coptic-egypt

Coptic Christians protest in Cairo against what they say is the Egyptian government's failure to protect them on Jan. 3, 2011. ((Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))

Coptic Christians have long complained about discrimination and harassment by government and other religious groups in their native Egypt. But when a suicide bomber killed 21 people and wounded 79 in the early hours of New Year's Day at a Coptic church in Alexandria, the issue grabbed international attention.

Who are Coptic Christians?

Copts are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Based in Alexandria, the church is a Christian denomination that dates back to the first century. The church follows the Julian calendar, and its members celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. The church's current head is H. H. Shenouda III, who has been pope since 1971. There are more than 20 million Copts in Egypt — making them far and away the largest Christian denomination in the country. Strong Coptic populations also exist in Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, having settled in those countries during a wave of emigration from Egypt that began in the 1960s.

How many are in Canada?

The 2006 census found that in Canada, 54,875 people identified as ethnically Egyptian. The Canadian Coptic Association, however, estimates that there are currently roughly 350,000 Copts living in Canada. If other sects with strong ties to the Coptic community are included, the figure is possibly higher still. The largest concentration of Canadian Copts is in and around Toronto.

What is happening now?

Coptic officials are pleading for international attention on their cause in the wake of the deadly New Year's Day bombing, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. Christmas celebrations scheduled for Jan. 7 will continue as planned but with added security, says Canadian Coptic Association spokesman Sherif Mansour. "We're going to be praying, but we're going to ensure that we are protected," he said. 

The association is working with local police and private security firms to ensure the safety of its churches. Mansour was one of hundreds of Canadian Coptic Christians named on a website set up by the group Shumukh- al-Islam, which has been linked to al-Qaeda. The site identified Coptic Christians throughout the world who have been vocal about their opposition to Islam.

The Canadian Coptic Association has praised the way the Canadian government and law enforcement agencies have responded to the increased tension between Muslims and Copts but stressed that more international pressure on the Egyptian government is needed.