The Orthodox or Coptic Church in Egypt traces its roots to the first century AD. Since the 7th century, the church community has often struggled to preserve the right to freely practice its faith. In recent times, several high profile incidents and legal cases lodged by and against Christians have highlighted the inherent hostility that continues to characterise relations between the Islamic state and its minority Christian constituency.
Mohammed Hegazy, is suing the government to officially recognise his conversion from Islam to Christianity. While Egyptian civil law, as distinct from Shar’ia law, does not prohibit conversion, neither does it make provision for Muslims to change the legal status they inherit at birth. Hegazy’s apostasy has angered many Egyptians and he has been subject to death threats from various extremist Muslim groups. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has officially distanced itself from his cause, fearing a public backlash. Protestant Christians, on the other hand, are more supportive of him and see his case setting a crucial legal precedent.
The Orthodox church remains the umbrella for more than 90% of Christians in Egypt, however, it has been encroached upon by a resurgent indigenous traditional protestant church, as well as a rapidly growing Evangelical community. Kasr el-Dobara is the best example of this and is the largest Protestant church in the Middle East.
However, what perceived growth there is within one church is often at the expense of other churches. There is no evidence, beyond the anecdotal, to support the claims made some Christian organisations, of significant conversions from Islam to Christianity.
There exists a fundamental disagreement as to the size of the Christian community in Egypt. This is because the figures quoted by Christians and the government are miles apart. According to the Coptic Church, Christians make up as much as 13% of Egypt’s 73 million population.
The state run, Central Agency for Population Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the state agency, works with a figure of 5.5%. It bases this figure primarily on the results of the last census. According to most experts this is the most accurate estimate.
Fresh controversy stemming from this discrepancy reared its head in August of this year, when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its annual report on Egypt. Quoting an 11% estimate, and in the process criticized the Egyptian government for permitting continuing under representation of Christians within the government and other state institutions. This is true and Christians have little or no representation among Provincial governors, ambassadors, nor in the Maglis el Sha’b (People’s Assembly). This is a serious problem and a source of tension among Christians.
Kees Hulsman, the director of the Centre for Arab West Understanding (CAWU)*, says that between five and seven thousand Christians convert to Islam annually. Most of these converts are young women, between the ages of 18 and 25, who convert to Islam through marriage, for practical and/or financial reasons.
Furthermore, Egypt has experienced an unprecedented emigration exodus, supported by the fact that it is fourth highest recipient, among nations, of remittances from citizens living abroad. A disproportionate numbers of the emigrants are Christians.
According to Hulsman‘s research, which he will be presenting in a paper at the University of Antwerp, the combination of these two factors, conversions and emigration, the Christian community in Egypt, relative to the rest of the population is not only smaller than is anecdotally claimed but is in fact shrinking at an increasingly alarming rate.
Due to the shrinking Christian population, Mohammed Hegazy’s case and others like are important. Establishing legal rights for Christian converts may create the space for the Egyptian church to begin replenishing its numbers. If the leadership within the Christian community does not embrace a more sober accounting of its numbers and challenges facing it, this important minority, which has stood as a witness of the risen Christ, may be reduced to a historical relic.
By: Karabo Che Mokoape