Egypt’s Copts, at the center of clashes which left 24 people dead on Sunday in Cairo, are the largest Christian minority community in the Middle East, and one of the oldest.
The Copts are generally estimated at between six and 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million. The Coptic Church itself claims it has 10 million followers.
Most Copts adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, headed by Pope Shenuda III, while the others are divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches.
The Catholic Copts, who form part of the Church’s eastern rites, are headed by patriarch Antonios Naguib, who was consecrated cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI last November 20.
Vatican records show some 165,000 Catholic Copts lived in Egypt in 2010.
The Copts go back to the dawn of Christianity, at a time when Egypt was integrated into the Roman, then Byzantine empires, after the disappearance of the dynasty of the Pharaoh Ptolemy, who was of Greek origin.
The word “Copt” has the same roots as the term “Egyptian” in ancient Greek.
Their decline started with the Arab invasions of the seventh century and the progressive Islamisation of the country, which today is largely Sunni Muslim.
Copts are present across the whole country, with a strongest concentration in Middle Egypt. All social categories are represented, from the lowest Cairo dustman to major patrician families.
Weakly represented in government, Copts complain that they are sidelined from numerous posts in the justice system, the universities and the police.
They also complain about very restrictive legislation on building churches, whereas the regime for building mosques is very liberal.
On January 1, 2011 the unclaimed bombing of a Coptic church killed 23 people and wounded 79, mainly Christians, in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria.
An upsurge in puritanical Islam has increased their feeling of marginalization, especially since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak on February 11, which has led to a degradation of the security climate and heightened visibility for Islamists.
On March 8, 13 people were killed in bloody clashes between Muslims and Copts in Cairo’s working class neighborhood of Moqattam, where around 1,000 Christians gathered to protest over the torching of a church south of the capital.
In May, clashes between Muslims and Copts left 15 dead and more than 200 injured in the popular Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba where two churches were attacked.