Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality

Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality

Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality

Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality

Synopsis

The Copts of Egypt are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. In recent years they have often figured in the news as victims of bloody attacks by Islamic militants. Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt is the first study of Christian identity politics in contemporary Egypt. S.S. Hasan begins by looking at how the Coptic generation of the 1940s and 1950s remembered, recovered, and imagined the ancient history of Christianity in Egypt in order to weld the Copts into a unified nation, resistant to the growing encroachments of Islam. She argues that this interpretation of history, in which Egyptian martyrs figure prominently, made possible the rebirth of the Coptic church and community-in much the same way as the preservation of Hebrew and the historical memory of Jewish tribulations served the purpose of national reconstruction of the state of Israel. The bulk of the book focuses on the period beginning with the consecration of Pope Shenuda in 1971. Drawing on extensive interviews with church leaders, clergy, and others Hasan finds that during this period the responsibilities of the church for the welfare of the Coptic community grew immeasurably. Church leaders arrogated to themselves the exclusive right to the political representation of their community and reconceived their role from the narrow care of souls to the promotion of economic and cultural efflorescence of the entire Coptic community. The leaders of this revival, she shows, have nurtured a potent and distinctive religious culture with a sense of communal pride and identity in an environment in which they were increasingly exposed to discrimination and outright hostility.

Excerpt

Though the problems faced by the Christian minority are for many Egyptians a taboo subject, there can be no doubt that the condition of the Copts steadily deteriorated, during the second half of the twentieth century, as Egypt was ineluctably drawn to the Islamic orbit. The Coptic Orthodox Church took upon itself the role of bolstering the battered self-image of Egyptian Christians as well as of equipping them with the values and skills that would enable them to succeed economically despite discrimination. That the church has been able to assume this challenge as well as to confront the danger posed by the resurgence of Islamic militancy, in the 1970s, is attributable to a reform movement known as the “Sunday School Movement.” This book is about a generation of Egyptian Christians, the “Sunday School generation,” part of the new urban middle class that surfaced in the 1940s and early 50s, with a reform project to reconstitute Coptic culture as well as to reinvigorate their community by upgrading its educational and socioeconomic level. They found in the church the main outlet for their reforming zeal and proceeded to use it as a safe haven, outside the reach of the Muslim state, from which to launch their project.

The Orthodox Church renaissance had its own autochthonic roots; it was not just a reaction to Islamic belligerence. It was a rebellion against the old church guard by the first generation of middle-class university graduates, an attempt to bring up to date what they had come to regard as a decrepit, venal, and obscurantist institution.

The radical restructuring of the Egyptian Orthodox Church and the simultaneous attempt at character transformation of the Coptic . . .

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