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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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‘Where Are We Going?’

Christians in Egypt navigate modern challenges

Despite modest efforts by Egypt’s government to provide its Christian minority — about 10 percent of Egypt’s almost 110 million people — with more civil rights and protections, Christian families continue to face challenges exposing the precariousness of their position.

Most of these challenges — economic, generational, technological and sociological, especially shifts in values and expectations regarding marriage and family life — are not unique to Egypt and have been documented in societies worldwide. Yet, how various cultures and societies receive and address them differ.

“The economy is the number one concern in Egyptian society right now,” says the Reverend Shenouda Shafik, who directs the Institute of Religious Education of the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Minya in Upper Egypt. “Prices are skyrocketing, forcing people to work tirelessly just to afford necessities such as food, clothing and health care.”

To meet their family’s basic needs, increasingly Christian adults are working jobs that prevent them from attending weekly Eucharist, adds Father Shafik. The church seeks to help these families. Resources are limited, however, and the church is unable to meet all their needs.

“People are weary of words,” he says. “When I speak of God, their unspoken plea is for practical help, for food. They need to feel the church’s presence in their daily struggles, especially when it comes to their livelihoods.”

About 90 percent of Egyptian Christians, or 10 million people, belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church; Catholics belong to a variety of particular churches. The largest number form the Coptic Catholic Church. Armenian Christian, Evangelical and Greek Orthodox communities are also present. Coptic Christians take pride as heirs and descendants of Pharaonic Egypt, having received the Christian faith from St. Mark in the first century and persevered for millennia despite discrimination, persecution and even martyrdom.

In a country where Christians have suffered hate crimes, communal violence and discrimination regularly — including lack of access to leadership positions in society — their social status has improved since President Abdel Fattah el Sisi rose to power in a coup d’état in 2013. Examples include permissions to restore old and construct new churches; the 2018 appointment of Manal Awad Mikhail, the first Coptic Christian woman to serve as provincial governor; and the 2022 appointment of Judge Boulos Fahmy, the first Christian to head the country’s top court.

Although small, the Coptic Catholic Church persists in its evangelical work. Father Shafik says the Institute of Religious Education in Minya, which he directs, forms lay people as catechists and prepares them to serve in other leadership roles in the church. They study Scripture, doctrine, liturgical and sacramental life, ethics, psychology, the social teachings of the church and how to connect faith to daily life. About 150 young adult catechists, between the ages of 18 and 35, attended a day of study at the institute in mid-March.

These women and children were photographed in the Coptic Christian Quarter of Shanayna, Upper Egypt, which has a significant Christian population. (Photo: Friedrich Stark/Alamy Stock Photo)

“We pay attention to preparing young people to understand the psychological and educational foundations of dealing with those they serve,” says Father Shafik.

They also learned presentation skills to convey the faith more effectively — an ever-growing challenge as younger generations question traditional beliefs, including the patriarchal structure of Egyptian society and the church.

Furthermore, as parents spend their days working, Egyptian teens have become addicted to their phones and the internet, says Father Shafik.

“The internet is in this generation’s DNA,” says Bishop Hani Bakhoum Kiroulos of Alexandria, a former telecommunications engineer.

Among his responsibilities, Bishop Kiroulos oversees Good Samaritan House, an orphanage for about 40 children and young adults, between the ages of 5 and 25. He says social media addiction has become his primary concern for the young people there.

“To take their cell phones away from them for a week so they can focus on studying their lessons, I have to compensate them with something as if I’m treating withdrawal symptoms,” he says.

“People are weary of words.”

In a study published in the International Journal of Social Psychology in 2022, 66 percent of the Egyptian high school students surveyed demonstrated an internet addiction, 61 percent were gaming addicts and 93 percent were addicted to Facebook.

“Depression, dysthymia, suicide, social anxiety panic, and phobias were common comorbidities in addicted adolescents,” according to the study.

Bishop Kiroulos is concerned about the dependence on external validation that social media breeds through its measures of “online approval,” how that impacts a young person’s sense of self-worth and how it can lead a young person to prioritize online presence over spiritual growth.

“Being on social media has become synonymous with being present,” he says. He believes the church needs to adapt its methods to engage young people more effectively.

While religion remains central to Egyptian society and identity, the bishop has observed a rise in “practical atheism, which means living as if God does not exist.”

“We are living in an age of secularization, which attempts to erase any trace of God’s presence in our daily lives,” he says.

The Reverend Shenouda Youwakim Endrawes, who heads the Eparchy of Minya’s youth committee, also observes a sense of aimlessness and lack of purpose among young people, who seem disengaged from the church and distanced from God.

Father Shenouda Shafik lectures at the Institute of Religious Education in Minya, which he directs. (Photo: Hanaa Habib)

In February, his committee held a conference on “Youth and Crisis Management,” where subject experts spoke about faith, interpersonal relationships, self-care and addiction. An estimated 160 young adults attended. Father Endrawes says participants raised questions demonstrating their understanding of the social and interpersonal problems at hand.

“They asked about how to get rid of addictions. They are aware that social media can lead them astray and waste their time.”

Social media has also impacted marriage and family life in Egypt’s Christian community. Christian women, married and single, who face various forms of abuse at home, have turned to social media to find means of escape. 

In some cases, a Christian woman will run away and marry a Muslim man she met online. He promises her a life free of violence and abuse and she embraces Islam in the process, says the Reverend Boulos Nassif of the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Minya.

The abuse of girls and women is more prevalent in rural Upper Egypt and in poor communities than in Egypt’s urban centers. In a study conducted for the National Strategy for Combating Violence Against Women in Egypt in 2015, 47 percent of the women surveyed “indicated that they had been victims of domestic violence ever since they were 15 years old” and that their husband was the perpetrator.

People “need to feel the church’s presence in their daily struggles.”

The Coptic churches recognize the problem of abuse against women and girls in Egyptian society. While efforts exist to raise awareness and educate against domestic violence through catechetical and adult faith formation, the current laws and the churches’ positions on divorce are major factors contributing to the incidence of conversion, says Father Nassif.

In Egypt, the state has assigned the regulation of marriage and divorce for Christians to the churches, and for Muslims to Islamic law. There is no civil marriage for Christians. Therefore, Christians who want to marry, divorce or remarry must seek and receive permission from their church in keeping with the rules and conditions within their church.

However, with the Coptic Orthodox Church allowing for divorce only in cases of proven adultery, and its Catholic counterpart allowing only for separation, some Christian women have resorted to taking the dissolution of their abusive marriages into their own hands by converting to Islam. A Christian woman’s conversion effectively nullifies her Christian marriage, since a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim man according to Islamic law.

The number of women who are choosing conversion to escape abusive situations has increased in recent years, according to church leaders.

When a Christian woman flees under these circumstances, her family seeks the help of the church to find her. At least one priest in each eparchy is responsible for following up on conversion cases. Father Nassif is charged with this task for his eparchy.

Although less common, Christian men also convert to Islam to obtain a divorce. In this case, the man gains full custody of his minor children, who are now considered Muslim by the state, which is governed by Islamic law.

Students at the Institute of Religious Education listen to a homily during Divine Liturgy before class begins. (Photo: Hanaa Habib)

According to Father Nassif, about 70 percent of conversions to Islam are motivated by a desire to escape child or spousal abuse or unhappy unions, and 30 percent can be attributed to personal conviction.

President el Sisi has called for a revision of the country’s family law, including on the civil status of Christians, but the adoption of such legislation has stalled due to objections by religious authorities.

There have also been occasions when women, who convert to Islam, try to revert to Christianity. The church offers hospitality to these women at a church-sponsored group home at an undisclosed location and accompanies her toward reconciliation with her family, says Father Nassif. Divorce by conversion brings shame on Christian families and causes family rifts. Her safety may also be endangered if she returns to her family without reconciliation. If reconciliation cannot be achieved, the church will help her set out on her own, the priest explains.

The Reverend Ilia Shafik Saad-Allah, who follows up on at least one conversion case per month for the Coptic Orthodox eparchy in Minya, says families and their pastors first try to persuade the Christian woman to end her online relationship with the Muslim man, but if she persists and proceeds to run away, local police, of late, will locate her and return her to church officials, who will then facilitate a reconciliation with her family.

“The first step is to help this woman feel accepted and loved, even if she is not loved at home,” he adds. “Because all these cases need love, whether it is a wife who does not find love from her husband or a daughter who does not feel loved at home. If there was love in the home, such cases would not happen.”

After hosting a special assembly for the church in the Middle East at the Vatican in 2010, which gathered bishops, pastors and religious engaged in pastoral work in the region, Pope Benedict XVI underlined the need to respect the dignity and equality of women and for the church in the Middle East to do better at resolving “marital questions” to prevent or limit conversion to Islam.

“In those unfortunate instances where litigation takes place between men and women, especially regarding marital questions, the woman’s voice must also be heard and taken into account with a respect equal to that shown towards the man, in order to put an end to certain injustices,” he wrote in his apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente” (The Church in the Middle East) in 2012.

“There needs to be a more sound and fair implementation of church law,” he continued. “The church’s justice must be exemplary at every level and in every field in which it is exercised. It is absolutely vital to ensure that litigation on marital questions does not lead to apostasy.”

Bishop Kiroulos emphasizes the need for dialogue within the church to discern how to deal with these contemporary challenges.

“This has become a reality; if we don’t interact with it, we will be left behind,” he says. “We need to raise awareness among ourselves as church leaders to answer the question, where are we going?”

The CNEWA Connection

When people are confronted with persecution or discrimination, violence or poverty, the church worldwide responds. CNEWA supports such initiatives, always working for, through and with the local Eastern churches as they work to advance the common good. In Egypt, CNEWA supports formation programs that deepen spiritual lives and build community leaders; initiatives encouraging safety and reconciliation within families; dispensaries providing life-saving medical care; and programs to care for those with special needs. Standing with the vulnerable, poor and oppressed, CNEWA works toward healing and hope.

To support the work of CNEWA in Egypt, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is the Egypt correspondent for The Times of London. His work also has been published by CNN, the Daily Telegraph and Foreign Policy.

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