Christians in Egypt have maintained a rich, 2,000-year history since St. Mark the Evangelist arrived there around 42 A.D. More than 90 percent of Egyptian Christians (known as Copts) belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic Catholics number only an estimated 250,000 members and are scattered in eight eparchies, from Aswan in the south to Alexandria in the north. The country also hosts smaller Catholic communities belonging to the Armenian, Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac churches.
The country suffers severe humanitarian challenges. An estimated 32.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 9.7 percent are unemployed. The health care system has faced mounting pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Workers throughout the country have experienced a significant loss of income with the economic downturn that has followed.
Economic problems plague Egypt’s youth, children and other vulnerable groups. The International Labor Organization reports that 27.2 percent of youth eligible to work are unemployed or enrolled in educational or training programs. Schools are overcrowded and lack adequate resources. Teachers receive limited training, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports the curriculum focuses on memorization rather than developing analytical skills. Child labor and discrimination against girls also pose major challenges to the education sector.
Christian populations face disproportionate levels of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, discrimination and violence, while enduring significant restrictions on their religious freedom. For instance, most Christians reside in Upper Egypt, which hosts 40 percent of the country’s population. However, the World Bank reports 80 percent of people living in Upper Egypt live in extreme poverty. Other Christians live in Cairo and Alexandria, where many encounter substantial barriers to employment across the public sector, including the armed forces and civil service.
Authorities have long curtailed the rights of Christians to build, maintain and operate churches. Egyptian law requires church leaders to obtain permission from governors in order to construct or renovate churches and to demonstrate that the size of each church will correspond to the “number and need” of Christians already living in a given area. A resolution introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2021 notes, “of approximately 5,500 unlicensed churches and religious buildings awaiting legalization, authorities have conditionally recognized approximately 1,800.” The Egyptian government is working on a new law on the civil status of Egyptian Christians. According to Fides, the bill is expected to be submitted for consideration in the next Parliamentary session, which began in January 2022, and put to a vote.
Amid these challenges and threats, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) provides critical assistance to sustain and strengthen the Christian presence. Although Catholics are a minority within a minority, they administer an array of programs and services that benefit the most marginalized of the nation’s people. Click here to learn how.
Read more about CNEWA’s work in Egypt.