One might be forgiven for having missed it, but the Pope visited Australia in early September. He was here for ten days, from 30 August to 9 September, visiting adoring congregations in Sydney and Melbourne, enthused considerable Christian youth, and met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. But this wasn’t the Bishop of Rome; it was Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria—the 118th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt.
Coptic Christians began arriving in Australia during the early 1970s, following Egypt’s 1967 war with Israel. The first diocese was founded in Western Sydney in 1970, followed by a second in Melbourne in 1999. There are now some 70,000 Copts in NSW, and a further 30,000 in Melbourne, including a sitting member of federal parliament, Peter Khalil. Although their presence in Australia is obscured in the census by being listed as ‘Oriental Orthodox’ alongside Iraq’s Assyrians and Lebanon’s Maronites, the Copts are the largest Christian community still active in the Middle East.
Whereas the Vatican claims Episcopalian authority from the double apostolic succession of the disciples Peter and Paul, both martyred in Rome, the Copts claim authority from the lineage of the apostle Mark, whom they believe established a church in Alexandria, in 33 CE. Indeed, it was in Egypt that Christendom’s monastic orders first emerged, most famously at St Catherine’s monastery on Mt Sinai, and it was in Egypt that the Nag Hammadi Library was discovered in 1945, which proved to be of comparable significance to early Christian history as the much better known Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Alexandrian Church split from the Rome at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, in an inscrutably arcane dispute over the metaphysics of Christ. Two centuries later, the Arabs arrived with a new Abrahamic religion in tow, and Egypt steadily evolved into a multi-faith society. Muslims and Christians coexisted for centuries, and in 1919, Egypt’s nationalist Wafd Party protested British imperialism under a flag bearing a conjoined cross and crescent. Today, some 10% of Egypt’s 93 million inhabitants are Coptic.
However, burgeoning sectarianism has been steadily eroding confessional harmony since the 1970s, and has entered a higher tenor in recent years. A watershed moment occurred in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2011, when a bomb killed 21 Copts attending midnight mass at al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria. This heralded the violence to come.
Three weeks later, the Arab Spring erupted in Tahrir Square, and President Mubarak was replaced by an interim military administration. Images of Christians and Muslims protesting together inspired great hope for Egypt’s future. But this quickly dissipated. In May, a number of churches were burned in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba, then in October, 24 Coptic protesters were killed by security forces in Maspero.
In June the following year, Mohammed Morsi was elected president, but the violence continued. In April 2013, clashes broke out on the doorstep of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, during a funeral service for the victims of prior attacks. Pope Tawadros publicly criticised Morsi for failing to contain the violence, and on 3 July, the latter was ousted by Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in a military coup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the embattled Pope Tawadros endorsed al-Sissi.
However, the worst proved yet to come. In February 2015, ISIS militants operating from neighbouring Libya beheaded 21 Copts and declared war on Egypt’s apostate Christian community. Mokhtar Awad of George Washington University has suggested that ISIS may have been seeking to emulate Abu Zarqawi’s explicit efforts to foment a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq back in 2004.
Though falling well short of civil war, ISIS have indeed made distressingly good on their promise of violence. In December 2016, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo suffered a suicide attack. In early 2017, several Copts were gunned down in el-Arish, a small city in the Sinai, prompting much of the region’s Coptic community to flee westwards across the Nile. On Palm Sunday in April of this year, ISIS conducted a coordinated attack on St George’s Cathedral in Tanta, and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, and on 26 May gunmen summarily executed 28 pilgrims on a bus near the southern city of Minya.
The Egyptian government has responded in force. In 2015, President Assisi ordered airstrikes on ISIS training camps in Libya, and earlier this year announced a nationwide state of emergency in response to the Palm Sunday attacks. This was subsequently extended, and is due to expire in October. As a consequence, whilst Assisi’s administration has been roundly condemned for the brutality with which it came to power in 2011, and the persistent ruthlessness of the Egyptian security apparatus, Pope Tawadros has hailed him as a saviour.
Understandably, the Copts have adopted a siege mentality, and many are fleeing Egypt for countries like Australia. During his tour here, Pope Tawadros was forthright: ‘We are now in war against this terrorism and this violence’. The future of Christendom in Egypt is not hopeful.
John Goldie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.