The relationship between a state and any given religious group represents one of the more difficult aspects of the relationship between a government and religion: whenever a country adopts a religion, it will inevitably be put on a collision course with any citizens who do not belong to the adopted religion. The situation becomes more complicated still when the adopted religion takes up a prominent place in society.
With regard to the Copts in Egypt, we need to retrieve an old truism: the Coptic identity is not an exclusively religious identity. Even the word "Copt" refers to all Egyptians, being a corruption of the Ancient Greek Aigyptus, from which the modern name "Egypt" comes. The Ancient Greek word, in turn, comes from the Ancient Egyptian Hakaptah or "House of Petah", Petah being the Ancient Egyptian god of creation. With the elimination of the first two letters, the word became Gypt. Since the hard g does not exist in the Arabic language, the word became Copt.
More to the point, the Coptic identity even pre-dates Christianity, and the word itself was used to define all those who lived on the land of Egypt. Following the Arab conquests of Egypt in the seventh century CE, a new nomenclature was established: native Egyptians who embraced Islam were no longer known as Copts, but as Muslims, while those who stuck to the indigenous faith continued to be known as "Copts".
All notwithstanding, Coptic Orthodoxy remains the most important Christian faith in Egypt, having a patriarchal line stretching back to St Mark, and more possessions, followers and institutions than any other Christian group in the country. For this reason, this paper shall use the phrase "Copt" and "Coptic" to describe those Egyptians who are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a group which comprises 95% of Egypt's Christians. The Coptic Orthodox institutions are also the oldest surviving institutions in the entire country, having been founded around the time of the arrival of Christianity on the Nile.
Before going on to examine the relationship between the Egyptian state and the Copts as a religious group, we need to first distinguish the phrase "the Copts" in its religious sense, embodied by the membership of the Coptic Orthodox Church, from the idea of the Copts as a sociological grouping who have an unhindered relationship with the state.
One important consequence of this type of thinking is acceptance of the idea that the political positions of the Coptic Church do not necessarily reflect those of individual Copts. Given the diversity of Copts' societal and political backgrounds, it is impossible to view the Copts as a unitary, homogeneous group. Instead, there is a wide range of issues related to an individual's social status, educational attainment and personal awareness which lead to an identification with the Coptic identity.
We cannot overlook, however, how the political and societal turmoil of recent decades has led to a situation in which many individual Copts channel their interactions with the state and the public sphere at large through the Church leadership.
In the same spirit, we can distinguish two distinct blocs which come under the Coptic umbrella. The first represents both the "official" camp, including the organs of the Church, and the "traditional" religious elements; both of these look to the Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, for leadership. There is, separate from this wide group, a "secular" or "temporal" (some would say "rational", in Arabic aqlani) faction of Copts who are represented by various protest groups or individual intellectuals and political figures.
Our attention is thus turned to the question of the factors which gave birth to a common Coptic identity in opposition to the state. Have the Copts been compelled to adopt this common identification to resist the state's policies towards them as a group? Is it really true that the state has, since 2000, pushed the Copts away as a group, thus driving them towards a more insular self-identification? Did this increasingly insular attitude supposing it exists - have an impact on the otherwise calm and cordial relationship between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state? Or was the change in this relationship merely a reflection of a normal fluctuation, in response to extraneous factors? Is it also true that the Copts see in Pope Shenouda III a political figure who can present all of the grievances of Coptic Egyptians to the authorities? What contributes to the overall context of the discourse whereby the Copts adopt a Coptic identity? This paper will attempt to respond to these questions in line with the methodological approach presented below.
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