Religion: Egypt's Copts in Crisis

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The oldest Christian community fights for a tenuous security

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat cracked down two weeks ago on religious militants who oppose his regime, one of his targets was the Coptic Orthodox Church, the ancient Christian community that has survived in Egypt since its establishment by the Apostle Mark in the 1st century A.D. Sadat abruptly stripped the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, of his authority, banished him to a desert monastery, and ordered the arrest of some 125 Coptic clergy and lay activists. The world was shocked, but many members of the church hierarchy were considerably relieved. For at least a year, they had been concerned that the Pope's controversial leadership was leading the Christian community into serious trouble with Egypt's newly assertive Muslim majority. The climate of sectarian strife had resulted in several violent incidents in the past three months, including three days of communal rioting in a Cairo slum housing project that caused at least 17 deaths.

Father Matta el Meskin, one of Egypt's most influential Coptic clergymen, told TIME Correspondent Robert C. Wurmstedt last week, "I can't say I'm happy, but I am at peace now. Every morning I was expecting news of more bloody collisions. Sadat's actions protect the church and the Copts. They are from God."

From God they may have come, but Matta played a large part in their shaping. The abbot of St. Macarius monastery near Cairo, Matta was summoned to Alexandria by Sadat a week before the crackdown. Sadat and Matta discussed ways of defusing the looming crisis. Sadat asked Matta how far he could push Shenouda. The abbot says he outlined Sadat's limits in dealing with the Pope. When the ouster was decided on, it was Matta who submitted the names of five bishops who would collectively take over the Pope's functions.

Shenouda, 58, crowned ten years ago, was educated as a teacher. He served as an army officer in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and was then trained by Matta in the 1950s to become a monk. Shenouda, says Matta, is the best educated Pope in church history. But, he adds, "Shenouda's appointment was the beginning of the trouble. The mind replaced inspiration, and planning replaced prayer. For the first years I prayed for him, but I see the church is going from bad to worse because of his behavior."

Shenouda has led a religious revival that fostered the ethnic identity of Egypt's Copts as a nation separate from, and older than, the Muslim majority. Indeed, many Copts feel that they, and not the Arabized Muslims, are the true Egyptians, the descendants of the pharaohs. As they are quick to point out, "Copt" is the Arabi-cized, then Europeanized, form of the Greek word for Egyptian. Although the Coptic language is used today only in the church's liturgy, it was the language of Egypt until the 13th century.

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