I. General Overview
Christianity in Egypt dates to the first century, when Saint Mark preached in the great city of Alexandria. Christianity became the dominant religion in Egypt in the fourth century and remained so even well after the Islamic invasion in the seventh. Some authorities believe Islam only eclipsed Christianity in the middle Ages.
Today, Egypt’s Copts are an endangered minority. Exposed to continuous and subtle pressures, their numbers are dwindling. Tens of thousands emigrate each year; no official figures are available, but reliable sources count 2 million living in Australia, Canada, Europe, Great Britain and the United States. Thousands of Copts who remain in Egypt convert to Islam every year to escape marginalization and/or discrimination. Those who stay faithful to their religion find themselves increasingly alienated in their own country.
Despite their significant numbers estimated at around 8 million, the Copts live as a marginalized and disadvantaged religious minority. In Egypt, Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic law — Shariah — is the principal source of legislation, according to the Egyptian Constitution. This marginalization is notably reflected by the absence of Copts in positions of elected or appointed political office. As a consequence of their lack of political power, the Coptic Christian population is vulnerable to various forms of oppression, discrimination and violence. Forms of oppression include; abusive practices of local police and security forces, by the refusal of security officials to defend them or to prosecute those who have attacked them, and by systematic and discriminatory Egyptian government policies. One particular form of violence against the Coptic Community is the disappearance followed by forced conversions and marriages of Coptic Christian women.
Year after year, the Christians of Egypt continue to endure violent attacks from Muslim radicals. While the government does not openly maltreat Christians, it discriminates against them and hampers their freedom of worship; government agencies sporadically harass Muslim converts to Christianity. Further, the government enforces restrictions on the construction or repair of churches, restrictions that do not apply to mosques. Thus, many new communities do not have churches.
The political atmosphere and the pressure against Christians are increasing the fears among all Christian communities in Egypt. The urgent need is to support the local church without any distinction between confessions or rites in order to reactivate the churches’ social and pastoral institutions for the purpose of filling the gap created by the political, social and economic discrimination of the government against Christians.
The last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty first have seen deterioration in relations between Muslims and the Coptic minority in Egypt. This is seen in day-to-day interactions such as the insulting of Coptic priests by Muslim children, and in much more serious events such as attacks on Coptic churches, monasteries, villages, homes and shops, particularly in Upper Egypt from the 1970’s to-date.
Area & Targeted Population
Copts are native Egyptian Christians, mainly Orthodox, who currently make up around 10% of the population of Egypt — the largest religious minority of that country. While Copts have cited instances of harassment throughout their history, human rights groups have noted “growing religious intolerance” and sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in recent years, and a failure by the Egyptian government to effectively investigate properly and prosecute those responsible.
Christian Copts are under severe pressure and siege, and usually live in fear for their lives. Christian girls get kidnapped by shadowy Muslim groups and lured into Muslim marriages, while the state looks the other way.
Copts face discrimination and marginalization on many levels. They are minimally represented in law enforcement, state security and public office, and are being discriminated against in the workforce on the basis of their religion. The Coptic community, as well as several human rights activists and intellectuals, note that the number of Christians occupying Government posts is not proportional to the number of Copts in Egypt. They are also the victims of discriminatory religious laws, anti-Christian judges, and anti-Christian state police. Anti-Christian laws include laws governing repairing old churches or constructing new ones, which are usually impossible tasks, requiring presidential permission to build a new church, and a governor’s permission to renovate even the bathroom in an already-built church. Anti-Christian judges tend to “legislate from the bench”. An example includes an Egyptian court’s refusal to grant Muslim Egyptians who convert to Christianity identity cards that display their new religion. In Egypt the government does not officially recognize conversions from Islam to Christianity; also certain interfaith marriages are not allowed either. This prevents marriages between converts to Christianity and those born in Christian communities, and also results in the children of Christian converts being classified as Muslims and given a Muslim education. While, converting to Islam does not even require going to court.
Copts are denied equal opportunities in recruitment and promotion. Very few are appointed to key positions in the government, and political parties almost never choose Coptic candidates for parliamentary positions. In addition, enrollment of Copts in police academies and military schools is heavily restricted. Along the same lines, very few Copts are granted positions as school teachers or university professors.
Copts are on the receiving end of anti-Christian hate crimes, the number of which has been rising since the 1970s. Since President Mubarak took office in 1981, more than 1,500 violent attacks against Copts left thousands of Christians killed and injured. The violent anti-Christian attacks in Upper Egypt during the 1990s forced thousands of Copts to flee to larger cities in Egypt or to immigrate. The last 20 years witnessed a dramatic increase in the scale of anti-Christian hate crimes.
Today, Fundamentalism has reached a peak and allowed an ugly atmosphere of fanaticism to prevail in the country which has been translated into acts of violence targeting the Christian population, the worst of which were;
- The recent 2011 Alexandria bombing that killed 23 Christians leaving a New Year’s Eve church service. At the time of the blast several thousand Coptic Christians were attending liturgy at the church at the occasion of the New Year. This was the worst attack on Christians after the 2001 Kosheh massacre which left 21 Christians dead.The bombing occurred a few months after a group in Iraq with ties to “al-Qaida” announced that all Christians in the Middle East were considered “legitimate targets” in response to two Egyptian Christian women allegedly being held hostages by the Coptic Church. These women were converted to Islam in order to get divorces from their husbands. Al-Qaida in Iraq says it is carrying out attacks on Christians in that country until Egyptian Church officials release the two women. The Church denies holding the women against their will. Pope Benedict XVI denounced the attacks and appealed for religious freedom and tolerance in the Middle East and urged governments of the countries of the region to defend Christians against discrimination, abuse and religious intolerance which are today striking Christians in particular. This caused a rift with the Egyptian government as the comments of the Pope according to the former gave the impression that the government does not guarantee the freedom and safety of Egyptian Christians. Consequently, the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning “Al Azhar” freezed its inter-religious dialogue with the Vatican.
- The clash of some 500 Christian Egyptians with police in Cairo on January 12th in a protest against the shooting to death of a Christian man by a Muslim policeman on a train. Pope Shenouda III, who leads Egypt’s estimated 8 million Coptic Christians, has urged his followers to stay calm. He said that all problems could be solved through peaceful means, rather than by belligerence and tumult. Pope Shenouda blamed the disturbances on socio-economic conditions that have made many Egyptians desperate. He said that people can be manipulated or pushed to behave rashly through poverty or hunger. He argued that such ongoing problems must be solved calmly and with all available means.
- The cordoning of Saint Mary’s Church in Talbiya by the Egyptian security forces on November 24, a poor Christian suburb south of Cairo, after declaring that further construction of the church was illegal. More than 1,000 Copts retaliated by protesting the police interference, as they had previously been told by government officials that the church’s construction had been approved and that their permits were valid. Security forces fired on the unarmed protestors with live ammunition and rubber bullets. Four Copts were killed in the protests, including three young men and a four-year-old child who suffocated from tear gas. One hundred and sixty eight Copts were arrested, including more than 20 minors under the age of 18 who were sent to Al-Marg Juvenile Detention Center.
- The increasing waves of mob assaults by Muslims against Copts, forcing many Christians to flee their homes. In April/May 2010, a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked the Coptic Christian population in the city of Marsa Matrouh, with 400 Copts having to barricade themselves in their church while the mob destroyed 18 homes, 23 shops and 16 cars.
- The 2010 Naga Hammadi massacre which was carried out on the eve of January 7, 2010, at the hands of Muslim gunmen in front of the cathedral, as Coptic Christians were leaving the church after celebrating the midnight Christmas mass resulting in the murder of eight Copts and one Muslim bystander.
The Press Office of the Catholic Church in Egypt and spokesman of the seven Catholic denominations that are present in the country, headed by Father Rafic Greiche released a communiqué following the January 2011 Alexandria bombing listing nine demands.
- The immediate arrest of the criminals and their judgment in court.
- Dealing severely with all agitators and agents provocateurs that directly or indirectly encourage fanatic actions through the newspapers, the media or preaching.
- The immediate adoption of a law for the protection of all religious buildings.
- The immediate adoption of a personal status law for Christians.
- The adoption of a law that forbids religious discrimination and severely punishes anyone who breaks this law.
- Reassertion of the civic foundations of the state, based on equal citizenship.
- Complete restructuring of the educational program and curricula to purge them of what is related to discrimination.
- In-depth action against negative attitudes of religious leaders to prevent them from encouraging sectarianism.
- Encouragement by the state of democratic life and protection of freedom of expression and belief.
Copts complain that the Egyptian government and the Egyptian judicial system are doing little to punish such attacks on the Coptic community, failing to prosecute the criminals, and thus leading to further oppression of the Copts. All the criminals responsible for the 2001 Kosheh killing, (a village 300 miles south of Cairo in southern Egypt’s Sohag governate where 21 Christians were killed and 260 homes and businesses destroyed or looted), most of whom were children and women, were set free by court order.
Coptic women and girls are sometimes abducted, forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. In April 2010, a bipartisan group of 17 members of the U.S. Congress expressed concern to the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office about Coptic women who faced physical and sexual violence, captivity, exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion of the victim.
The lives of Coptic women subjected to forced marriages and conversions usually remain so heavily burdened with social and legal problems after they have escaped from their Muslim husbands and in-laws that anything like a normal life is impossible. Because of their conversion to Islam, they were given new identity cards listing their religion as Islam. While they may be successful in obtaining a divorce from their Muslim husbands, they are rarely able to obtain a reversal of their religious status. Thus, conversion to Islam is considered non-retractable and any attempt to revert to one’s faith of origin is considered a form of apostasy — a capital offense according to Islamic law. Because re-conversion is not permissible, it is impossible for Coptic women returning to Christianity to obtain new identity cards. Identity cards, which carry a person’s religion, are required in Egypt and are necessary for employment, education, and access to public services. The Egyptian government’s intransigence carries wide-ranging consequences for those women wishing to resume their lives as Christians.
As the country develops, Egyptian children face new challenges, while the old tragedies of poverty continue to haunt 40 percent of families. Thousands are born into poverty, where malnutrition at a young age translates into lifelong health problems. The pressures of meeting daily financial obligations force many families to put their children to work, often in hazardous occupations that jeopardize their health as well as their futures. As a result of more family units breaking apart, there is an increase in the number of children living on the streets.
Egypt, one of the larger countries in Africa, has a population of 80 million people, 20 million of whom are children with ages 14 and younger. Many of these children are abandoned and live on the streets or in the few centers that the Egyptian government has created for its homeless. The fact that the Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia), all street children enrolled at any government centers are given an Islamic name and religion, regardless of their religion.
In Egypt, both civil and Islamic law forbids adoption. Islamic law does not permit an orphan to take on the family name of a non-biological parent. Foster parents can support the child financially and raise him or her in their home, but fostering remains the only option. Due to Islam’s rigid rules governing relationships between males and females, foster parents may not keep an orphan in their home beyond puberty.
However, under Egyptian law, there is no provision for adoption by Christian families. Christian families who want to adopt a child must therefore take him or her from a church rather than from a governmental orphanage. Such church institutions taking care of children do not receive any support from the government and the survival of these orphanages depends highly on the charity of independent donors.
Churches & Religious Institutions
Despite constitutional guarantees regarding religious freedom, Copts regularly face discrimination. Furthermore, it is in practice virtually impossible for Copts to build new churches and/or religious institutions and even to repair or extend their existing churches, whereas no such difficulties exist for the building of new mosques.
The rehabilitation of churches requires a permit from regional governors. The construction of new churches requires the approval of the president and a permit to build one can take as long as ten years — and may never be secured. However, even if the president approves such a request, security forces must investigate to see if the Muslim community does not object. If it does, the church may not be built.
Further Concerns of the Christian Community Following the Recent Unrest
Since January 25, 2011 to-date, Egypt faces the largest demonstrations seen in the country since the 1977 “Bread Riots” drawing participants from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and faiths. The demonstrations started in the weeks after the Tunisian uprising. Grievances for Egyptian protesters have focused on legal and political issues including police brutality, state of emergency laws, lack of free elections and free speech, and corruption as well as economic issues including high unemployment, food price inflation, and low minimum wages. Demands from protest organizers included rights of freedom and justice, the end of the Hosni Mubarak regime, and a new government that represents the interests of the Egyptian people.
On the international level, Church leaders are watching the unfolding political drama in Egypt with a mixture of hope for reform and concern over potential violence.
On the domestic level, the Christian Egyptians’ political position remains unclear as Mubarak’s opponents include both radical and moderate Muslim groups, and it is unclear who might assume power if the president resigns.
CNEWA/Pontifical Mission staff contacted some church institutions and leaders in Egypt regarding the stance of the church of Egypt in view of the current political and security situations, summarized as follows:
1) On the Political Level:
- The Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III who is the head of the largest church in Egypt which includes more than 90 percent of Egypt’s Christians, declared a clear position supporting the current regime and asking for reform from within without any revolutionary actions.
- Christians of Egypt fear a fate similar to the fate of Iraqi Christians who were supportive to the Regime of Saddam Hussein and ended up being persecuted and by Muslim groups who treated them as part of the dictatorship regime.
- The leadership of the Egyptian opposition has a face of a reformist move, but Church leaders believe that the main engine of the demonstrators is fuelled by the Muslim brotherhood that will end up seizing the authority through future elections and all patriotic and ideological parties participating in the protests will be left in deception.
- The Christian activist, George Shahada, who was appointed as one of the ten leaders of the protestors or opposition is considered by the church as an independent activist who does not represent the Christians or the Church of Egypt. Further, many church leaders consider him as part of an image displayed to the international community by the Muslim groups who have a different political agenda for the period after the fall of the regime.
2) On the Security Level:
- At present, the security situation is very critical in all of Egypt, given that the police have withdrawn from all major cities leaving the security issue in a chaotic situation: stealing and burning private and public properties; which forced the inhabitants to organize a self defense mechanism in order to preserve and protect their private and national properties.
- As for the Christians they also made the same arrangement and provided volunteer protection to their churches, institutions and properties.
3) On the Social level
- While discontent, resentment and nationalism continue to fuel demonstrations, basic necessities such as bread, food (beans, rice etc..) and fuel are in short supply. Many families are fast running out of basic food supplies and cash money as most of the banks in the country are still closed.
The rector of Saint Leo The Great Seminary informed CNEWA/Pontifical Mission that the price of regular bread increased by at least 5 times on the black market and all other needs such as vegetables and basic supplies are also either unavailable or very expensive.
III. Addressing the Needs
Despite being a minority, Egypt’s Copts have exerted influence and enjoyed prosperity out of proportion to their numbers. It was perhaps because of this situation, which is often a characteristic of religious minority communities around the world, that they became increasingly marginalized, discriminated against and demoted to the status of second-class citizens. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist and Pan-Arab regime, they were targeted ruthlessly because of their control of around half the national wealth, giving rise to a continuous wave of emigration that continues to this day.
Throughout its history the church suffered a slow decline, which later around the middle of the 20th century experienced an unprecedented revival. This spiritual renaissance began with the Coptic Orthodox Sunday School movements in Cairo, Giza and Assiout. Today, Copts continue to have active youth groups that emphasize religious education as well as providing social interaction. These gatherings are considered to be a very important religious element to all the Coptic families. Coptic children usually join at an early age and continue to participate in them throughout their adolescence.
It has been primarily through the religious institutions of the local church — which shelter, educate, spiritually enlighten and guide the poor and disadvantaged Christian population — that Egyptian Christianity has been preserved.
- By supporting orphanages, social, medical and educational institutions, funders will further provide the Christian children of Egypt with the opportunities they need to improve the quality of their lives by ensuring safe homes, wholesome meals, education, health care and spiritual guidance and above all protect them from turning to Islam.
- By providing needed financial support and priority to a community that succeeds in acquiring a permit for rehabilitation or construction of a church, benefactors will ensure and sustain the survival of the Christian minority community.
- By supporting pastoral and awareness activities in the parishes, donors will encourage and help the Christian believers who are afraid due to the increasing persecution against them to hold on to their faith and their country.
- By supporting initiatives of ecumenism, funders will increase the opportunities of a Christian unity among all Christians in Egypt.