Innocence of Muslims Controversy: Who Coptic Christians are, and What They Believe

As the world began to learn the identities of the filmmakers who have abused U.S. freedom of speech to cobble together the inflammatory Innocence of Muslims movie that has sparked a week of violence aimed at the West, an ancient but little-known intracultural feud surfaced. The original perpetrators of the film have been acknowledged as Coptic Christians, members of a faith dating to the earliest days of Christianity and providing the first religious, literary, and cultural standard of the common era in Egypt.

The Coptic Orthodox Church names St. Mark, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles and writer of the earliest of the biographical gospels to be included in the Christian canon, as its founder in the middle of the 1st century. Churches are widespread across the country, and Coptic was the dominant language of Egypt until the second half of the 11th century and persisted in widespread use into the 15th century.

From the time of the 7th century Islamic conquest of Egypt, however, Copts have thought of themselves as martyrs at the hands of Arabic speakers. Until 1855, they paid a special tax to be “protected” under instructions of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, and participated in Egypt’s 1919 independence movement. But relations were never reliably smooth.

A large part of the reason for friction is that both Christianity and Islam emphasize exclusivist theologies, insisting that their practice is the only route to salvation and the only faith pleasing to God. They’re also both evangelical, celebrating converts won from each other as well as from less closely related faiths or no faith. In such an environment, ordinary neighborhood disputes can grow to deadly proportions. Or, as Al Jazeera reported in May 2011, they may go straight to charges of kidnapping and forced conversion, or be based in conversion as one of the only grounds for a Copt to obtain a divorce.

Difficulties also arise because Coptic Christians follow a doctrine of separation of church and state, while Muslims try to enact laws interpreted from the Quran into civil society. Thus, Muslims are more often found in positions of authority over Copts, and create situations to which Copts object.

The Washington Post has reported that some 300,000 Copts now live in the U.S., concentrated near Los Angeles and in the Northeast. U.S. Coptic leaders are said to be investigating whether the filmmakers are affiliated with the mainstream of this community. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of three Egypt-based communions — along with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa — and two Armenian denominations with presence in Egypt that are member churches of the World Council of Churches. Though his statement made no mention of Copts or other specific churches, the General Secretary of the WCC commented on the film, saying that "such an insult to the heart of the Muslim faith is an insult to all peoples of faith."

What U.S. Evangelical pastor Terry Jones’s excuse is for promoting the film remains to be identified.