Public Christianity in a Revolutionary Egypt

Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt make up roughly 10% of the Egyptian population. This brief essay concerns the ways in which they publicly confess their Christianity, the potential hazards of such confessions, and what I think such confessions communicate, and to whom. I focus on the Maspero Massacre, of October 9, 2011, when mostly Coptic protestors in front of the Maspero state television building in Cairo were mowed down by army Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and bullets. Twenty-eight civilians were killed that day.

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Like any revolution, the January 25th revolution in Egypt has not been without its problems; among them is the question of where the Coptic Christian religious minority will fit in whatever new governing and social order might result. The general sentiment among Christians throughout the region in the wake of the “Arab Spring” has been that things are going to get worse. It was reported in September 2011 that up to 93,000 Christians had fled Egypt since March of the same year. Whether or not these numbers are accurate, they reflect a general sentiment of angst around the prospects of Christians in a new Egypt.

Signs of a deteriorating situation are not hard to find. Salafi Muslims and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt together secured 70% of the parliamentary seats in Egypt in the recent elections. Some Christians worry. Others, like Father Yuhanna Fu’ad, suggest that nothing can be worse than life under the Mubarak regime, and that Christians ought to think hard about what changes they need to make on a personal and communal level in order to make Egypt a better place for themselves and for all Egyptians. In his Christmas eve sermon (January 6, 2012) Father Fu’ad exhorts his parishioners (and YouTube viewers) that “the condition of the country will not get better if the condition of the Christians is not made right; not the opposite.” He makes Christians as responsible for change in Egypt as anyone else.

Prompting the protest at Maspero was a series of events, in late September 2011, in Upper Egypt. The commonly accepted narrative is that Copts in the town of al-Marinab were granted official permission to renovate their dilapidated church. Local Muslims were agitated by this renovation and argued, first, that the church was a private residence that should not be allowed to be built into a church proper and, secondly, that its bell-tower was far too tall and exceeded the officially permitted height. The authorities intervened, not by applying the rule of law, but by calling for a meeting of the parties involved. An agreement was made that the Copts would lower the bell-tower and not place a cross on top of it. Not long after, however, a group of Muslims torched the church (1).  Copts around the country were aware of these events. Some in Cairo decided to take to the streets in protest, leading to the bloody confrontation between protestors and the military on October 9th (2). 

How do we know that the protestors of October 9 were predominantly Coptic? We know this because protestors were carrying crosses, chanting Coptic hymns, and expressing Coptic grievances over the construction of places of worship. Official state television, moreover, explicitly announced to its viewing public that Copts were attacking the military and that good (Muslim?) citizens should try to stop them. Attempts by Copts to exchange their grievances as Christians, were met by the military’s response —the firing of live ammunition and running over of demonstrators with APCs. Mobs of Muslim men then roamed the streets of Cairo seeking out Christian blood.

The Coptic protestors killed by the ruling military on October 9 have been hailed by the Church as martyrs. By referring to them as martyrs, the Church proclaims that they were killed not because they provoked the ire of the military as protestors, but because they publicly confessed their Christianity. When images of these martyrs are made public, the martyrs continue to bear witness for Christ. In their death they become signs of the presence of Christianity in Egypt, not its disappearance. As one Coptic priest I know commented in reference to Maspero: “Our God is great and will not be silent.”

When Copts make themselves visible through expressly Christian signs—be they images, words, or gestures—those signs do not always make sense to Muslims. The power and meaning of these signs typically evade Muslim comprehension; they sometimes prompt apprehension. These are signs of difference and, therefore, potentially hazardous for the religious minority that articulates them in public. For Copts, however, Christian signs are meant not to communicate to Muslim Egyptians but to God and the saints.

The saints understand Christian signs perfectly well. They, moreover, are the ones with the power to help Christians. It is no wonder, then, that miracle stories have emerged from the Maspero Massacre and circulated within the Coptic community worldwide. It is said that the Coptic saint Aba Nub appeared above the crowds during the clashes. Another story (which came to me via a Coptic friend) tells of a young Copt who fainted from his injuries and bloodshed in the midst of the chaos. He came to, only to find himself being lifted onto a horse andtransported to a hospital where he recovered from his injuries. From the Coptic perspective, the rider of the horse was obviously the famed third century Palestinian Roman soldier Saint George (Mar Girgis). Shortly after the events of Maspero, the Virgin Mary appeared in Alexandria, where a particularly bloody year for Copts began.

On November 11, 2011, some Copts held a public commemoration of the martyrs of Maspero. A large group marched from the Coptic cathedral of St. Mark to Tahrir Square, the locus of the Egyptian revolution. Women dressed in white “pharaonic” robes carried large posters of the faces of each of the Coptic martyrs of Maspero. Each martyr donned a halo. They lined up together in a manner that formed the shape of a cross. Others in the march carried coffins and Egyptian flags. This latter group wore black shirts with a red ankh (the ancient Egyptian key of life) imprinted on them. The march was led by a young man carrying a large cross, like the ones used in Coptic church processions. Symbols of the march--such as color, flag, and ancient Egyptian iconography--build on and reinforce the view that the Copts are the authentic descendants of the ancient Egyptians and that Muslim Egyptians are guests in their country.

Egyptian Copts have often expressed a sense of racial purity in Egyptian society and, by extension, expressed their territorial belonging by linking themselves to the ancient Egyptians. The march articulated messages and drew on symbols familiar to the majority of Egyptians—mourning marked by black, patriotism signaled by waving the Egyptian flag, displays of the ankh as an ancient Egyptian symbol. But these same signs articulated messages that are expressly Christian as well—eternal life marked by white, and the key of life as a means of grounding Christianity and Christian identity in the Egyptian past and present (something that the pyramids, for example, cannot do for Christians).

Fortunately, no violence or conflict ensued on this day, but the publicity of this display marks a new boldness among Copts. That boldness is in many ways indebted to the masses of Egyptian men and women—Muslim, Christian, and everything else—who risked their lives in late January to oust former president Hosni Mubarak with the hopes of making Egypt a new and better place.

Conclusions

Egyptian Christians are staging a new meaningful framework for articulating their identity every time they publicly bear witness to their Christianity. In so doing, Copts are not simply objectifying their Christianity for the Muslim Other. For them, the Other who is the most perfect witness to such signs is God Himself. In the final analysis, the refusal to relegate Coptic Christian faith to a private sphere, and the potentially hazardous consequences of such a refusal, are both a political expression and a felt expression of faith that finds strength even in the face of death and martyrdom. In turn, this refusal makes Coptic presence in Egypt more visible and public. Importantly, it is thanks to the Egyptian revolution, which began on January 25, 2011, a revolution led by Egyptians of all faiths as well as those of no religious commitments at all, that such overt public confession of Christian religiosity has become commonplace.

By wielding signs of their Christianity, like the cross, Copts are challenging Islam’s hegemony in the Egyptian public sphere and attempting to introduce a new set of signs into an Egyptian discursive domain. This move is, in my view, a forceful introduction of signs that had long been rendered to the background of Egyptian public life. But these Christians are no strangers to the idea that even heaven has to be taken by force (3).

(1) This account comes from Tadros (2011).

(2) One report cites the bishop of Aswan (Bishop Hedra) as stating that the church did build beyond the acceptable limits and that there was never any intention of putting a cross on the bell-tower. He also said that Muslims did not attack the building. According to Bishop Hedra, then, the Copts were in the wrong. (Accessed November 15, 2011)

(3) “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12, KJV).