Copts/Muslims- Just Say Egyptian (Historical Look)

Historic Reading of Muslim- Copt Citizenship Basis
Part 2
By Ramy `Ata Siddiq
Writer and Researcher- Egypt

Copts in Egypt
The Copts and their Church are greatly indebted to Muhammad `Ali and his dynasty for emphasizing the value of citizenship in the 19th century.

Translated by Ahmed El-Gharbawy

Tax Abolished

For his part, Sa`id Pasha sought to involve the Egyptian nationals in the government, consequently driving the Turks out of civil and military positions.

One of Sa`id’s great deeds was his abolishment in 1271 A.H. (approximately 1855 A.D.) of the tax on the Copts. On Rabee` Ath-Thani 29, 1271 A.H., he sent a decree to the treasury, wherein he stated:

Click to read part one of the series.

As it is always our commitment to deal compassionately with our subjects, and we did previously forgive some amounts payable to the government, we now forgive the real estate tax due on the protected Israeli and Isawi minorities. As a kind act on our part, we have dropped this and issued this order to you.

Moreover, on Rajab 16, 1274 A.H. (around 1858 A.D.), Sa`id allowed the Coptic youths to join the army, sending the following order to Ibrahim Bey, the governor of Assuit:

We have received your letters, dated Rajab 7, 1274 A.H., No. 24, concerning your request for permission to recruit Christian soldiers and accept the physically sound draftable youths in your provinces who have only slight white in their eyes or lack forefingers and thumbs. The interest requires that we accept the physically sound youths who are fit for military service even if they lack forefingers and thumbs or have slight white in their left eyes, while the right eyes are sound, and accept to recruit Christians for military service. This goes in line with our will. But this is conditional on your careful and meticulous examination of those who lack eyes or the said fingers to determine whether these disabilities are old or recent. Should the disabilities turn out to be recent, those who suffer them must be tried and given maximum punishment. So, quickly act accordingly.

Thus, the tax hitherto imposed on the Copts was abolished and they were allowed to carry the arms side by side with Muslims. These procedures coincided with the official trend toward greater reliance on Egyptians in the different state jobs as well as the army.

We recall here a remarkable patriotic stance by Pope Cyril IV (1854 – 1861), the 110th Patriarch in the Coptic Orthodox Church. It was rumored that the Patriarch, surnamed the Father of Reform, had asked Sa`id Pasha to exempt the Copts from serving in the army. In response to this rumor, the Pope declared his position outright, as follows:

There are some who claim that I asked the Pasha to exempt our Coptic sons from the military service. Never can I be such a coward person, who knows no value for patriotism and falsely ascribes to our dear sons the lack of love for their homeland and the absence of their inclination to serve and defend it duly. This is not what I did – or can ever – demand.

In a word, Isma`il was dealing with Copts and Muslims on equal footing as one people and one fabric.

Copts Are a Real Force

For his part, Khedive Isma`il, a grandson of Muhammad `Ali, decided publicly and officially to equate between Copts and Muslims. He nominated Copts for the Shura Council elections in their capacity as Egyptians. He also appointed Coptic judges in Egypt’s courts, and this coincided with the establishment of the modern courts. Thus, the judiciary became purely Egyptian and to which all Egyptians were subject, on the principle of the national unity. This was clearly significant in building the institutions of society on a national basis.

Isma`il had always believed that Copts are a real force that has a role to play in the advance and civilization of Egypt. Under his rule, there was no such distinction between a Muslim and a Copt or what is called superiority of one element to another. He truly believed in equality, and his policy incited patriotic people to serve their country properly and precluded schism among fellow citizens. It also prepared the nation for moving gradually toward constitutional rule.

In a word, Isma`il was “dealing with Copts and Muslims on equal footing as one people and one fabric. Had it not been for the foreign interference and influence in Egypt, along with the issue of debts, the name of Khedive Isma`il would have been associated with the project of the total independence of Egypt and consequently an Egypt for all Egyptians.”

Hence, the Copts and their Church are greatly indebted to Muhammad `Ali and his dynasty for emphasizing the value of citizenship in the 19th century. About this, Yusuf Manqarius – the first dean of the Seminary, established in 1893 – said that the 19th century saw “the spread of the banners of peace on the church and the flapping of the flag of complete security above its followers. People’s minds were enlightened and their manners civilized. Their religious fanaticism was rooted out from their hearts and the illusions of doctrinal bias were taken away from their minds. In this century, the Copts no longer recalled the oppression and injustice of Diocletian or Justinian, nor did they remember any more the transgression of Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, the Bahri Mamluk state, or the Circassian Mamluk state. This was natural enough, as they lived in the age whose dawn fortunately met with the star of Muhammad `Ali’s state, credited with many remarkable deeds and achievements that revived Egypt and restored its early rise.”

It was the 1919 Revolution that produced equality in all its aspects.
1919 Revolution: Route to Mass Citizenship

It may be noted here that even though some of the values and principles of citizenship were set by a decree from on high – granted by the ruler to the ruled, as an official start of Egypt’s journey of citizenship – a sort of (popular/mass/grassroots) rally began to emerge gradually around this principle.

It was the 1919 Revolution that produced equality in all its aspects – political, legal, and social. Under that new reality, everybody was enabled to practice their right to citizenship on the land of the homeland: Egypt.

As the conditions were ripe, people’s marches– as William Kilada put it – toward governance began, involving all the elements of the Egyptian national community, Muslims and Copts.

Hence, the national movement in the 1919 Revolution was remarkably distinct from the preceding movement led by Mustafa Kamel in that it moved from the general notion of Islamic unity to the specific – and limited – sense of Egyptian nationalism.

The revolution also revealed a significant reality, which is once there is a natural interaction between fellow citizens, Muslims and Copts – in a sound democratic atmosphere, without interference by the ruling regime – the concept of citizenship will soon grow firmer and clearer, as held by Mona Makram `Ebeid.

We can generally agree with the view of Samir Morqos, Famous Egyptian Coptic thinker-  that the Copts are not “a minority of newcomers or an isolated community, nor do they have a separate political project. They are citizens who went past the notion of ahl adh-dhimma (protected minority) on the ground.

Emphasizing the same view, Milad Hanna, Egyptian Coptic thinker, said that Egypt’s Copts “belong to the Egyptian land and soil just like the Pyramids and the Nile. Given their nature, history, and legacy, they cannot be but patriotic Egyptians. Like water and air, the presence of Copts is growing wider. They are standing side by side with their Muslim brothers in every place and situation.

This applies to the inhabitants of big cities as well as small villages, among whom there are highly educated as well as illiterate people, and wealthy and poor persons, ranging from workers, farmers, and craftsmen to professionals, businesspeople, and public servants. In short, it is a whole societal fabric of the Egyptian people in all its aspects – commendable and otherwise – which involves good as well as bad persons.

According to Egyptian thinker, Abu Seif Yusuf, Egypt is marked by two main traits – the harmony among the country’s fellow citizens, Muslims and Copts, and their awareness that they have a common fate and one homeland that cannot be divided. Also Tariq Al-Bishri rightly said, “Islam, on the one hand, and the Coptic Christianity, on the other – as well as the civilizational mixture between Muslims and Copts in Egypt – contributed to the formation of the historical, civilizational, social, cultural, and mental climate that led to the crystallization of the national concept of the Egyptian political community.”

Jan.25,2011, revolution, Muslims and Copts in Tahrir Square.

One Homeland and Common Fate

From the foregoing, we conclude that the unity of religion of the Copts did not make them a secluded community. Also, the difference of religion between Coptic and Muslim citizens did not stand as a barrier to their integration, mingling, and coexistence in their homeland—Egypt.

Copts are inseparable part of the fabric of the Egyptian society. They did not live in a world of their own, yet they melted in the crucible of the Egyptian society, engaging in its concerns, issues, victories, and defeats.

Copts took part in all social activities, following the example of their Muslim partners in the homeland. Thus, with all their different affiliations, Egyptians are living in one homeland and united by a common fate. Together, they reap the fruits of progress and advance and also face the same concerns and challenges.

Related Links:
Copts: Does the Word Refer to “Egyptian Muslims”?
Brotherhood Reassures Egypt Copts, Women
Egypt Christians Choose New Pope

Add comment

Security code