For the last several decades Christians have experienced violence and discrimination at the hands of the government and Muslim extremist groups, but tensions increased after the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that toppled authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak and ushered in President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. This included open vilification of Christians in public education as well as an uptick in kidnapping, sectarian attacks, and anti-Christian rhetoric in the media. Under Egypt’s current military-propped president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, tensions have eased somewhat, although repression remains.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Egypt
Egypt, Libya, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, Sussex University
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
Today it is estimated that 10 percent of the Egyptian population is Christian—around 9.5 million people. Of this demographic, 90 percent follow the Coptic Orthodox faith, and the remaining 10 percent are Protestant and Catholic. The dominant religion of Egypt is Islam.
History of the Egyptian Christian Community
Egypt has one of the most ancient Christian populations in the Middle East, dating back to the fourth century, and it is regarded by many as the home of Christian monasticism.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
For the last several decades Christians have experienced violence and discrimination at the hands of the government and Muslim extremist groups, but tensions increased after the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that toppled authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. After a fraught transitional period, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election in June 2012. Under the rule of president Morsi, repression of Christians greatly increased. This included open vilification of Christians in public education as well as an uptick in kidnapping, sectarian attacks, and anti-Christian rhetoric in the media.
The forced removal of President Morsi in 2013, after just one year in office, ushered in a new wave of violence. The pro-Morsi coalition and the anti-Morsi security apparatus became involved in bloody and intense confrontations. Pro-Morsi factions orchestrated a systematic, nationwide scorched earth policy, and Christians were one of its primary targets, in part because Copts had participated in the protests that led to Morsi’s removal. In one incident, 64 places of worship, faith-based organizations, and private property were assaulted within 12 hours.
Under Egypt’s current military-propped president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, tensions have eased somewhat, although repression remains. At the time of the transition, Pope Tawadrous, head of the Orthodox Coptic Church, forged an understanding with Sissi, premised on their common agenda of rejecting Islamist rule. But despite this relationship, Christians continue to face institutionalized forms of discrimination, lack of justice in cases of sectarian violence, and harassment at the hands of ultra-conservative Salafis.
Responses to Persecution
Christian responses to persecution in Egypt in the years since the Arab Uprising of 2011 have often been ones of confrontation and resistance, although at times leadership has had to compromise in order to protect its community. In part, this ability to resist is due to the relatively large size of the Christian population compared to other countries in the region.
After the election of President Morsi in 2012, Pope Tawadrous of the Coptic Church coped with the increasing pressures of Islamization through a combination of withdrawal and occasional aggravation. Pressured by its own civil society, the Coptic Orthodox leadership was the first to withdraw from the constitution-writing process under the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, protesting its non-inclusionary nature. Its withdrawal undermined the legitimacy of the constitution and triggered other political forces and actors to follow suit.
Unfortunately, such opposition resulted in retaliatory violence, although Coptics did not assume a quietist stance towards the new regime’s assaults. Marches, protests, and vigils were regularly held to protest infringements and demand justice. In terms of ordinary citizen coping strategies, there were clear differentiations across gender, class, and age. Young Coptic women in particular resisted all forms of coercion to veil, even when it meant they were subject to intense verbal and occasionally physical assault.
Some of the wealthier Copts have responded to the persecution by emigrating in large numbers, enabled by their wealth, education, and social capital. Coptic members of the non-elite adapted a number of everyday coping measures that would avert confrontation and minimize the impact of encroachments. In the village of Al-Amoudein, for example, when students became vulnerable to attack on public transport, the local church organized alternative transportation to pick up and drop off students from nearby schools. When students began to experience discrimination in the classroom, they opted for distance learning.
After the ousting of Morsi, church leadership responded to the new wave of violence by pressing for non-confrontation at all costs. They also chose to affirm the church’s patriotic stance by refraining from seeking international support. This decision came at a critical time when the West was condemning the people’s uprising as a coup, and it most likely helped avert bloody confrontations that could have left many dead.
Under Sissi’s current reign, Copts’ cope with repression by minimizing vulnerability to encroachment rather than attempting to maximize citizenship entitlements. This translates into (mostly) low-key resistance and sometimes even open support for the new regime rather than open contestation. In a ranking exercise undertaken by 20 priests in a workshop in August 2015, the priests identified restrictions on church construction and repairs as one of their primary challenges. In most cases, they opt for low-key negotiations in a bid to avoid confrontation with the security apparatus. For his part, Pope Tawadrous has openly expressed support for Sissi, as well as gratitude for Sissi’s gestures of goodwill, including visits to the Cathedral during Christmas Eve mass. Unfortunately, while this relationship appears to have increased the church’s power as an institution, it has done little to improve the situation for Copts on the ground.
By and large, what is most striking about the Coptic responses in Egypt since 2011 is the positive relationship between religiously-targeted repression and resistance: more encroachment did not produce subservience but rather increased open resistance from organized Coptic movements, subtle defiance by ordinary citizens, and strategic non-alignment on the part of the Coptic church. It is important to note that the Coptic response to the replacement of the Islamist regime with a military-propped one does not necessarily indicate an embracement of dictatorship over democracy. Their response to the post-2014 order was guided first by a desire for liberation from second-class citizenship premised on a religious profiling, and second, as a historic survival strategy of choosing the least hazardous of two options.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Mariz Tadros and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.