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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Copts and Society: A quick look


The Copts and Society
A quick look
(This paper was written in 2008)
Introduction:
It has been 50 years since H. Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture – a classic text that has recently been issued by Harper[1]. In the book, Niebuhr basically addresses the question “How shall we, as Christians, live?” Niebuhr describes five different relationships between Christ and Culture (Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture).

This question of how Christians shall live in relation to culture is as relevant today as when the book was originally published. In fact, the question may be even more important for us living in Egypt.
Now, what we are looking for is to identify which one of Niebuhr’s five relationships applies the Christian Copts in Egypt and why.
The observers of the Coptic issue and Human Rights organizations states that the Copts withdrew centuries ago from cultural, community and political participation. It means Copts adopted: “Christ is against culture”.
But this fact has its backgrounds, and these backgrounds were justified Biblically by the Copts.
In other words, it wasn’t a Biblical interpretation that led to a social approach, but its external conditions that led to a social approach which had to be justified Biblically.
(Continue Down)


Backgrounds:
In Egypt, which has a relatively homogeneous population, the majority Sunni Muslim community and the minority Coptic Christian community form the two sides of the sectarian divide. Since the Muslim-Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century the Muslims have always been the dominant, and the Copts the subordinate group. Within the basic framework of “zhimmi أهل الزمة” status, which held until the mid-19th century, the Copts as a protected "people of the book" experienced many changes in their relationship to the Muslim community as periods of tolerance were interspersed by times of persecution.
The relationship between the Muslim and the Coptic communities in Egypt is obviously very complex and multifaceted, with roots lying deep in past history, and modern problems being clothed in traditional idiom.

The Coptic Church was the carrier of Coptic distinctiveness and survival over the centuries, and membership in it is a main marker of Coptic identity. The Islamic revival is paralleled by a Coptic revival, and the present Islamization of Egyptian state and society combines with growing discrimination to reinforce the politicization of the Coptic ethnic identity, the radicalization of Coptic organizations and a polarization between activist Copts and militant Muslims.
The Copts are committed to preserving their identity against the centralizing and digestive forces of the majority. Having experienced discrimination and hostility for centuries at the hand of the dominant majority, they developed a "battered minority syndrome", an inferiority complex of heightened sensitivity and repressed bitterness. Outward compliance to an order enforced by the majority and lack of participation in the political decision making process are keenly felt as humiliating. There is also an element of accumulated bitterness against their oppressors, a "them" versus "us" mentality.
The lesson of history that the Copts learned is to stick together against a hostile environment and compete for survival using all methods available such as adaptability, flexibility, skills, education, hard work, flattery, dissimulation, and deception. All become part of the complex consciousness of the minority group. Only by wariness, withdrawing inwardly into their own community with its spiritual and emotional resources, can they hope to survive as Copts.
Conclusions:
We can see now what led to withdrawal from the community and adopting “Christ against Culture” attitude.
Tarek Heggy a political researcher says: “The Coptic problem is that of pressure on a minority, intolerance towards others and a lack of acceptance of pluralism. The more Egypt is influenced by the Wahabi interpretation of Islam, the worse it is for the Copts”[2]

Some may argue that Christian in Egypt is trying to get out and participate and become more effective to the community, like rising campaigns for blood donating and orphan helping. This is a fact but it’s still made in small numbers and not from most of the churches.
Adel Guindy, a Coptic thinker says: “It’s also obvious that Copts must assume their responsibility in effecting the needed change through full participation in building a better Egypt and rid themselves of their (true or perceived) passiveness”[3].


[1] Chad Hall, Christians Effectively Engaging Culture, http://www.forministry.com, 2005
[2] Tarek Heggy speech to Adnkronos International (AKI), Italy Nov 2008, www.unitedcopts.org
[3] Adel Guindy, The Independent Copt magazine, volume 1, issue 1, July 2006, p.26

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