Friday, 29 June 2012

The Copts of Medieval Dhimmitude

What is most interesting when looking at the differece between the treatment of Christians in the Middle East now and in the Medieval Era, it is important to note that a tolerant leader is not so unique as expected.

There is the obvious, Salah-ud-Din. Salah-ud-din’s life is a testament to how Coptic Christians should be treated in their home lands. Over half his court were Copts and they respected him as their ruler. There was none of this discrimination and mistrust that we see today towards them by the Muslims.

He also restored the Coptic, Greek, Syriac and Maronite heirarchs and clergy of Jerusalem in 1187. From 1099-1187 they were expelled from the city by the Crusaders after they butchered most of the inhabitants, christian and otherwise. (See john of Joinville’s account of the entry into the city)

 Later, Salah-ad-din’s successor al-Kamel Naser al-Din in fact met Francis of Assisi and invited him to preach in his court whilst the Armies of the 5th Crusade besieged one of his fortresses a few hundred miles away. historical records show this meeting in a lot of detail, explaining how Francis even tried to convert the Sultan. This very event is something which we would expect to preceed his execution by today’s stereotypes, yet Francis left as a guest and friend of the Sultan, whose court was majority Coptic Christian.

Also, previously, when Caliph Umar I took jerusalem from the Byzantines he showed great respect (though upheld the Jizya.), He was even invited to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by patriarch Sophronius but declines saying that if he prayed there, other Muslims would want to and it would endanger its status as a Christian site. He also allowed the Jews to freely worship, something which the Byzantines had not done in the city for close to 500 years.

Another classic is how the Syrian and Coptic Christian communities both supported the Caliphate on their invasions, as they faced persecution by the Byzantines for their acceptence of Cyrillian Miaphysitism as their Christology. The Syrian patriatch of the time even famously announced “Praise be to God, who delivered us from the unjust Byzantines and who put us under the rule of the just Muslim Arabs.”

The Copts, also under persecution by the Byzantines, accepted the Muslim invasion asa positive. Pope Benjamin I was still in hiding from Persecution by the Byzantines and was promised “safety and fearlessness.” By the Muslims who reported that they were impressed with his dignity as a ‘man of God’, Amr Ibn-Al-As, who led the invasion allowed him to “freely administer the affairs of his Church and people” which he could not under the Byzantines. By comparison with the last years of Byzantine rule, it was amazingly free. They could build Churches and hold liturgies without fear of persecution.

There are loads of examples of Muslim leaders accepting the Eastern Christians, especially Syrian and Egyptian as they were at war with the Greeks, so feared Byzantine Sympathies. The problem now is that history has polarised the situation. ‘Christian = West = Crusaders’ is the formula followed by uneducated members of the Muslim community in the middle east and ‘Muslim=Arab=Terrorist’ is what Christians see in the west. This leaves native communities being targetted by both for being middle eastern yet Christian.

Tragically there are also many examples of cruelty, such as the imprisonment of Patriarchs and public humiliation of Christians, so it is not all sunshine and loving. Either way, if the rulers of middle eastern nations understood how to deal with a religiously mixed community like the better of their medieval predecessors the world would be a better place.

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