Christians in the Middle East have come under increasing pressure in recent years with the rise of radical Islam. Rugh examines Christians' response to these pressures in two Egyptian contexts: nationally, since independence in relations between church leaders and Egyptian presidents, and locally, in a community of poor Christians coping with sectarianism in a mostly-Muslim quarter of Cairo during the Sadat years.
The intensive study is based on five years of ethnographic research in the mainly-Muslim district of Bulaq during the Sadat years, looking at how Christians coped with sectarian pressures as well as existential questions about the role of religion in poor communities. MEI’s director of programs and government relations, Mark Scheland, moderated the discussion.
Rugh began by giving a brief history of Christianity in Egypt. The religion entered Egypt in the 1st century and spread rapidly throughout the country by the 4th century, resulting in the establishment of the Coptic Church in the 5th century. However, as a result of the Islamic conquest during the 7th century, only ten percent of the population was Christian by the 14th century. Under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, non-Muslim communities were allowed to govern themselves and lived under separate tax codes. But by the 18th and 19th century, the differences between Christians and Muslims intensified as waves of missionaries came to spread the Gospel. Today, Christians are estimated to be 10% of the population in Egypt, with an estimate of 16% from the Coptic Church. The Coptic Church currently plays the leading role in negotiating with the government and representation on Christian issues.
Rugh also discussed the impact of Islam in Bulaq. She emphasized the city’s center as a space for the Coptic Church to achieve its aims of protecting and ensuring the survival of the Christian community. The church created programs that provided religious, health, and education services to serve as a stabilizing mechanism for the Christian community. This also worked to prevent conversions and to promote harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims. Christians in Bulaq also drew and maintained boundaries around language, clothing, behavior, and marriage in interacting with Muslims while the government instituted formal means to keep Christians and Muslims separate through rules against proselytization and codes of personal status laws. At a personal level, Bulaq’s lower classes saw religion as a modest means to assess goods and services and as a way of conceiving their conditions.
In assessing relations between Egyptian presidents and Coptic popes, Rugh argued that most presidents in Egypt began their tenures with reasonably good relations with Christians and emphasized reassurances for protection. However, their support from the community dwindled when politicians found it expedient to take actions that harmed the Christian community. Rugh highlighted President Abdel Gamer Nasser’s land reform policies and President Anwar Sadat’s favoritism towards conservative Muslims and subsequent exiling of Pope Shenouda III as major points of contentions that fostered distrust from the Christian community. Despite President Hosni Mubarak’s act of reinstating Pope Shenouda III after the assassination of Sadat, the Pope’s vocal prohibition of Copts from taking part in the 2011 protests, left many of the laity disgruntled. As a result, many Christians left Egypt under President Mohamed Morsi. A majority of the Christian community express distrust in the current President, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, despite his reassurances of protection.
Rugh highlighted three main strategies Christians used to address issues at the local level and the national level: calibrating visibility, seeking protection, and withdrawing to exclusionary places. Christians had to choose between revealing and concealing their identities depending on the domestic climate, either stressing connections to foreign churches or to the local context as a means to advocate for protection on the national level. An alternative strategy was to encourage harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims, mainly through key community leaders who had leverage in both communities and with the popes. Withdrawal, however, became the expedient strategy as Islamists became increasingly prominent.
Rugh concluded with a number of remaining uncertainties, including the possibility of religious tolerance and the future role of church authorities. She also addressed questions from the audience, including the impact of the inclusion of Copts in the new parliament on Christian relations, relations between Coptic Christians and non-Coptic Christians, and factions within the Egyptian church.
Summary prepared by Tina Luu.
About the Author:
Scholar, Middle East Institute
Andrea Rugh has been a technical advisor for USAID development projects in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. She was a research associate at the Harvard Institute of International Development from 1987 to 1994, and worked for Save the Children and UNICEF in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1998 to 2002. Over a period of 40 years residence and work in the Middle East, she has written on local culture and society. Her latest books include The Political Culture of Leadership in the United Arab Emirates (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007), Simple Gestures: A Cultural Journey Into the Middle East (Potomac Books 2009), International Development in Practice: Education Assistance in Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (Palgrave-Macmillan 2012), among others.
Praise for the Book:
"Christians in Egypt is unique and essential reading for anyone desiring a deep, multidisciplinary understanding of today's Egypt. Rugh illuminates vital aspects of modern Egyptian society with rare empathy and insight, drawing on a lifetime of intimate engagement with Egyptians." - Francis J. Ricciardone, US Ambassador (ret.) to Egypt
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