This morning I got a call from the Poynter.org editors, who asked: “Could you write a piece explaining Coptic Christianity?” The request comes as law enforcement identifies Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, being widely described as a “California Coptic Christian,” as the person behind a film that may have touched off some of the violence in Egypt, Libya and through the Middle East. (Note how tentative I am about who is responsible for the film and about how directly linked the movie is to the violence. We just do not know yet.)
First: There is nothing new about religious insensitivity fueling the fires in the Middle East. But do not miss this point: There is nothing about Coptic Christianity that leads believers to produce a hateful movie disrespecting the Muslim religion.
The Coptic Christians are another name for Egyptian Christians. Coptic comes from the Greek word for the ancient capital city of Egypt, Memphis. Along with the Egyptian Christian faith came a distinctive new kind of artwork that became known as Coptic art.
Christians have many connections to Egypt. The most familiar connection: The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to protect the child from being killed by a jealous King Herod.
The Nicene Creed, recited by Christians worldwide every week, has origins in Egypt.
The Coptic story goes that it was Saint Mark who ushered Christianity into Egypt not long after Christ was crucified. Followers believed that the move into Egypt was predicted by Old Testament scripture from the Book of Isaiah (19:19).
The Copts had a disagreement with other Christians about the divinity of Christ. Without getting too deep into the religious weeds, the core of the disagreement was about something called “the nature of the incarnate Word.” Copts believe Jesus was perfect in both his divinity and his humanity and that the two were never separate; he was always divine and always human. (Learn more about that if you have a spare weekend.)
Ancient fragments of Christian scripture have been found in Egypt written in Coptic, which was Egypt’s language at the time. In fact, a couple of hundred years into the Coptic movement, Christianity was Egypt’s main religion. Eventually Muslim Arabs would become the majority and for hundreds of years, really until the 1800’s, the Copts had a pretty rough time of it. They paid a special non-Muslim tax, for example.
Copts eventually gained acceptance and wealth until the 1950’s when Gamal Abdel Nasser took power, closed Christian courts, seized land and confiscated church property. Lots of Copts left Egypt, and now less than 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, according to the CIA Factbook 2011.
Copts had good reason to worry when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office. Mubarak reached out to the Coptic Pope once in a while, who in returned endorsed and campaigned for Mubarak.
Still, problems persisted. Coptic Christian churches have complained that building permits, for example, can be delayed for more than a decade for no particular reason. In November 2010, the State Department said, “Clashes between police and mostly Coptic rioters began over a church-building dispute and led to the deaths of two Copts.”
Post-Mubarak, things have gotten worse for the Egyptian Copts. In 2011, a car bomb killed two dozen Coptic Christians in Alexandria, the cradle of the faith in Egypt. The bombers were prosecuted. Still, since the revolution, U.S. officials have been hearing increasing stories of violence, especially against Coptic Christian women.
A month ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was increasingly worried about a rise in religious intolerance in Egypt. “Since 2011, and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased,” Secretary Clinton said. (Read the State Department’s annual Report on Religious Freedom.)
Since the revolution, there have been attempts to add a blasphemy law in the Egyptian constitution. Last month, a Copt teacher was arrested and right now awaits sentencing for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.
Even though the Egyptian constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, the U.S. State Department points out, Islam is the official national religion. Islamic law is the primary influence on Egyptian legislation and “all mosques must be licensed by the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf). The government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons. It does not contribute to the funding of Christian churches.”
This week’s violence
The movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” is just a backdrop for so many tensions. It is not a reason for the violence and hatred. It may be a spark, igniting an explosion that has been simmering, but even that is unclear.
Whoever is responsible for this video, if he or she is Coptic Christian, is no more representative of the faith than any other fringe element who acts under a banner of belief.