Christianity has a long history in Egypt since early times, yet there remains discrimination in the nation, extending from government and permeating the level of the community.
Egypt is an important and pivotal country due to its location, political background, and historical influence. The largest religious minority in the country is composed of Egyptian Christians, known as Copts. Among them, the dominant form of Christianity is the Coptic Orthodox Church, the oldest and largest church in Egypt. The majority of Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has around 6 to 11 million members. Copts believe that the Church's history can be traced back approximately to 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. St. Mark is seen as the first Pope of Alexandria, making the Coptic Orthodox Church one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land. Although Christians and Muslims are constantly in contact in daily life, there remain obstacles to their harmonious coexistence. The Sisi government is making efforts to combat the prejudice against minority groups; however, it lacks credible commitment on the part of law enforcement in the local community, especially in rural areas.
During the Arab Spring protests of 2011, there was a new political movement rising in Egypt. In the wake of the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian society enjoyed greater political freedom and groups were able to express their discontent. Mohammed Morsi, a senior member of the formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, won the presidential election of 2012. The 2011-2 elections were the first competitive elections in almost 100 years in Egypt. In power, Morsi sought to expand the breadth of his rule and manipulate the drafting of a new constitution. This cultivated fears among the Coptic minority of a new form of Muslim majoritarianism.
In 2013, a popular movement supported by large numbers of Egyptians arose to challenge the Morsi administration. Known as Tamarod (“rebel” in Arabic arose, it was supported by most Egyptians, including Copts, the police, the army, and many businesses. Tamarod intervened to overthrow the government and the military ousted Morsi in the summer of 2013. Former Minister of Defence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was involved in the protest, and he then ran as a candidate in the 2014 presidential election. In 2018, Sisi won re-election with 97 percent of the vote. Constitutional changes in 2019 will allow Sisi to stay in office for another 12 years. Though the army retains ultimate political power, Sisi’s popularity is decreasing amid economic crisis and ongoing security challenges.
Coptic Christians have been the targets of violence and aggression in Egypt over the past few decades. The situation has worsened even though the government has been rhetorically committed to ending such attacks. Copts continue to face discrimination both from the government and social pressures on the community.
Since Sisi arose to power, there have been persistent concerns about the status of human rights in Egypt. Studies show that the government has jailed tens of thousands of peaceful critics, including over 4,000 persons arrested in the wake of peaceful protests in September 2019. It is also common that records of violence against Christians are often left unpunished. It is still a requirement to include one’s religion on Egyptian State ID cards. The section only provides for three "divine religions." Babies or children of Christian women may well be registered under the majority religion. It is challenging for converts from Islam to Christianity or any other religion to change their religious field. It is also complicated if both parents are converts: their wedding will be invalid under Egyptian laws, and the children are considered illegitimate.
Egyptian law limits freedom of religion. Shariʽa law is considered "the principal source of legislation" under the constitution. It is stated that the constitution does not protect converts from Islam to Christianity.
There are also limitations on media for Egyptians. Journalists are aware that they could face fines or penalties when it comes to reporting certain news or commenting on certain topics. Facebook or modern communication technology is widely used in Egypt, but they are all monitored by the government; for instance, President Sisi and his government have blocked many websites because of their political content. It is common for the police to request a schedule of all events happening inside a church. The police could cancel any of the events under the rationale of protecting national security. The opening of a new church will also put Christians at risk. Even though more churches have been legitimated under the 2016 Church Construction Law, many churches are still awaiting recognition. Some reports even show that Egyptian Christians must pay higher taxes for gas, electricity, and water supply.
Christians also face pressures from Egyptian society. Islamic culture sustains a view in the community where Muslims should be the only religion in the society. This attitude causes greater informal discrimination of Christians in the nation. Christians are often marginalized and treated as second-class citizens in modern Egypt. They are often arbitrarily accused and charged for blasphemy. It shows that Christians also have a more challenging time finding a government job and are more likely to be boycotted. Muslims have forced whole communities of Christians to relocate.
Pressures from family members and society is very high for Christians in Egypt. A Christian woman may marry a Muslim, but a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman. Women are commonly targeted for marriage by abduction, rape, and forced conversion by Islamist networks. Christian girls are often lured into marriages, while the girls are still underage and come from vulnerable families. The women who converted to Christianity are likely to get divorced and lose custody of their children. The government has tried to raise the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18, yet this remains a controversial issue. Christian girls are easily targeted because they do not wear Islamic clothing; they are often harassed while walking down the street.
Egypt has had a reputation for having high rates of sexual harassment and violence towards minorities. Nonetheless there have been some improvements in the protection of these groups. The legalization of churches is growing slowly, and there have been no major church attacks since 2020. Egypt has a long history of authoritarian rule. Ten years ago, Mubarak's long dictatorship was finally ended through the social protests that led to the Muslim Brotherhood's election. The Sisi government is more concerned about the protection of Christians, but this mostly favours the Coptic Orthodox Church. Such protection does not always permeate to the level of local governments. Religious freedom remains a challenge in Egypt, but the work of independent NGOs and activists continues in an effort to improve the situation.
IIRF-V Fellows undertake research on religious freedom in the state of Egypt. For more information, see Open Doors' World Watch List entry on Egypt.
“Copts, Church and State in Contemporary Egypt”, Manara Magazine, Spring 2022.
“The Appeal of Caesar: the Future of Christians Living in the Authoritarian Context of the Middle East”, UBC Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum, Vancouver BC, 20 January 2022.
“Who are the Coptic Christians?”, The Conversation, 17 April 2017.