Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church, by Theodore Hall Patrick. Greensboro, NC: Fisher Fork Press, 1996. Xiv plus 226 pages, bibliography and index. $14.95, paper.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Bat Ye'or's study is that it is not only about Eastern Christianity under Islam but also about Judaism in equal if not greater measure. Thus the title is misleading, and the basic premise of her text is flawed since the two communities had virtually no contact with each other in traditional Islamic society (both dealt directly with their Muslim rulers) and, while both were regarded as dhimmis or protected citizens, they tended to be treated quite differently. The Jews were viewed much more benignly, being very few in overall numbers and having no contacts with a power base outside the boundaries of Dar al-Islam. The Christians however, and especially the Orthodox among them, represented the enemy- a fifth column with ultimate loyalties to the Byzantine Empire, which, until the era of the Crusades, embodied the principal enemy of the "Dar al-Harb" or the lands which were to be subjected to Islam by force if necessary and which in tum had irredentist designs on the Dar al-Islam. Moreover, as Jews in the Christian world were treated far worse (as "Christ-killers," a term of opprobrium which was incomprehensible from the Islamic view of Jesus) than under Islamic rule, they could be counted on to cooperate with their Muslim rulers in containing and even suppressing their Christian neighbors when asked.
To treat the history of Eastern Christianity in tandem with that of the Jews in the Islamic world is, therefore, futile. But Judaism is obviously of paramount concern for the author, a Jew herself and presumably from the Arab world (her pseudonym, Bat Ye'or, in Hebrew means "Daughter of the Nile"). Her clear purpose is to undermine the widely-accepted view in Western scholarly circles of Muslim tolerance and replace it with the more popularly held belief, now being propagated in the West by Israel and its Fundamentalist Protestant Christian allies of Muslims as religious fanatics bent on taking over the world and subjecting Western women to their patriarchal will. Arabs are "uncouth" and "stirred by their profound belief and the conviction of belonging to an elite nation superior to all others" (p. 52).
How curious this view is, especially considering the fact, cited by the author, that "with the advent of the Abbasids (750)...non-Muslims still constituted a majority in the Arab Empire" (p. 63). Christians, in fact, continued as the majority community in the provinces of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent until the coming of the Crusaders, four and a half centuries after the first Muslim conquests. It was the conflict between Eastern and Western Christianity, stemming from the Catholic-Orthodox schism in the eleventh century which further weakened and divided the Christians of the Arab world and hastened the gradual conversion process of many to Islam. As the author herself admits (p. 126), "it seems likely that the different communities destroyed themselves by the intensity of the hatred and fanaticism which set them against each other even before the advance of Islam." Moreover, as she further points out, "As factors of Islamization, one should also add the Koranic religious Jaws which allowed men to possess four wives simultaneously, and unlimited number of concubine slaves, and to divorce at will...[while] Christian monogamy, on the other hand, the prohibition of divorce, and the various procedures used to Islamize Christian children inexorably led to a demographic reversal. The massive waves of conversions following the wars and conquests accelerated this movement" (pp. 135-6).
On what grounds, therefore, can she pretend to wonder, on p. 251, "how the proportions were reversed and the Peoples of the Book were reduced in most places to tiny minorities?" Finally she concludes, "in their usurped history, the profound sense of dhimmitude is revealed: obliteration in non-existence and nothingness" (p. 265). At this point one begins to wonder how she could explain the existence today of I0-15 million Arab Christians. The fact is she doesn't. We are told (p.218) of "the destruction of Lebanese Christianity." Nonsense. That the power of the Maronite minority has been reluctantly shared more fairly with Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon is a fact, but there has been no "destruction." Likewise the Christian (and of course, Jewish) communities of Mesopotamia have been "destroyed" according to her (p. 199), whereas in fact the Jews have emigrated to Israel and points west, and the Christians are still there in large numbers (anywhere from 500,000 to one million). The Umayyad and Abbasid periods, we are told, "extinguished Eastern Christianity" (p. 202).
Such inaccurate - and it can be nothing less than deliberate - hyperbole culminates in the author's conjuring up the specter of "the dhimmitude of the West" (p. 217) or that somehow by "the psychological impact of intellectual terrorism" (whatever that is), the West has "entered into a phase of dhimmitude without realizing it" (p. 219). "It is of course futile," she continues, "to attribute to Israel responsibility for the resurgence of traditional Islam, as certain Eastern Christians do" (p. 215). Yet this is the very crux of the Eastern Christian plight today. The precariousness of their position has been greatly exacerbated by the Islamic Fundamentalism that the heavy-handed Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory has provoked. And the greatest threat to Christianity in the Holy Land comes not from Islam but from the thinly-disguised efforts of the Israeli government to force Christians, as well as Muslims, out of Jerusalem. It is typical of the author that on p. 76 she includes a photograph of the Kfar Bar'am synagogue in Galilee. Kfar Bar'am is the site of a large Maronite Christian village that was forcibly evacuated and then destroyed by the Israeli army in 1948 and whose former inhabitants, most of them Israeli Arab citizens, are still forbidden to return. There are, in addition, three other illustrations of synagogues and another four of Jewish subjects (including the Wailing Wall), which have nothing to do with Eastern Christianity.
The general tone of the book is strident and anti-Muslim. This is coupled with selective scholarship designed to pick out the worst examples of anti-Christian behavior by Muslim governments, usually in time of war and threats to their own destruction (as in the case of the deplorable Armenian genocide of 1915). Add to this the attempt to demonize the so-called Islamic threat to Western civilization and the end-product is generally unedifying and frequently irritating. The English translation is also replete with unintentionally humorous turns of phrase, such as the reference to the Ottoman Empire in World War I as a "corpse" (p. 203) or, on p. 163, as "decomposing" in the nineteenth century, when it was very far from dead. The Armenian Orthodox or Apostolic Church is referred to, mistakenly, as "monophysite" throughout the book. Although the Armenians refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon of 451, since none of their bishops were in attendance, they did not adopt the monophysite heresy that it condemned. And it is silly to see in the occasional place-name change that occurred over many centuries a somehow sinister "Islamization of geography" (p. 240). Such moments of amusement do not begin to compensate for the sterility of the overall message. It has all been said before sometimes with less venom, less frequently with more but overall, offers nothing new or worthwhile.
By way of contrast, Theodore Hall Patrick, an Episcopal clergyman, has put together a very thorough, accurate and dispassionate overview of the history and present condition of the Copts of Egypt, who are the largest surviving Arabic-speaking Christian community in the Middle East. Geographically confined to Egypt and theologically isolated from the rest of Christianity following their adoption of monophysitism after 451, the Copts have only recently begun to attract the attention of the West, especially since substantial numbers began to emigrate to Europe and North America 25 years ago.
The book divided into eleven chapters, the most substantial of which are the final two dealing with the twentieth century. The first four concern the period up to the Arab conquest in 641 and the remaining five with the period 641-1882, when Copts were ruled by traditional Islamic governments. The material covering the early church and the internal struggle over doctrine and heresies is particularly well-handled. The author is completely at ease when considering the complex issues that eventually led to the separation of the patriarchate of Alexandria from the rest of Christendom and the development of the world's first "national" church. The strong attachment of the Egyptian people to their own liturgy and hierarchy is undeniably the main reason that Copts managed to survive in large numbers into this century while disappearing elsewhere in North Africa quite early in the Islamic period and in Nubia (in the south) in the late Middle Ages.
Following the fall of Nubia to Islam, the Coptic population declined rapidly in numbers. In the fourteenth century, "Conversions to Islam, always a steady trickle, now became a flood, and even regions like Upper Egypt...became in majority Muslim" (p. 97). Under Ottoman rule the decline continued, but the Napoleonic invasion in 1798 and subsequent French occupation "wrenched the depleted forces of both the Egyptian nation and the Coptic Church into contact with the most powerful dynamics of the modem world, whether economic, technological, cultural or political. The results were amazing" (p. 119), and have been termed "a Coptic Renaissance." Muhammad Ali, who succeeded the French, saw in the Copts a valuable national resource and a handy tool for promoting both internal progress and closer ties with Europe. As the British missionary William Jowett observed in 1824, the Copts have "been found, at all times, too useful to be extinguished" (p. 126). And useful they prove themselves to be also to Muhammad Ali's successors and the British rulers after 1882.
The first to profit from educational missions from the West, the Copts began to rise to positions of importance in the economy, the bureaucracy and even higher levels of government. Early in this century, Lord Cromer's successor, Eldon Gorst, named Butros Ghali as prime minister, and though he was soon afterward assassinated by a Muslim fanatic, Copts continued to play a vital role in intellectual and political life of the country, particularly in the Wafd party, the main vehicle of Egyptian nationalism and independence.
At the same time, they began to root out corruption within the church itself, improve the standards of education for the priesthood, and revive the strong tradition of monasticism, a "vocation [which] still has a powerful appeal for many Copts" (p. 173). "The great turning point for the Coptic Church," the author informs us, "was the 1959 election and consecration of Coptic Pope [patriarch] Cyril VI," which has led to an "ongoing revival in the Coptic Church," largely due to the strong leadership of his successor, Shenouda lII, elected in 1971. His has been a difficult reign, particularly as it has come at a time of rising Islamic fundamentalism, many leaders of which have specifically targeted Egyptian Christians. It has always been vaguely embarrassing to Egypt's Muslim establishment that many millions of Egyptians still profess Christianity in a country that would like to see itself as the natural leader of the Arab, and by their definition, Islamic world. But Shenouda refused to be cowed by threats and even imprisonment by President Sadat in 1980, when he was forced to return to his monastery under effective house arrest. Other Coptic clergy went to prison for Sadat's ludicrous charge of “conspiring to erect a separate Christian state in Upper Egypt" (p. l 72).
The final chapter provides considerable insight into the difficulties Copts face in Egyptian society. Although they are on average more prosperous and better educated than the Muslim majority (this is especially true, as one might expect, of the women), and make up a disproportionate percentage of the middle class, there are still large numbers of poor rural Copts whose villages are, if anything, dirtier than the Muslims' by virtue of the pigs they keep. Cairo's garbage collectors are almost entirely Copts from villages in Upper Egypt who eke out a desperately poor and unhealthy existence amidst giant mounds of rubbish on the outskirts of the city. Substantial numbers of the intellectual and financial elite have emigrated, some temporarily, many permanently. Still the Copts continue to thrive in the face of hostility from the extremist Muslim element in Egyptian society, and, despite emigration and the occasional conversion for purposes of divorce or career advancement, to grow in numbers. They are, like all Middle Easterners, deeply attached to their land and their society. The author has done his subject justice in portraying the history of the church and society with a clear, objective and focused study. Both the organization and style are first-rate. Anyone with an interest in Egypt, the Middle East, and minority survival will read this book profitably.