On July 18, 2008, Bishop Thomas - Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt - gave a lecture entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s largest Christian community during a time of rising Islamization”, in Hudson Institute. The Bishop talked about how the Arab invasion of Egypt in 639 A.D. has altered the identity of Egypt through Arabization and forced conversion to Islam, and the lasting impact on the Christian minority in Egypt. The Bishop said, “The Copts have been always focused on Egypt; it is our identity, it is our nation, it is our land, it is our language, it is our culture. But when some of the Egyptians converted to Islam, their focus changed away from looking to their own [language and culture]. They started to look at the Arabians, and Arabia became the main focus,” adding that, “if you come to a Coptic person and tell him that he’s an Arab, that’s offensive.
We are not Arabs, we are Egyptians. I am very happy to be an Egyptian and I would not accept being an “Arab” because ethnically I am not.” The Bishop went on to say, “that means shifting the identity of the nation, to belong to Arabism and to the widespread Arabic area …and this is a big dilemma for the Copts who kept their Christianity, or, I rather say, that they kept their identity as Egyptians [who have] their own culture, trying to keep the language, trying to keep the music, trying to keep the calendar of the Copts. That means the cultural issue of the old Egypt is still carried on. Meanwhile our fellow citizens, they dropped it for another culture, and now when you look at a Copt, you don’t see only a Christian, you see an Egyptian who is trying to keep his identity versus another imported identity that is working on him. These two processes are still actively working till now; it has never stopped because Egypt has not yet, in their own mind, been completely Islamized or Arabized, which means the process still has to go on.” The Bishop argued that the Egyptian culture has been taken from the Copts and attributed to the Arabs, that the process of Islamization is still on-going, and that the Christian child has “to study the history of the victorious Islamic invaders, and that means that as a little kid you have to praise the Arabic troops that came to your country.” The Bishop stated, “Fundamentalism started in the seventies, and all the leaders now are a product of this [movement].”
As he concluded his lecture, the Bishop emphasized the need to help the Christian Egyptians remain in their homeland, “We are worried about the large number of immigrants that are leaving Egypt, like all the Middle East, we are worried that the Christians are leaving this area. This is a big question mark and this is a big cry for help to let the Christians stay in their own country.”
The reactions to the bishop’s lecture were overly loud in the Egyptian press, as more than two hundreds articles and comments have been published, which, for the most part, attacked the Bishop and heatedly asserted the Arab and Islamic identity of Egypt.
Although the controversy surrounding Egypt’s Arabism was more intense in the first half of the 20th century, yet its tone was noticeably different from the current one. The majority of the Renaissance pioneers in Egypt at that time were Egyptian nationalists who were open to European modernism, and as a result, the debate maintained a profound intellectual and cultural quality. On the other hand, the disagreement on the Bishop’s lecture was mostly religious, and ended up with the Muslim majority standing on one side, and the Copts along with a small number of Muslim secularists on the other side. Thus, the reactions to Bishop Thomas’ lecture did not engender a serious intellectual discussion, as much as they reflected intense Christian-Muslim tensions, and the sorry state of what is supposed to be a cultural debate, as many of those reactions carried threats against the Bishop and the Copts, and were filled with allegations of national treason, and treacherous allegiance to the West, the United States, Zionism and Israel.
In the semi-governmental newspaper, Al-Ahram, the supervisor of the opinion section, Hassan Abu Taleb wrote, “the lecture is questioning the religion and identity of the majority,” next he issued a general warning, “if one says that the Church is strong because love is strong, another can reply that the mosque is also strong, and that the Egyptian state is strong as well in spite of all the problems it is facing,” he went on to threaten the Egyptian church, “If we consider that the strength of a religious institution is the only sanctuary, does that mean that this institution is making itself ready for a clash, and that it is working to procure outside help.. Take a look at the facts of our era, gentlemen, and look at the naïve Mikheil Saakashvili who imagined that he could count on American help to face the Russians, and then consider what the Russians did to him, so we would ask you not to think of yourselves as another Saakashvili” (1).
Al-Ahram, also featured an article for Abdel Azim Hamad, who exclaimed, “Bishop Thomas did not just deliver a leaden speech about Islamism, he also touched on the issue of language as a vessel for culture and identity, and suggested that the Arab language has been imposed on the Copts when he said that they were forbidden from learning their language.. The Arab language has never been imposed on anyone throughout the different stages of Egyptian history, and, likewise, Islam was never imposed by force… Bishop Thomas made a grievous error when he measured the desired dream of Coptic revival against the Jewish project of Zionist revival, which suggests a hostile tendency towards the Arab Islamic culture of Egypt, since the Zionist project is basically a racist, colonial project”(2).
Al-Ahram published a second article for the same writer, cautioning the Copts that objections against a pro-Arab and Islamic Egypt are, in fact, a serious deviation from the general nature of the national community and the State, “Bishop Thomas has turned the Coptic cause from a human rights’ issue to a cultural identity issue, from an issue of citizenship to an issue of nationalism .. Unconsciously, or perhaps consciously, he went against the Islamic and Arab general nature of the State .. eventually, this could lead to grave consequences that include reinforced feelings of isolation on the Coptic side, and alienation from the national community which possesses an Arab and Islamic character, and the worst possible sin, which is to incite hostile foreign powers against the Homeland, as well as what the Bishop has actually alluded to by calling for a Coptic revival in Egypt akin to the Zionist revival in Palestine” (3).
According to Islamic writer Fahmi Huwaidi, “ Bishop Thomas’ words destroy the basis of coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and eradicate the national community, therefore widening the existing gap between children of the same country; furthermore, they leave the door wide open for endless evils… and the danger comes from the fact that Bishop Thomas delivered his lecture in Hudson Institute, which is considered to be one of the New Thomas gave his lecture in Hudson Institute which is considered a New Conservatives think-tank” (4).The same writer added in another article, “Bishop Thomas’ talk is, in fact, a call for a divorce and a separation that fulfils the Israeli and American schemes, because when he considers that the problem lies in Islam and Arabism, he antagonizes, irrevocably, 94% of the Egyptian population…if his claim that the Copts have a different identity - like the Kurds in Iraq, the Amazig in Algeria, and the Beluch in Iran - is taken seriously, it would open the door to political sectarianism, and may be to what is much worse, and goes much further than that” (5).
“Islam Online” website launched a call to put Bishop Thomas on trial in much the same way as Saad Eddin Ibrahim (6). Former parliament member Gamal Asaad, who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, described the Hudson Institute as an “American Israeli Zionist center that is hostile to Egypt” (7). He accused Bishop Thomas of betrayal, and of being an agent for the Freedom House “It should be noted,” he said, “that Thomas is one of the principal agents for The American Freedom House that stood behind the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and for which Thomas received the Freedom House award which amounted to fifty thousands Dollars” (8). Asaad reiterated in another article, “The participation of Bishop Thomas in a Hudson Institute’s event is a first for a Christian clergyman of his rank, in an institute which has obvious ties to Israel” (9).
Gamal Asaad considered Thomas’ lecture to be a plot to sell the homeland to the United States and Israel, “The Americanized Thomas serves a basic and central cause, along with the likes of him who sold themselves to human rights organizations that fulfill the American – Zionist – Israeli agenda, [if we ask] how can that be, and what is the relation between Thomas’ talk and Israel? The relation can be found in the reports that claim Coptic persecution, as those organizations have admitted … and for your information, Thomas is the first Egyptian clergyman who asks openly for an intervention in Egypt’s affairs; Thomas’ claim of Coptic persecution, and his request for an American intervention are familiar means that serve the American plot to divide the region anew on sectarian basis” (10).
Writer Helmi al-Nemnem deemed Bishop Thomas’ actions to represent the other side of political Islamization, “the Copticized are the other face of the Islamized .. and Copticization is a parallel image of Islamization” explaining that, “the Islamized imagine that they can turn the clock back 14 centuries and stop there, while the Copticized dream of turning it back 16 or 17 centuries” (11).
Academician Zeinab Abdel Aziz commented on the lecture, saying that it consists of “provocative fallacies that are on the verge of stirring up sedition, the terms “Coptic legacy” and “Coptic art” are fake modern designations that were invented in the middle of the 20th century … afterwards, successive fictitious writings expounded on that topic in order to establish and glorify the concept of Coptic art and legacy … to sum up, Egypt was never Coptic at any time, and the Coptic language has never been the official language of the state at any age” (12).
Islamic researcher, Khaled Fahmy, described the lecture’s content as a “betrayal of Egyptian nationalism, a betrayal of the ethics of belonging, and an insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance” (13).
Said Abu Taleb, member of the group “Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination”, believed that the lecture expressed a “racial superiority under a religious cloak,” adding, “in fact, in the eyes of some, including Bishop Thomas and Magdi Khalil, the revival of Egyptian nationalism has been twisted into a source of religious or racial discrimination instead of serving as a basis to resist discrimination, being Egyptian has been reduced to being Coptic Orthodox“ (14).
Mounir Megahed, founder of the group “Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination”, described the Hudson Institute as “an institution known for its bias towards Israel and hostility towards all that is Arab, or Arab-speaking,” adding that, “the Bishop’s lecture is driving an intellectual and cultural wedge between the Muslims and the Christian Copts, picturing the latter as a prevailing minority, the remnants of the aboriginal population in face of a treacherous majority which have consented to belong to the culture of the Arab invaders” (15). Megahed also believes that “the most dangerous thing that can happen is to divide Egypt on a racial basis into Copts and Arabs, the Bishop has set a foundation for religious and racial discrimination that has the power to pull Egypt apart, and if this happens, God forbid, we will no longer have a homeland over whose identity we can argue” (16).
Salafi Newspaper “Al-Mesryoon” described the Hudson Institute as “the Zionist institute, one of the most prominent institutions belonging to the New Conservatives, and known for promoting pro-Israeli policies” (17).
Elaph featured a comment for researcher Sami Mahmoud that branded the Bishop’s lecture “an ignorant, racist call,” adding “they [the Christians] gave us a headache with their repeated feeble claims that the Christians of Egypt are descendents of the Pharaohs, while the majority of Muslims originated from the Arabian Peninsula¾only a person destitute of logic and proof would promote such goods.. Does the problem with Arabic lies in the fact that it is the linguistic vessel for Muslim writers, and consequently it is targeted as a means to target Islam even if indirectly?” (18).
Academic researcher Samer Soliman commented, “I am an Arab, and so is Bishop Thomas, Egypt’s Arabism is an irrefutable truth, denying it is like denying that the sun rises from the East or that Egypt is located in Africa.” He then asked “So, is Bishop Thomas hostile to Arabism because it happens to be the language of the Arab invaders who ruled Egypt for a period in time? Doesn’t he realize that the language he used to deliver his lecture has displaced the languages of the aboriginal populations of North America? Doesn’t he realize that this obliteration did not happen as a result of subjecting these populations to certain pressures as was the case in Egypt, but rather through the genocide of the people who spoke those languages? Today, Arabic is Egypt’s mother tongue, and the Egyptian Christians are Arabs by means of speaking the Arabic tongue, and if any of them wishes to be rid of his Arabism, then he will have to remove his tongue with his own hand” (19).
The reactions were not limited to written comments and threats, but went much further when three Egyptian attorneys – Adel Badawi, Mahmoud Sabet and Mohamed Gomaa – sent a warning to Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Egyptian church, asking him to punish Bishop Thomas (20).
A group of Egyptian intellectuals signed and published a statement that censured the Bishop, proclaiming that the lecture is leading to a rise in sectarian tension (21).
A dangerous and extreme reaction came from a Muslim cleric, sheikh of Al-Rahma mosque in Al-Qusia. In a speech during “Friday’s prayer”, he attacked Bishop Thomas, accused him of advocating the ejection of Muslims from Egypt, and of being a treacherous agent who works for the American enemy like General Yacoub who worked for the French Occupation. He threatened to use violence against the Bishop and the priests who assist him, exclaiming, “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …My helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor.” The speech was recorded and appeared on several Coptic websites (22).
On the other side, a number of secular Egyptian writers – Muslims and Christians – spoke in defence of Egypt’s identity and the notions expressed by Bishop Thomas that emphasize the Egyptian rather than the Arab-Islamic identity of Egypt. They also defended his right to practice full freedom of thought and expression.
Researcher and political commentator, Magdi Khalil, stated that the aggressive reactions are meant to intimidate both the Copts and the free thinkers, “The real purpose is to reject the notion of a civil Egyptian state that endorses the separation of religion and politics, and to try to obliterate the Egyptian history, civilization and legacy that have lasted for thousands of years before the Arab invasion.” He considered this to be a new form of colonization, as he added, “The Arab occupation ended centuries ago after managing to establish – through the Islamic Caliphate – the foundations of a racist and religious state that places religion above the motherland, with ensuing consequences that are truly frightening, and now Egyptians are persecuting one another …. The identity of Egypt is Egyptian and those ridiculous threats hold no weight for the free and objective thinkers” (23).
According to Khalil, “the Copts are the guardians of the Egyptian identity, along with many of our secular Muslim brethrens, because we all belong to the same motherland with its history, glory, identity and future, even if it is lying beneath a thick layer placed by some, in an attempt to wipe out its identity and spirit, and falsify its history; the Copts, inside and outside of Egypt, are being insulted and accused of various accusations because they are determined to hold on to their identity and take pride in it,” he added, “the Egyptian State is primarily and directly responsible for the religious obsession and Islamization, and for the violence associated with this trend that has been going on for several decades, the Egyptian State and its apparatuses are involved, whether directly or indirectly, in most of the violent incidents against the Copts, and in the current surge of religious obsession and Islamization in Egypt” (24).
Khalil is of the opinion that “The Copts are being punished for their patriotism; they are being subjected to intellectual and physical intimidation in order to silence their voices, so that they would not dare to challenge the fake constants that have been forced on Egyptians under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate State” (25).
Researcher Adel Guindy commented on the reactions to the Bishop’s lecture, saying that “few of them could be described as rational, while most of them were highly hysterical, displaying an unjustified and inexplicable hostility, or perhaps it is explicable, since it touched on some forbidden taboos. The issue of religious discrimination in Egypt is fuelled by ideological, historical and cultural roots, and that applies for rulers and ruled, educated and uneducated alike; our history is filled with myths, lies and even with idols that must be worshipped” (26).
Researcher Emad Gad observed, “the writers who speak for the authorities, and the followers of Wahabism in Egypt consistently resort to the use of intimidation and bullying in their articles and speeches on two occasions: the first being rather limited and marginal, and is in response to the demands of the champions of change and political reform who are calling for increased civil and political freedoms, while the second involves prompt reactions to the Coptic demands of equality, and particularly as related to citizenship … the main purpose behind this intimidating language is to terrorize the Egyptian Copts, and to put an end to their quest for equality and full citizenship rights, and in that instance, the writers speaking for the authorities join with the various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood as they both opt for an Islamized State, and partial citizenship for the Copts” (27).
Writer Mahmoud Al-Zuheiry commented, “I read the text of the lecture delivered by Bishop Thomas, and found no fault with the lecture that would justify an attack against the man; what the Bishop said was very disturbing for some people who do not make a proper distinction between Arabism, citizenship and Islam, because they have turned religion into a nation, made Arabism an integral part of religion, without which it can not be complete, and made the deeds, words, biographies and history of Muslims part of religion” (28).
Writer Hassan Khalil stated, “I am fully entitled to write in Arabic and to say that I’m not an Arab, there is no contradiction here, as there is no contradiction for a Kenyan who says I’m not British or American. Since we have lived for long centuries with Arabic we took possession of the language as Taha Hussein has previously explained.. The Iranian Sibawayh Who devised the grammatical rules of Arabic is not the only one to claim its ownership, as we are also owners of this language which has served for so long as a vehicle for our history and thoughts… we are Egyptians, whether we like it or not, we are not Arabs no matter how long we speak Arabic, and regardless of the neighbourly relations that bind us to the Arabs” (29).
Thus, the reactions to Bishop Thomas’ lecture in the Egyptian press revealed the heightened tension between Muslims and Christians, and between secularists and Salafi fundamentalists in Egypt; they have clearly demonstrated that the fundamentalist current is the mainstream in Egypt whether at the level of the authorities or in the street. The mainstream in Egypt is hostile to the United States, Israel, the West and Secularism, and is in favour of maintaining the status quo of the Copts as second-class citizens. The reactions revealed what was already known to those who follow the Egyptian affairs closely, and what many have been predicting as regards the future prospects of Egypt, which is edging its way, rather quickly, towards a religious Islamic state.
Hassan Abu Taleb, Al-Ahram newspaper: “Egypt’s Arabism a fate and destiny”, August 20, 2008.
Abdel Azim Hamad, Al-Ahram newspaper, August 11, 2008.
Abdel Azim Hamad, Al-Ahram newspaper, August 18, 2008.
Fahmi Huwaidi, Al-Dostor newspaper: “A stab against the national community”, August 23, 2008.
Fahmi Huwaidi, Al- Dostor newspaper:“There are conditions for co-existence”, August 26, 2008.
Sherif Al-Dawakheli, Islam Online: Egyptian thinkers, why isn’t Bishop Thomas put on trial like Saad Eddin Ibrahim?” August 27, 2008.
Gamal Asaad, Al- Dostor newspaper, August 20, 2008.
Gamal Asaad, Rosa-Al-Yousef magazine, August 2, 2008.
Al-Ahrar newspaper, August 4, 2008.
Gamal Asaad, Al-Mesryoon newspaper: “The hidden ideas in the Thomas’ plot”, August 26, 2008.
Helmi al-Nemnem, Almasry Alyoum: “The Copticized and Copticization”, August 7, 2008.
Zeinab Abdel Aziz, Al-Mesryoon newspaper: “About the Coptic issue”, August 18, 2008.
Khaled Fahmy, Muslim Brotherhood website: “Bishop Thomas and the hatred industry”, August 27, 2008.
Said Abu Taleb, El-Bdeel newspaper, September 8, 2008.
Mounir Megahed, El-Bdeel newspaper: “Remarks on Bishop Thomas’ lecture”, August 9, 2008.
Mounir Megahed El-Bdeel newspaper, August 10, 2008.
Al-Mesryoon newspaper, August 19, 2008.
Sami Mahmoud, Elaph newspaper : “Egypt is not to be punished for its Arab and Islamic identity”, August 29, 2008.
Samer Soliman, El-Bdeel newspaper: “I am an Arab and so is Bishop Thomas”, August 24, 2008.
Almasry Alyoum newspaper, July 31, 2008.
Almasry Alyoum newspaper, July 26, 2008.
Several Coptic websites broadcast the tape of Sheikh Saad Farag speech, including the “Free Copts” website., August 27, 2008
Magdi Khalil, Elaph newspaper: “Egypt for the Egyptians .. Egypt is Egyptian”, August 25, 2008.
Magdi Khalil, Al-Dostor newspaper, August 15, 2008.
Magdi Khalil El-Bdeel newspaper: “The dilemma of Egyptian identity”, August 25, 2008.
Adel Guindy, Al-Ahaly newspaper: “An attempt to settle the argument about the Bishop’s lecture.”, August 20, 2008
Emad Gad, El-Bdeel newspaper: “Citizenship and bullying”, August 31, 2008.
Mahmoud Al-Zuheiry, “Modern Discussion: Arab legacy and the lecture of Bishop Thomas, where does the fault lie?” August 4, 2008.
Hassan Khalil, Website of “Egyptians against Discrimination”, August 20, 2008.
Executive Director of the Middle East Freedom Forum