about the aptness of its ways. The clergy, of course, had once controlled practically all areas oflife in the community: religion, justice, charity and education among them. Their role was not only being increasingly questioned but had also been substantially diminished. They understandably felt threatened by the better educated and often articulate laymen. The clergy were not, whatever the reformers liked to believe, all corrupt unthinking reactionaries. They were, of course, interested in protecting their power, but many also hoped, by maintaining the church's ancient arrangements, to preserve the community's cohesion and religious character, for therein lay safety.
In 1881, several leading lay Copts formed a Coptic charitable society. This society equally played an important role in promoting reform. The end of the nineteenth century is characterised by the emergence of a variety of Coptic reform societies with branches in all major cities. The period after 1882 has been called the golden age of Coptic history: a dwindling minority in the mid-eighteenth century had swelled into an entrenched one of about a million by 1914. This striking advance of confidence and education manifested itself in an intense cultural activity. About a dozen Coptic journals and periodicals were founded, some of which still exist. Several literary clubs were established, also contributing to strengthen communal solidarity.26 These varied activities were possible only because they were founded on a solid economic basis. From the late nineteenth century until the land reform and nationalisation following the revolution of 1952, the Copts owned much good arable land and controlled an estimated three-fifths of all Egyptian commerce.27
These societies and journals not only aroused a new sense of awareness among the Copts of their distinctiveness as an ethnic-religious community, but also created - because Egyptian society was modernising - a perception of the economic and political interests which the community possessed in the nation. But because the Copts were a minority, their attempts to vindicate their rights only brought discrimination. The result was the first confessional crisis, when the Copt lay congress of Asiut of 1911, which expressed the claims of the community, was opposed by the counter-congress of Muslims in Heliopolis.28
26 B. L. Carter, The Copts in Egyptian politics, 1918-1952 (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 43-9.
27 T. Philip, 'Copts and other minorities in the development of the Egyptian nation-state', in Egypt from monarchy to republic: a reassessment of revolution and change, ed. S. Shamir (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 131-50.
28 Subhi Labib, 'The Copts in Egyptian society and politics, 1882-1919', in Islam, nationalism and radicalism in Egypt and the Sudan, ed. G. Warburg and U. M. Kupferschmidt (New York: Praeger, 1983), 301-20; D. Behrens-Abouseif, Die Kopten der agyptischen Gesellschaft von der mitte des XIXJahrhunderts bis 1923 (Freiburg im Breisgau: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1972); D. Behrens-Abouseif, 'The political situation of the Copts, 1798-1923', in Christians
Was this article helpful?