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THE COPTS IN THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA 1911

October 11, 2017

The 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is one of its greatest. It is now available free online, and one can still benefit from reading its various articles. It has a section on the Copts under the title ‘Copts’. It was written by the English historian and Coptologist Alfred Joshua Butler who wrote two great books, The Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902) and The Ancient Churches of Egypt (1884).

The article is long, and I advise my readers to read it online. I am, however, interested in the last section of it under the title ‘Present state of the church’. With all due respect to the great Coptologist, I don’t think it is adequate, even though it was written in 1911. I include the relative section below:

The British occupation of Egypt profoundly modified Coptic religious life. Before it the Copts lived in their own semi-fortified quarters in Cairo or Old Cairo or in country or desert Dairs (Ders). Walls and gates were now thrown down or disused: the Copts began to mix and live freely among the Moslems, their children to frequent the same schools, and the people to abandon their distinctively Christian dress, names, customs and even religion. Freedom and prosperity threatened to injure the Church more than centuries of persecution. Many of the younger generation of Copts began openly to boast their indifference and even scepticism: in the large towns churches came to be too often frequented only by the old or the uneducated, confession and fasts fell into neglect and the number of communicants diminished; while the facility of divorce granted by Islam occasioned many perversions from among the Copts to that religion. On the other hand the necessity of resistance to these tendencies and of reform from within was strongly realized. Unfortunately, the institution of a lay council of eminent churchmen, which has been formed for the patriarch and for every bishop in his own diocese, has led to prolonged struggles and on one occasion to a serious crisis, in which the patriarch and the metropolitan of Alexandria were for a while banished to the desert. A principal object of these lay councils is to control the financial and legal powers vested in patriarch and bishops—powers which have often been greatly abused. Other objects are (1) to provide Christian religious education in all Coptic schools and to raise these schools to a high standard in secular matters; (2) to promote the education of women; (3) to apply church revenues to the maintenance of churches and schools and to the better payment of the clergy, who are now often compelled to live on charity; (4) to ensure prompt administration of justice in ecclesiastical causes such as divorce, inheritance, &c.; and (5) to establish colleges for the efficient training of the clergy. Educated Copts remember the time when the church of Alexandria was as famous for learning as for zeal. They desire also to resist the serious encroachments of Roman Catholic, American Presbyterian, and other foreign missions upon their ancient faith.

Two things are of interest here:

First, Butler speaks about the impact of the freedom that the Copts enjoyed since the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 in a negative way: “Freedom and prosperity threatened to injure the Church more than centuries of persecution”. He forgets the flowering of the Church and the cultural life that followed 1882. Although some of what he has mentioned is correct, the positive effects of the British occupation on the Copts have been greater than its negative effects. Copts were treated equally with their Muslim co-patriots, churches and monasteries were built and repaired freely, schools built, books and other different publications were printed, Coptic language was progressing, and charities and other organisations thrived.

Second, he treats the reaction to these negative changes inadequately. The Copts realised the challenge facing them, and despite the unfortunate differences between the clergy and laity on how to address the threats that faced the Coptic nation, the response was not without good results.

It has been kind of politically incorrect in Egypt to talk about the positive effects of the British occupation on Egypt as a whole, and on the Copts particularly. This has prevented the Copts from an accurate appraisal of the situation, and has even led them sometimes to take actions that were injurious to their interests.

Do I appear more British than Butler? No, the British have not always acted for the best interest of the Copts: there were actions that have definitely harmed the Copts, like the political policy of Eldon Gorst, Consul-General in Egypt from 1907-1911. I just want us to assess the overall situation accurately and adequately.

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