Egypt is a majority Muslim nation, with Christians composing around 10% of Egypt’s religious population, according to the U.S. State Department. A majority of Christians in Egypt are part of the Coptic Orthodox Church, with less than two percent of Christians belonging to either the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or various protestant denominations.
Here are 10 facts about the persecution Christians in Egypt are facing:
1. In Egypt, Christianity is legal but Christians are excluded from many parts of society.
Religious freedom, particularly the right to practice Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), is included in the Egyptian Constitution. However, the Egyptian constitution also establishes Islam as the official state religion. Much of the social exclusion and discrimination of Christians comes from within their local communities.
Christians are barred from holding jobs and prominent positions in Egyptian academia, which often require their faculty to study the Quran or adhere to tenants of Islam. There have also been reports that Christians are denied jobs for failing to meet requirements from employers that could only be met by Muslims. In rural areas, Christians often take trains into northern Egypt or to the neighboring country of Libya in search of employment.
2. The Egyptian government requires churches to register.
In 2016, the Egyptian government passed a law that appeared to aid Christians in gaining the necessary permits to construct more churches. However, acquiring a church-construction permit is an extensive process.
“There are laws regarding churches. It’s a long process to submit papers for building a new church,” Father Gergis Hakeim, a Coptic Orthodox priest, told NPR.
Since September 2017, just 1,800 churches have been registered out of over 5,000 pending applications. Many churches remain unlicensed, and since 2016, the Egyptian government has closed numerous unlicensed churches, particularly those located in the villages of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt).
The Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, has lately approved the construction of several large churches in large cities such as Alexandria or Cairo. However, much of the Christian population is located in the rural villages of Upper Egypt where authorities often stall or deny the construction of new churches.
“In the cities, Christians are generally free to practice their religion. But poor Christians in rural Minya can’t afford to go [to the cities],” said NPR journalist, Jane Arraf. “In fact, Christians in Minya don’t blame Sisi for the lack of churches. They say it’s officials under him who are caving into Muslim extremists in the villages.”
In 2018, the U.S. State Department reported that “a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church…. The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.”
3. An individual’s religious affiliation is listed on their ID card.
The Egyptian government includes a person’s religious designation on their ID card, which then dictates what Islamic laws concerning marriage, divorce, or inheritance apply.
If someone converts from Islam to Christianity, it is difficult to reflect that change in religious designation on an ID card. According to OpenDoors USA’s World Watch Research, if a married couple converts from Islam to Christianity, by law their marriage is declared void and their children illegitimate.
“The law states individuals may change their religion,” says a report on Egypt by the U.S. State Department. “However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion.”
4. Christians who converted from Islam face social pressure.
Within society, apostasy from Islam is not tolerated. Muslim friends and family often place enormous amounts of pressure on Christians to deconvert.
5. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened poverty and social discrimination of Christians
According to International Christian Concern, unemployment rates among Christians in Upper Egypt neared 80% during the pandemic.
“Egyptian Christians report that increased taxes and higher gas, electricity and water supply prices led to rises in the prices of food, transportation and houseware,” stated OpenDoors USA’s World Watch Research. “Price increases have put more pressure on the social structure of society, … Many Christians have had to use their savings, if they have any, to buy food.”
In addition to poverty issues, Christians were blamed in some cases for causing the pandemic and spreading the virus, while religious leaders claimed that Christians or Muslims were immune COVID-19.
6. Christian human rights activists have been imprisoned.
Human rights activist and Coptic Christian, Ramy Kamel has been in prison since 2019. Kamel has defended the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt by documenting attacks on Christian churches by Islamic extremists.
He was arrested on charges of “spreading false news” and “belonging to a terrorist organization.” USCIRF has stated that Kamel has been detained in solitary confinement for over a year without trial. According to the U.S. State Department Kamel’s detention was extended in December 2020.
Kamel is not the only Christian and activist who has been detained without trial for defending the rights of Coptic Christians.
7. Islamic State (ISIS) and Salafist jihadists fuel violent attacks on Christians in both rural areas and cities.
The presence of Islamic extremists in Egypt has increased dramatically since the rise of ISIS in 2014. Extremist groups operate within both rural villages, particularly in Upper Egypt, and in large cities, like Alexandria. In villages, Islamic extremism has inspired local violence against Christians from kidnappings, to church vandalism, to violent mobs and coordinated attacks. In the cities, churches have been struck by shootings and suicide bombers, often in the middle of services.
ISIS and Salafist jihadists have explicitly targeted Christians. In a video claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing, ISIS labeled Christians in Egypt ‘our first target and favourite prey.’
8. Christian women are often kidnapped and forced to convert.
Many young Christian women are kidnapped by Islamic extremists, forced to convert to Islam and then often married off to Muslim men.
“The Salafist group I knew rented apartments in different areas of Egypt to hide kidnapped Coptic girls,” said a former Muslim and former trafficker in Egypt in an article with OpenDoors USA. “There they put them under pressure and threaten them to convert to Islam. And once they reach the legal age, an Islamic official comes in to legally change their religion to Islam.”
When the family of a missing Christian woman reports to the authorities, police are slow to react or respond.
“Because local police are more often than not in collusion with the kidnappers, the families have to come up with enormous sums to get their daughters back,” stated an article from The Washington Times. “If the family is poor, their daughter is gone forever.”
9. Mass violent attacks on Christians and churches are common.
The possibility of being killed for confessing Christ is continually present for Christians in Egypt. Attacks are frequent in the rural areas of Upper Egypt, especially in the Minya Governate, according to OpenDoors USA. In 2018, a bus carrying 28 Christians returning from a baptism in Minya was stopped by Islamic extremists and shot up, resulting in 7 deaths. The year before, 26 Christians were shot on their way to evening prayers along the same road in Minya. ISIS claimed responsibility for both shootings.
Violent attacks are not limited to rural areas alone. During Palm Sunday services in 2017 when two Coptic Orthodox churches were hit by suicide bombers. At St. George’s Church in Tanta, the bombing killed 27 people and injured 78. At St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, the second bomb killed 17 people and injured 48 more. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II was in St. Mark’s cathedral at the time of the bombing and was unhurt. ISIS claimed the St. Mark’s bombing was an assassination attempt on Pope Tawadros II. This was not the first threat against his life by Islamic extremists.
10. Christians in Egypt have been experiencing persecution for centuries.
Christianity has been present in Egypt since the first century when St. Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to Roman-controlled Alexandria. Egypt was a Christian nation until the Arabs invaded in the seventh century. Ever since, Coptic Christians have survived under shifting Muslim regimes and caliphates.
Under Islamic rule, Christians could either leave the country, convert to Islam, or pay a tax. Those who opted to remain Christian and pay the tax were tattooed with a small cross on their right hand or wrist for identification. It was meant as a public symbol of shame and ostracism.
While the conversion tax is now illegal in Egypt, Coptic Christians have proudly adopted the cross tattoo as a permanent and public sign of their history and allegiance to Christ, especially in the face of still ongoing persecution.
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