughter has become friends with her trash collector and has spent some time visiting “Trash City”. She describes different levels of poverty of Trash City, and different sections depending on the type of trash each family specializes in. There is a cardboard neighborhood, glass and can area etc. She attended services in the church in the rock and said it was an amazing experience. My time in Egypt was a trip beyond tourism. It was a spiritual time as Copt and Muslim citizens live close to their faith. The call to prayer 5 times a day was such a concrete reminder of our spiritual life. I’ve heard friends describe their time in India as life changing and my trip to Egypt was just that.. Thank you for your piece on Egypt. I was “cruising channels” and found it by accident. I’ll now watch the show on Sunday mornings. It was fairly and thoughtfully done.

  • historian

    The problem with this article is that it never discusses the fact that Copts were systematically discriminated agains tby Muslim rulers from the very beginning of the Muslim conquest in Egypt, and still are, even if some of the forms of discrimination today are different from what they were in the past.. It’s a bit like talking about “interracial violence” in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s without mentioning Jim Crow laws. At first, the worst discrimination against Copts was exorbitant taxation, which lasted until from the seventh century unitl about 900. According to John of Nikiu, the various authors of the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, and Dionysius of Tel-Mahre (apud Michael the Syrian & 1234 Chronicle), this periodically forced Copts to sell their children into slavery to Muslims. It also led to major Coptic tax rebellions in the eighth and ninth centuries, which were brutally suppressed. However, In later years, while exorbitant taxation was lessened because so many Copts converted to Islam to avoid the taxes–(it was no longer remunerative to tax a small group at a very high rate)–systematic discrimination also took the form of prohibiting Copts from converting Muslims, which meant the community constantly shrank, not allowing Copts to testify against Muslims if they were wronged by them which led to their vulnerability to violence from Muslims, limiting public displays of Christian faith, limiting construction of new churches, sumptuary laws, and other smaller humiliating requirements detailed in Islamic law and its interpretations. There were also occasional violent demolitions of existing churches and monasteries, which caused Copts to try to repair the damage, which because it was sometimes forbidden by the prevailing interpretation of Islamic law, could cause more conflict. The problem in a nutshell was that in the pre-modern period Muslims never questioned THE PRINCIPLE that Copts should be treated as inferiors according to Islamic law, and today many Muslims still object to the PRINCIPLE of Copts being equal before the law. This is why the claim that some Copts are “fanatical” about criticizing Islam is irrelevant. Both Muslims and Copts sometimes polemicized unfairly against each others”’ religions, but to pretend that the two groups were then or are today on an equal social and political footing is nonsense. Copts were and are NOT on an equal social & legal footing because the idea was not even accepted by Egyptian Muslims in the pre-modern period, and it is still resisted by many, tho not all, Muslims today. Today inequality takes many forms, including the government failing to punishing these kinds of killings of Copts severely enough to send a deterrent message. The State Department details the problem of the government treating anti-Copt violence too cavalierly in its website on human rights in Egypt.

  • Rick M


    You are absolutely right, but no media outlet will ever discuss discrimination against Christians by Muslims. That’s just the way it is.

  • J Hanson’s Blog

    I am a religious person. And I’m a Jehovah’s Witnesses. I only believed that the name of God is Jehovah and Christ Jesus is his Son.

  • Connie Dobbs

    That’s what they get for worshipping a false god!

  • George

    My immediate thoughts upon reading this article is that most of the people in the middle east are still back in Biblical times. There is no prospect, as far as I can see, that violence among people who would be better off concentrating on bettering their lives and the lives of their neighbors. Why is it that so many areas of the world have not evolved into modern communities found in the The Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia?

    There is a likely possibility that this continuing backwardness and overwhelming ignorance will only result in more poverty and violence. The best way to direct some change on this dire future is for citizens and governments to finally sit down and use THEIR knowledge, education and skills to promote first class government and policies that will help their people.

  • convertedcoptic

    Thank you Historian, for your very excellent points.

  • Donkeys

    The Tea Party is not involved with the Muslim situation. It is about government overreach.