According to tradition, John Mark (the author of the Gospel of Mark) traveled to Egypt during the 1st century AD, sometime after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and established a church in Alexandria. Today the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world. Coptic Christians make up approximately 10 percent of Egypt's population and are the largest Christian minority group in the Middle East. There are also large populations of Coptic Christians in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Israel, as well as other nations throughout the world.
Over the years thousands of Copts have immigrated to the US to escape persecution and discrimination. Their presence has gone relatively unnoticed by most Americans, until last week, when a Coptic Christian man, his wife, and two daughters (ages 8 and 16) were found brutally murdered in their New Jersey home. They bled to death from multiple stab wounds and their bodies were found bound and gagged. Police have not ruled out the possibility of a burglary, but the gruesome nature of the murders has lead many to believe that the crime was religiously or ethnically motivated.
Hossam Armanious and his family came to the US from Egypt in 1997. According to news reports he was known for his outspoken defense of Christianity and his support for the persecuted church in Egypt. Reports also indicate that he was threatened with violence prior to his death for openly sharing his religious and political views in an internet chat room.
There is a centuries-long history of violence and animosity between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt. In recent years the two groups have been able to live together in relative peace, although amid growing tensions. The US State Department's 2004 report on International Religious Freedom criticized Egypt for its treatment of religious minorities, saying in Egypt "...Christians are discriminated against in the public sector and in staff appointments to public universities. Christians are refused admission to Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution. Those accused of proselytizing have been harassed by police or arrested on charges of violating the penal code... The Government does not recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity or other religions." The report also stated that Christians often have difficulty in obtaining building permits to construct or repair churches. The US State Department also criticized the Egyptian government for upholding the acquittal of 94 of 96 suspects who were charged with various offenses committed during the 2000 sectarian strife in al-Kush, saying "The government failed to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of the 21 Christians killed in that conflict." None of the suspects arrested were charged with murder.
The president of the American Coptic Association told crowds outside the New Jersey family's funeral on Sunday that "Muslim terrorists" were responsible for their deaths. Tensions are already high and if authorities conclude that the New Jersey murders were ethnically motivated it could have serious ramifications for Coptic Christian and Muslim communities in the US and elsewhere.