Perhaps the greatest glory of the Coptic Church is its Cross. Copts take pride in the persecution they have sustained as early as May 8, 68 A.D., when their Patron Saint Mark was slain on Easter Monday after being dragged from his feet by Roman soldiers all over Alexandria’s streets and alleys. The Copts have been persecuted by almost every ruler of Egypt. Their Clergymen have been tortured and exiled even by their Christian brothers after the schism of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and until the Arab’s conquest of Egypt in 641 A.D. To emphasize their pride in their cross, Copts adopted a calendar, called the Calendar of the Martyrs, which begins its era on August 29, 284 A.D., in commemoration of those who died for their faith during the rule of Diocletian the Roman Emperor. This calendar is still in use all over Egypt by farmers to keep track of the various agricultural seasons and in the Coptic Church Lectionary.
For the four centuries that followed the Arab’s conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church generally flourished and Egypt remained basically Christian. This is due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam, who had an Egyptian wife (the only one of his wives to bear a child), preached especial kindness towards Copts: “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your proteges and kith and kin”. Copts, thus, were allowed to freely practice their religion and were to a large degree autonomous, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called “Gezya”, that qualifies them as “Ahl Zemma” proteges (protected). Individuals who cannot afford to pay this tax were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or losing their civil right to be “protected”, which in some instances meant being killed. Copts, despite additional sumptuary laws that were imposed on them in 750-868 A.D. and 905-935 A.D. under the Abbasid Dynasties, prospered and their Church enjoyed one of its most peaceful era. Surviving literature from monastic centers, dating back from the 8th to the 11th century, shows no drastic break in the activities of Coptic craftsmen, such as weavers, leather-binders, painters, and wood-workers. Throughout that period, the Coptic language remained the language of the land, and it was not until the second half of the 11th century that the first bi-lingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts started to appear. One of the first complete Arabic texts is the 13th century text by Awlaad El-Assal (children of the Honey Maker), in which the laws, cultural norms and traditions of the Copts at this pivotal time, 500 years after the Islamic conquest of Egypt were detailed. The adoption of the Arabic language as the language used in Egyptians’ every-day’s life was so slow that even in the 15th century al-Makrizi implied that the Coptic Language was still largely in use. Up to this day, the Coptic Language continues to be the liturgical language of the Church.
The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium A.D., when Copts, in addition to the “Gezya” tax, suffered from specific disabilities, some of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there were restrictions on repairing old Churches and building new ones, on testifying in court, on public behavior, on adoption, on inheritance, on public religious activities, and on dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in some expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence. It is remarkable that the well-being of Copts was more or less related to the well-being of their rulers. In particular, the Copts suffered most in those periods when Arab dynasties were at their low.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali’s dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit and, by 1855 A.D., the main mark of Copts’ inferiority, the “Gezya” tax was lifted, and shortly thereafter Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 A.D. revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots dispaly of Egyptian identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity of Egypt’s modern society with both its Muslim and Coptic sects. Today, this homogeneity is what keeps the Egyptian society united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who occasionaly subject the Copts to persecution and terror. Modern day martyrs, like Father Marcos Khalil, serve as reminders of the miracle of Coptic survival.