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Common Assumptions and Some Clarifications

Before delving further into the discussion presented in this chapter, key terms and concepts need to be defined in order to dispel some common assumptions and misinterpretations.6 First, it should be noted that Coptism is not a religion. The term Copts (al-aqbat) has, historically, denoted all Egyptians. Coptism, or the state of being Coptic (al-qubtyah), does not to belong to a specific religious sect, but rather refers to Egyptians in general. In this chapter, however, the designation “Copts” refers to all Christians in Egypt. The term Coptism is used as a symbolic indication of Christianity.

Second, any focus on Egyptian Orthodox Copts to the exclusion of Protestant or Catholic Copts is predicated on the false assumption that the attitudes of the Catholic or Protestant Church are distinct on political or social levels from those of the Orthodox Church. It is true that the three churches certainly differ on doctrinal matters, and that unlike the Anglican Church, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches did not declare any clear support for the January 25 demonstration. But the variation in doctrine and degree of willingness to publicize the respective churches’ political views has not significantly influenced the groups’ political positions. As such, the foregoing analysis will simply focus on the Orthodox Church, which represents the vast majority of Copts.

Third, the Copts are not an insular, homogeneous group of people. Different social groups within the Coptic community vary in terms of both social standing and political engagement—they represent different social classes and espouse different political ideologies. Copts are found among peasant farmers and urban professionals alike. The only uniting characteristics among Copts are their nationality—they are all Egyptians—and their broad religious affiliation—they are all Christians. They have different interests, sociopolitical ideas, and biases and, accordingly, do not take a unified position toward public issues.

Fourth, it is important to distinguish between Copts as a religious group represented by the church and Copts as a social group enmeshed within the Egyptian national fabric. Since Egyptian Copts differ in their political, social, and sectarian affiliations, they cannot be treated as one cohesive group. However, a long history of internal religious tensions eventually leading to greater cohesion between the community and its official religious institutions has forced religious leaders to play multiple roles in defending the interests of the Copts as well as representing them in the public sphere.

Fifth, the terms Coptic group, Coptic issue, and Coptic question give an impression that Copts have a socioreligious system parallel to that of the Egyptian Muslim majority, who, it should be noted, are also heterogeneous in their politics and social beliefs. Also, these concepts suggest that Copts form a group that is currently in the process of transforming into a political lobby of religious affiliations.7 Use of these terms in this chapter is not intended to affirm either impression. Instead, this chapter is intended to both underline the heterogeneity of the group and more accurately describe its common features.

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