Arabization of the Coptic Church

The Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 did not receive much comment in Christian writings of the time. Compared to accounts of persecution by Chalcedonians both before and after the Persian occupation (616-28), the Arab conquest seems a fairly innocuous event in Christian sources. As non-Muslims, the Christian population was liable to the poll tax, along with taxes on land and other obligations, so the rulers had no incentive to promote large-scale conversion. Many sources indicate that the post-conquest situation of the Church changed little for several centuries. Anti-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian congregations continued to compete, though the former remained much larger.

From time to time, oppressive measures against Christians were enacted: discriminatory laws, destruction of icons, and imprisonment of the patriarch. These measures were sometimes inspired by Muslim ideology; in the eighth and ninth centuries they were a response to rebellions by the Coptic Christian population. In particular, the caliph al-Mutawakkil forbade Christian processions, regulated Christian dress, and instituted other forms of discrimination. Such measures promoted conversion, which lowered poll tax revenue, with the result that the tax rate was doubled in 868. Thus conversion to Islam was the result of both economic and social measures, including clear persecution.

Rule by the Fatimids, from 969 to 1171, began with more favourable conditions for Christians, but soon was marked by the very worst period of Coptic Christian history: the reign of al-Hakim (996-1021). From 1007 to 1012 he persecuted Christians in numerous ways: humiliating dress, destruction of churches, confiscation of property and forced conversion (or execution). Many did convert, only to return to Christianity when al-Hakim moderated his position. But much damage was long-lasting; monasteries that had been attacked were now abandoned. Copts seemed to settle into minority status and the Arabization of Christianity in Egypt accelerated. The language shift is demonstrated by the production of Coptic-Arabic grammars and word lists. Translations of Coptic Christian texts into Arabic and original compositions in Arabic are numerous from the tenth century. Even the formal selection of Bohairic for the liturgy, by Patriarch Gabriel II (1132-45), signalled a step in Arabization: Coptic/Bohairic has become a sacred language. Few original Coptic compositions were produced after this. 'The Martyrdom of John of Phanidjoit' (thirteenth century, Hyvernat 1924) and the Triadon (fourteenth century, Nagel 1983) are examples.

The rule of the Ayyubids in Egypt (1169-1250) coincided with the peak of the crusades, which affected all Christians in the Near East. At first Copts were suspected of supporting the crusaders; as a result, Saladin (founder of the Ayyubid dynasty) razed the cathedral of St Mark in Alexandria. Muslim victories, including the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187, reduced pressure on the Copts. As hostile attention on the Copts eased, important restoration and redecoration took place in some churches and monasteries. Recent work on the Monastery of St Antony at the Red Sea has revealed a complete decorative programme undertaken in 1232-3.

The Mamluk regime held power in Egypt for a much longer period, 1251-1517, and was in general much harsher toward the Christians. The Mamluk rulers continued to make use of Christians in administration, though some labelled 'Copts' in records of the period were actually recent converts to Islam. Random attacks by the Muslim population and official destruction of churches brought the Christian community very low, and scattered Christian rebellions led to severe reprisals. This predicament led to several attempts to ally Coptic Christians (the anti-Chalcedonian group) with Rome. European merchants and Franciscan and Dominican missionaries were in Alexandria in the fourteenth and fifthteenth centuries; Coptic Christians travelled to Europe in the period. Patriarch Cyril III Ibn Laqlaq made the first gesture toward union with Rome in 1237. Nothing came of it, but as the Christian situation deteriorated, Patriarch John XI reached out to Rome again by sending a delegation to the Council of Florence in 1437. Pope Eugenius IV followed with a papal bull in 1442 proclaiming the union of Coptic

Christians with Rome, but it had no effect given the lack of effective connection between Rome and Christians in Egypt.

Contact between Rome and Coptic Christians continued, however, in the Ottoman period (1517-1798) as the Christian population declined to about 200,000 (10-12 per cent of the population). Negotiations took place at several points in the sixteenth century with the approval of more than one patriarch and pope. Finally, in 159 7, delegates from Alexandria signed a declaration of submission to Rome. But this lacked the support of the mass of Coptic Christians and never took effect. Other activities, by various Christian groups, began in Egypt at this period that had more lasting significance. Franciscans and Capuchins engaged in charitable and educational works leading to the conversion to Catholicism by some of the Coptic elite. Protestant influence began with the work of the German Lutheran Peter Heyling in 1632-3. But the Ottoman system of governance strengthened the hand of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, for the Ottoman millet system allowed religious communities to be under the authority of their own spiritual leaders. The patriarch controlled the management of church property and private laws governing Christians, such as marriage and inheritance.

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