The Copts are the native Egyptian Christians, a major ethnoreligious group in Egypt and the largest Christian group there. Christianity was the majority religion during the 4th to 6th centuries AD and until the Muslim conquest of Egypt and remains the faith of a significant minority population.
Egypt's Christian minority has been the target of a number of high-profile attacks in the past several years. The bombing of a major church in Alexandria in January 2011 left at least 21 people dead, and at least 25 Coptic Christians and their supporters were killed in clashes with the army in October. That incident was the bloodiest in Egypt since its revolution in February (2011).
Tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population here, have risen steadily since the sweeping vows of unity during the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak three months ago. Copts say they have felt increasingly embattled since clashes just south of Cairo left a church burning last month (April, 2012).
As Egypt prepares for the presidential elections at the end of May (2012), the country's sizeable Coptic Christian minority will vote - but with a wary eye on the past. The community says they were treated like second-class citizens during the era of former president Hosni Mubarak. Now after the rise of Islamists, they are hoping for a moderate leader to protect their rights.
Since the Jan. 25 revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak from power, 100,000 Christian families have emigrated abroad, according to Naguib Gibrael, the Coptic Church’s lawyer. To counter the Muslim Brotherhood, St. Mark’s has encouraged its parishioners to vote for the secular Egyptian Bloc, made up of both Muslim and Christian candidates.
The ancient Christian community makes up between 10 and 15% of a population of 82 million, and is by far the largest Christian community in the region. The Copts stand to lose more than any other group in Egypt's current drift following the fall of an unpopular autocracy.
(In 2005) under Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Church underwent some organizational changes that were clearly perceived as a threat to the Egyptian government under President Mubarak, despite groundbreaking progress towards ecumenism and cooperation between Muslims and Christians at large.
In 1998, the International Coptic Federation took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post complaining that the Egyptian Copts were "Experiencing ... the worst hardships in their modern history." More specifically, the advertisement complained of government "restrictions on church activities, discrimination in political, academic and military affairs, rape and forced conversion of Coptic girls and requierments that Copts pay protection money."
Over the course of more than fourteen centuries, Christians and Muslims have lived together in Egypt, and not once has their relationship degenerated into a sectarian civil war. There have been periods of heightened tension and periods marked by cooperation. The period of the Mubarak presidency has been, in many ways, emblematic of the nature of the relationships that have existed over time.
Traditionally Islam was the ideology of the state within which the Coptic Christian minority formed a subordinated himmi community. For a brief moment from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of the 1920s there seemed to be a process of consensus forming around a secular and liberal Egyptian national identity, as best expressed by the enormously popular nationalist‐liberal party that had pioneered the struggle for Egyptian independence from Britain in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Coptic language is the ancient Egyptian vernacular written in the Greek Alphabet, with the addition of seven extra characters derived from demotic, the last stage of hieroglyphics. After Greek, it was the principal language of 'late antique Egypt,' and it continued to be used until the thirteenth century - later probably - when it was eclipsed by Arabic.