The Islamic State claimed yesterday the killing, by beheading, of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. The victims had been kidnapped last month in Sirte. The jihadists say this is the IS's revenge for the unconfirmed deaths of a group of Muslim women in the hands of Copts. The Egyptian government reacted this morning by striking IS positions in Libya. But who are the Copts?
A several million-strong Christian community. The Copts are one of the largest religious groups in Egypt, second only to Muslims. Lower estimates place them at 5% of the Egyptian population, while the highest ones say they are more than 20%. Minority Rights Group believes their current number could now be somewhere between 5 and 7 million people. A historic Coptic community also exists in neighboring Sudan, and now also in Libya, as a result of emigration. They are Christians, mostly followers of the Coptic Church of Egypt. Coptic Catholic and Protestant minorities also exist.
Egyptians before anyone else. The word "Coptic" is derived from the Greek word "Aigyptos", i.e. "Egypt." The Coptic tradition says that Christian presence in the country dates from the 1st century AD, with the arrival of Mark the Evangelist to Egypt's Mediterranean coast. That is six centuries before Islam reached Egypt. In addition, Coptic, which is used today as a litugical language, descends from the ancient Egyptian language of the pharaohs. For these two reasons, Copts often claim they were Egyptians before any other community was.
Farmers, merchants, landowners... The Copts have traditionally held a number of occupations. Within the Coptic elite, small landowners and business people can be found, along with the most prominent members of the Coptic Church. Lower classes consist of peasants, labourers and farmers -including pig farmers, who use their stock in garbage recycling.
Violence intensifying since 1972. The history of the Copts in Egypt in the last 50 years has been tumultuous. For many Copts, 1972 marks the start of a worsening situation, as that year a church in Khanka was burnt. Since then, the Copts have undergone a number of massacres: 18 Copts killed in 1981 in Zawya el-Hamra, 21 more during the 2000 New Year in El-Kosheh, and 21 more as they were leaving a church in Alexandria in 2010, only to mention the bloodiest ones. To this, the burning of churches, monasteries and homes must be added.
Exodus to Europe and America. Insecurity and rife economic and political conditions in Egypt have led to a steady departure of Copts, especially towards Europe and North America. In the US there are at least 300,000 of them, while in Canada estimates range from 50,000 to 350,000. Tens of thousands are living in Europe, including the UK, Italy and Scandinavian countries.
(Image: St. Mark Coptic Church in Heliopolis (Egypt) / photo by Andrew Shenouda.)