We’ve been talking about the Copts in Egypt all week, and I’ve learned that the experience of the Zebballeen I wrote about recently is not necessarily the average Coptic experience. Lest you get the wrong impression of the Copts, I wanted to revisit the topic.
In point of fact, Copts are more likely to inhabit the highest tax brackets. Despite being just 10% of Egypt’s population, Copts hold 20% of the country’s wealth. Much of it’s probably in the church’s coffers, which are heavily supported by money from the Coptic Diaspora. Like the Christians of Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, Copts tend to be better educated than a majority of their Muslim neighbors. In those other countries, this is because the British and French gave preference to Christian Arabs in the mandate period. In Egypt, the cause seems to be more like what makes Palestinians in Jordan or Jews in medieval Europe so economically successful. Because Copts have generally had a less than proportionate representation in government in the Islamic period, they’ve been pushed into the economic sector to support themselves. In any case, it tends to be easier for Copts and other Arab Christians to get visas and lucrative jobs in the West, and they send a lot of money home.
Things were arguably better in the 1920s, when Copts were 20% of the population and held as much as 50% of the country’s wealth. Since the revolution that launched the Republic of Egypt, Copts feel that their fortunes are declining. Though there are always a few prominent Copts in government, most of the community feels that they are increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised. One example they cite is that the Egyptian national curriculum requires all Coptic children to learn about Islam, but not vice versa. The history curriculum teaches about the pharaohs and all the Islamic dynasties, but skips the 6 centuries of Coptic history in between.
Coptic Egypt was a vital center of the early Christian world. Monasticism was invented here. The Coptic pope oversaw the First Council of Nicea that developed the Nicene Creed, the description of the basic fundamental beliefs of Christianity that’s still in use in the majority of Christian denominations. The strength of the Coptic community has waxed and waned over the centuries, but Copts flourished during the Fatimid dynasty, for example.
And of course there’s Boutros Boutros Ghali, my favorite United Nations Secretary General by nature of the fact that his name’s just so fun to say!