Religion Unplugged

Are Egypt's Christians Persecuted? Why Some Copts Say No

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Coptic Christians pray during a protest in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian protests.
Coptic Christians pray during a protest in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian protests.

The religious freedom of and even the number of Christians in Egypt is highly contested.

Last year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) removed Egypt from its recommended category of “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC),” its list of the world’s worst religious persecutors, but recommended that it be added to the State Department's Special Watch List (SWL). The SWL list is countries whose governments tolerate or engage in severe religious freedom violations, but do not rise to the CPC standard of “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”

Hence, it was especially good to see the organization In Defense of Christians organize a webinar on the issue. The session was introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman Democrat of California’s 30th District and Rep. French Hill, Republican of Arkansas's 2nd District since 2015. It featured Nadine Maenza, who is a Commissioner on USCIRF, Kurt Werthmuller, who is a Supervisory Policy Analyst with the USCIRF, and Samuel Tadros, who is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Apart from their professional expertise, Tadros is himself an Egyptian Christian, as are members of Werthmuller’s family.

Clearly, Egypt is not in the same category as highly restrictive countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan. Egyptian President Sisi has made repeated and important symbolic statements and appearances concerning Egyptian Christians, usually called Copts, the largest religious minority in the country and, at some 10 million, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. He has emphasized the equality of Egyptians, visited the main Coptic cathedral at Christmas, and has assisted the construction of a Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s yet-to-be-named new administrative capital, 45 kilometers East of Cairo. A Parliamentary Committee has very slowly but steadily been giving official recognition to many already-built churches.

But Copts do suffer from systematic discrimination in that taxes that they pay go to mosques, Muslim schools and universities and imams but not for Christian organizations. They are also underrepresented in government media and in government job positions, including in the educational system. There are still discriminatory restrictions on the construction and repair of churches, and the laws on marriage inheritance and conversion also discriminate against Christians. Local government authorities have closed at least 25 churches and church-related facilities since the passage of the law in 2016.

Copts also suffer persecution from Islamic extremists. ISIS has targeted them and massacred over 100 in recent years. But, apart from terrorist attacks, radicals or mobs may attack Christian meetings that are not in a church, or when they build or repair churches, or are suspected of doing so, or are public about their faith, or talk to Muslims about their beliefs, or are believed to have insulted Muslims. There are also attacks on Copts, often women, to get them to convert. Converts from Islam, those accused of proselytism, and those accused of a relationship with a Muslim woman, are particularly targeted. In 2013, when then General Sisi overthrew the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, the Brotherhood singled out the Copts for particular blame and in three days in August of that year, hundreds of churches, religious sites, businesses and homes were attacked.

With a few exceptions such as those accused of insulting Islam, the Egyptian government itself does not target Copts, but various levels of government are either unable or unwilling to protect them or to punish those who attack them. USCFIRF states: “Anti-Christian mob attacks remain endemic in parts of rural Egypt … but legal impunity for the perpetrators persisted as the systematic norm.”

The Egyptian government does target those who report on religious persecution and other human rights violations, including newspapers such as Mada Madr, journalists, and the staff of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights. Coptic activist Ramy Kamel was arrested in 2019 only a couple of days before he was scheduled to participate in the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues, in which he was due to make a contribution on the rights of Copts in Egypt. On Aug. 23, 2020, his sister was able to visit him briefly and she stated that Kamel has lost about one third of his weight. He was able to communicate that he is in a very poor state of mental health, due to prolonged solitary confinement, and conveyed that he was suffering repeated asthma attacks and has not received proper medical care. He is still detained.

Despite these ongoing incidents, on Jan. 8, 2021, the Coptic pope, Patriarch Tawadros II, rejected the term “persecution”: “When I meet the leaders of the world, they always ask me questions about the persecution that is affecting us in Egypt, and I answer that there is no persecution, clearly rejecting this expression to qualify our condition in our country."

There is no standard definition of persecution and there can be several reasons for the pope’s and others’ rejection of this term. One is that for many Egyptian Christians the term “persecution” conjures up times past, especially under the Romans, when they were hunted down by the authorities, tortured and killed, including by wild beasts. When we read of the vicious persecution of the early church, we must remember that much of this took place in Egypt. Persecution of Christians in Egypt was more intense than in any other country—with perhaps hundreds of thousands killed. For this reason, the Coptic Church determined to start its calendar, not from its founding by St. Mark in AD 42 but with the year of the vicious Emperor Diocletian’s accession to the throne in 248 AD, calling its calendar “Anno Martyrii”, meaning, “Of the Martyrs.” The is what the term “persecution” might imply.

More recently, the attacks on Copts on Aug. 14-16, 2013 were the largest in modern history and probably the most extensive series of attacks on Copts since 1321 A.D., under the Mamluks, when a similar wave of church burnings signaled a centuries-long period of intense persecution. Clearly, persecution on this scale is not ongoing.

Another reason for reticence is that stating that there is persecution can be construed as illegal. Article 80(d) of the Egyptian Penal Code provides for custodial sentences ranging between six months and five years, or a fine or both, for "any Egyptian who deliberately disseminates abroad false and tendentious information, statements or rumors on the internal situation in the country, with the aim of … undermining its stature or prestige…" This is a sweeping and vague law. It specifies statements made “abroad,” but what if you make a statement in Egypt that is then reported abroad or accessed on the internet?

In addition, anybody who seeks to report on persecution of Copts or others may be accused of raising tensions and thus creating “sectarian strife.” This is an offense under Article 98 of the penal code for which one can be imprisoned for five years. Article 86 also forbids “spreading by words what is damaging to national unity and social peace.” Reporting on human rights in Egypt is a dangerous occupation.

Clergy may be singled out. Article 201 of the penal code penalizes “any clergy delivering in a place of worship, or in a religious gathering, while performing his duty, any insult or criticism of an act by the administration.” I, and many others, have had the experience in Egypt of being explicitly told of persecution and then being told by the same person that they would deny it.

People with a history like the Copts are cautious in applying the term “persecution” to present circumstances, especially if they might be persecuted for doing so.

Read in Religion Unplugged