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Ancient church struggles in Muslim Egypt

The Coptic Church faces uneasy, at times violent, relations with the Muslim majority in a country where the state religion is Islam  

February 24, 2000
Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EST (0435 GMT)

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II 's visit to Egypt is in part an attempt to forge closer ties to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the heirs of an ancient tradition.

Christianity in Egypt is almost as old as Christianity itself, brought to the country by St. Mark in the middle of the first century A.D.

For 600 years, until the 10th century, the Coptic Church was the predominant religion in Egypt. The Coptic Church is a quintessentially proud Egyptian church.

"We are not coming from abroad. We did not have Christianity come from the Catholic Church, from the Protestant Church," said Milad Hanna, Coptic scholar and author. "We are founders of Christianity, as Egyptians."

By the 10th century, however, the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam as Egypt fell under Muslim rule. Today, Copts account for somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of Egypt's population of 63 million.

In a country where the state religion is Islam and Muslim fundamentalism is on the rise, many Copts feel barred from playing a greater role in public life.

The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenoudah III, left, has tried to maintain relations with Islam  

"I wouldn't use the term discrimination, because it is not there in our constitution, and it is not there according to official laws," newspaper publisher Yusif Sidham said. "But it is there according to daily practice."

The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenoudah III, has tried to maintain cordial relations with Islam, but has been powerless to change the perceptions the Muslim majority has of his religion. And many Copts say Egypt's institutions are closing ranks against them.

"All the middle management of Egypt, they are mostly fundamentalist believers," Hanna said. "They are not part of any organization, but they are believers -- in the army, in the police, in the university, in the civil service."

Tensions between Muslims and Christians erupted into violence in early January in the southern Egyptian town of Kosheh, leaving 23 people -- mostly Christians -- dead. While most Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, condemned the killings, the incident raised concern around the country.

Copts fear that unless the causes of such violence are effectively addressed, the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Egypt could take a drastic turn for the worse.

"At the end of the day, this affects the minds and hearts of people," newspaper publisher Sidham said. "It is reflected in their behavior, and in their regarding (of) their fellow Coptic citizens as different citizens."

Pope, in Egypt, decries 'misuse of religion'
February 24, 2000
Peres: Dispute with Vatican won't affect pope's visit
February 16, 2000
Plans laid for pope's visit to Holy Land despite differences
January 29, 2000
Pope to make Holy Land pilgrimage in March
November 18, 1999
Pope lauds Shevardnadze's Soviet career during Georgia visit
November 9, 1999

The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt
Vatican: the Holy See
Egypt Information Highway
Egypt Government Online

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