Reports: Peoples

The Copts

Followers of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which arose from the first schism with Rome, can be found in Northern Sudanese towns including Dongala, Atbara, Wad Medani, Port Sudan, El-Obeid, Khartoum and Omdurman. They have 23 churches and two bishops. There are less than 200,000 members of the Coptic Christian community in Sudan, but their presence in the country dates back over thirteen hundred years, and because of their advanced literacy and numeracy their role has been more significant than their numbers would suggest. Their
adoption of a passive, non-confrontational role in an overwhelmingly Muslim society, coupled with their light skin colour, has helped them to avoid the worst excesses of religious and racial discrimination, but in recent years they have been harassed and intimidated by the National Islamic Front regime. Although they have common roots with the original Christian missionaries in
Sudan, they tend to be overlooked in the debate on religious persecution, which focuses on the Christians in Southern Sudan.

Copts began moving to Sudan in the sixth century AD to escape from periods of oppression in Egypt. Under Islamic rule, which began in Egypt in the seventh century, they became subject to the code of Dhimma, which offered them protection while according them second-class citizenship. Initially this was an improvement on their vulnerable status under previous rulers, but it became more oppressive as the Islamisation process consolidated, and strict regulations were imposed on the building of churches.

Emigration from Egypt peaked in the early 19th century, and the generally tolerant reception they enjoyed in Sudan was interrupted by a decade of persecution under Mahdist rule at the end of the century. Many were obliged to relinquish their faith; they adopted Islam and inter-married with Sudanese families. The Anglo-Egyptian invasion in 1889 allowed the Copts greater religious and economic freedom, and they extended their original roles as craftsmen and merchants into modern-day trading, banking, engineering, medicine and the civil service. Their proficiency in business and administration made them a privileged minority.

The return of militant Islam in the mid-1960s with Dr Hassan al-Turabi's Islamic Charter Front and the subsequent demands for an Islamic constitution prompted the Copts, hitherto quiet and non-political, to join with the public opposition to religious rule. The May 1969 coup of General Nimeiri, initially secular and left-leaning, temporarily dispelled their fears: in the 1970s they
benefitted from government assistance in establishing community clubs, and a Coptic civil servant was appointed as a senior minister. (It is significant that in Egypt Dr Butros Butros-Ghali, who later became Secretary-General of the United Nations, only kept his position as Foreign Minister for a few months before being demoted in favour of a Muslim minister.)

Nimeiri's introduction of "Islamic" law in September 1983 began a new phase of oppressive treatment of non-Muslims. Although the Copts did not at first suffer the extremes - such as amputation - which were inflicted on the lower classes, they felt sufficiently threatened to join the campaign against the "September Laws", so-called because even Muslims disputed their religious
validity. Laws which reduced their standing as court witnesses were regarded as offensive, and the abolition of the legal sale of alcohol affected non-Muslim traders, who were not compensated when their goods were confiscated.

A "Christian Alliance" including Copts was formed to defend the rights of Christians of all denominations, and after the overthrow of Nimeiri the Coptic leaders encouraged support for secular candidates in the 1986 elections, speaking against the National Islamic Front programme for a religious state. The newspapers of the NIF wrote angrily of a coalition of "Communists and
Christians" undermining Islam, and called them "fifth columnists". A concerted effort was launched to encourage them to leave the country, as NIF businessmen began offering Coptic traders twice the market value of their property.

When the National Islamic Front-backed military regime seized power in 1989, discrimination resumed in earnest. Hundreds of Copts were dismissed from the civil service and the judiciary. The non-confrontational attitude no longer protected them. Justice Henry Riad was regarded as siding with the NIF when he opposed on procedural grounds a bid to have the 1985 trial of Ustaz Mohamed Taha - notoriously executed for "apostasy" - ruled null and void in 1986. But
despite 30 years in the judiciary he was dismissed by the Bashir regime.

In February 1991 a Coptic Sudan Airways pilot was executed - along with two Muslims - for illegal possession of foreign currency, although ironically the government abolished the restriction not long afterwards. Since he was the son of a Coptic priest, the government-controlled media repeatedly referred to him as "Girgis the Priest", and he was offered a pardon and money if he converted to Islam. Thousands attended his funeral, and the execution was taken as a warning by many Copts, who began to flee the country.

Restrictions on the Copts' rights to Sudanese nationality followed. Before 1989, it was relatively easy for Copts to obtain Sudanese nationality by birth or by naturalisation, under the 1957 Nationality Act. Now they report difficulties with the authorities in obtaining either form of nationality, with consequent problems when attempting to travel abroad. The confiscation of
Christian schools and the imposition of an Arab-Islamic emphasis in language and history teaching have been accompanied by harassment of Christian children and the introduction of "hijab" dress laws, ignoring the traditional modesty of Coptic dress. A Coptic child was flogged for failing to recite a Koranic verse. In contrast with the extensive media broadcasting of the Muslim Friday prayers, the radio has ceased coverage of the Christian Sunday service.

Military service for young people is now compulsory, as is militia training for civil servants. The forcible recruitment of Copts in this way, into the Army and the Popular Defence Forces for the "jihad" in the South and the Nuba Mountains, has pitched them into a "holy war" against their co-religionists in the South. The Copts' supreme religious leader Pope Shenouda III, who is based in Egypt, cannot speak publicly on the matter for fear of a backlash from Islamic fundamentalists against Copts in Egypt.

Coptic businesses have been subjected to subtler harassment through government controls on licences, taxes and inspections, which have been applied to benefit NIF loyalists at the expense of non-NIF traders. Many Coptic businessmen have fled the country even when their massive losses on currency exchange preclude their resumption activities abroad. When the government changed the Sudanese banknotes in May 1991 it warned its loyalists in advance, leaving others to cope with the problems of changing their old banknotes when the supply of new notes was strictly limited, and holders of large amounts of currency were obliged to put the money into bank accounts. It is extremely difficult for the Copts to renew their trading licences, and they are often subjected to visits from local authorities officials who "inspect" their workplaces and discover
spurious reasons to impose fines or to shut down the business.

AbdelSalaam Hassan