Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Remember Hatt-i Humayuni?

By Samir Sobhi

Many now cite the Ottoman law known as Hatt-i Humayuni as a reference in the ongoing debate on the status of Copts in Egypt. But what is Hatt-i Humayuni all about?

Until 1718, non-Muslims living under Ottoman rule had no universal law to govern their status. In that year, Coptic Pope Boutros VI persuaded the Ottoman sultan to pass a centralised law for the non-Muslim community, if only to bring the authority of Istanbul to bear in various provinces in which excesses were reported. This law remained an inspiration for later rulers, but some of them suspended it in favour of even more tolerant regulations.

For example, Mohamed Ali suspended all Ottoman laws that restricted the activities of Egyptian Copts. He allowed the Copts to build new churches, fill government posts, and obtain honorary titles. Said Pasha, his son, abolished the jezya poll tax for non-Muslims in 1855. His action was in tandem with the reforms known as Tanzimat, which were launched in Istanbul in 1839.

In 1856, Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I issued the edict known as Hatt-i Humayuni, which granted all non-Muslims complete equality with Muslims in education, government posts, and legal matters. Hatt-i Humayuni, which is part of Tanzimat, is generally considered to be the result of pressure by the French and the British who had helped the Ottomans win the Crimean War.

Hatt-i Humayuni exempted churches of taxes and allowed the affairs of non-Muslim communities to be run by a council of clergy and notables. Before Hatt-i Humayuni, non- Muslims lived under a variety of restrictions. They were forced to wear garments of specified colours and were often barred from riding horses or bearing weapons.

In his book Copts in Egypt in the Ottoman Era, Mohamed Afifi reviews Coptic-Muslims relations over the past five centuries. He notes that much of the current tensions can be traced to the diminished status of minorities, which Tanzimat and Hatt-i Humayuni sought to redress.

This week's Soapbox speaker is a senior writer at Al-Ahram.

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