CAIRO – Egypt’s Copts, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, marked a solemn Easter this year, a week after suicide bombers struck churches in two cities, killing dozens of worshippers.
Pope Tawadros II presided over Easter Mass late Saturday at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, with several government ministers in attendance, but cancelled the normally joyous Easter morning celebrations out of mourning for the 45 people killed on Palm Sunday.
It’s a dark chapter in the history of a community that traces its roots back to St. Mark, an apostle of Jesus and a Gospel author. Tradition holds that Mark established the Coptic church just a decade or two after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which Easter commemorates. Today the Copts make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million people.
A look at Egypt’s Coptic community, its traditions and challenges in the Middle East:
WHAT COPTS BELIEVE
Copts believe in the Ten Commandments and practice sacraments such as baptism, confession and confirmation and the intercession of the saints. But the Coptic Orthodox Church split from other Christians in 451 A.D. over a dispute about the nature of Christ. Unlike Roman Catholics, they do not believe in papal infallibility or purgatory. They believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus, but not of the Virgin Mary. Their priests can marry.
Copts celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, meaning it falls on Jan. 7. The run-up to the holiday is marked by a 40-day period of fasting when red meat, poultry and dairy products are forbidden. Copts break the fast with feasting and celebrations after a Christmas Eve liturgy that ends near midnight. Easter is preceded by a 55-day fast where no meat, fish or dairy is eaten.
PERSECUTION IN MODERN TIMES
In modern times, relations with Muslims have been generally good, although changes started to come about since the hyper-nationalism of the 1950s stoked by military strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser. In Nasser’s drive to liberate the country from Western influence and purify the Arab nation, Christians — whose religion is more often practiced in the West — began to take on a less favorable light among the majority Muslim masses.
Many Copts consider themselves to be descendants of the ancient Egyptians, with a direct connection to pre-Arab times — hardly a view that made them popular in the days of pan-Arabism. As conditions in Egypt worsened following a series of Middle East wars, the Copts began an exodus. President Anwar Sadat’s overtures to Islamists and his addition of references to Islamic Law, or Shariah, to the constitution spurred on the departures, and millions of Copts live as expatriates today.
Although generally allowed to practice their religion inside Egypt, Copts face restrictions on inter-religious marriage and are banned from proselytizing to Muslims. Activists say Copts are discriminated against and kept from high office, and have campaigned to have religions removed from Egyptian ID cards.
TARGETED BY EXTREMISTS
While sectarian killings did happen as early as the 1970s, they have been mostly sporadic over the years, with the exception of the 1990s, when the state battled an Islamic insurgency and Copts faced some retaliation.
On New Years’ Eve 2011, a bomb in an Alexandria church killed over 20 people — the first major assault with a high death toll in living memory and a crime still unsolved to this day. Attacks picked up in the aftermath of the army’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.
Last December, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 30 people at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral. The extremist group pledged more attacks on the Christian minority, which it views as an ally of the West in a war against Islam.
In February, a series of murders and killings claimed by IS in northern Sinai led hundreds of families to leave the area for safer parts of Egypt.