Egypt has been in political turmoil since the January Revolution of 2011. President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February 2011, and his successor President Mohammed Morsi remained in office only a year – he was ousted by the army in July 2013, after weeks of mass protests against his rule. A new constitution was approved in January 2014, which was seen as being more inclusive of Christians, especially the Coptic Church. The current President, General Abdel al-Sisi, was elected in May 2014.
Egypt’s cities and agricultural activity are concentrated along the banks of the Nile and its delta; the rest of the country is mostly desert. The economy depends on agriculture, tourism and cash remittances from Egyptians working abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Cairo is Africa’s largest city, with about 7 million people (city) or 17 million (greater urban area).
About 90% of Egyptians are Muslim and 10% Christian. Most Egyptian Christians belong to the historic Coptic Orthodox church, but there has been a marked growth in recent years in the number of Christians from a Muslim background, and the Cairo church Kasr El Dobara is the largest evangelical church in the Middle East. Christians face restrictions and sometimes, especially recently, violent attacks.
The building and repairing of churches in Egypt has been a controversial issue for decades. Churches have faced great difficulties in obtaining government permits to construct new buildings and repair existing ones – it has been almost impossible to obtain a licence to build a new church. Building a mosque requires only a regular planning permit, but until recently building a church required a presidential permit and years of paperwork, while the authorities procrastinated and sidelined applications. Christians have been attacked by Muslim mobs suspecting them of carrying out unauthorised repairs or using homes for church services.
On 30 August 2016, the Egyptian parliament passed legislation intended to make it quicker and easier to obtain permission to construct and repair church buildings. In October 2017, a cabinet committee met to start work on the legalisation of unlicensed churches. While many welcomed the legislation, some Copts and human rights NGOs consider it restrictive, for instance in regard to stipulations about the size of new church buildings. Also, they are concerned that the law may actually entrench discrimination: instead of requiring presidential permission, applications must now be submitted to provincial governors, who are required to consider “the preservation of security and public order”, which might give grounds for refusal if governors are pressurised by local Muslims resistant to church building. These restrictive conditions do not apply to applications for mosque building.
On 6 January 2018, the Ministry of Housing announced that Christians would be allowed to meet in unlicenced churches while registration applications are processed.
Egyptian citizens are required to carry national identity cards that state their religion, and there is no provision for anyone who is born a Muslim to change the religious identity stated on the ID card to Christian. Islam is viewed as the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims cannot convert to Christianity or Judaism because those religions predate Islam and have been superceded by it. This prohibition causes difficulties in many aspects of life for Christians who are former Muslims (including church attendance, employment, travel and marriage).
Journalist Bishoy Armia Boulous, a convert previously known as Mohammed Hegazy, became well-known in Egypt as the first citizen to attempt to change the religious status on his ID card from Muslim to Christian, in a case begun in 2007. Over the years he suffered harrassment, several arrests and was beaten in prison. In July 2016, following two and a half years’ unlawful detention for documenting the persecution of Christians in Minya province, Bishoy was released on bail into the custody of his parents. They had turned him in to the authorities for leaving Islam. In August 2016, Bishoy announced that he had returned to Islam.
In July 2011 the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in favour of Christian “reconverts”, allowing them to be identified as Christians on their ID cards. These are people from a Christian background who become Muslims for reasons such as marriage or employment and later wish to return to Christianity. This ruling will clear the way for kidnapped Christian teenage girls, forced to become Muslims and marry their kidnappers, to return to Christianity when rescued by their families. The kidnapping of teenage Christian girls is a continuing social problem in Egypt, and Christians protest that the police fail to act when such kidnappings are reported.
Turmoil since 2011
2011 was a year of upheaval and violence in Egypt, beginning with the January Revolution, when mass demonstrations led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February. His 30-year regime had been marked by repression and corruption. Christians hoped their situation would improve, but extremist Muslims, notably the ultraconservative Salafis, attacked Christians’ homes and businesses and set church buildings on fire. President Mubarak had banned extremist groups, but after the revolution hundreds of Salafis returned to Egypt from abroad and some were released from prison.
Islamist parties won the parliamentary elections in January 2012 and in June, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won the presidential election. Clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi forces.
On 30 June 2013, millions of protestors across Egypt called for President Morsi to resign, and many Christians joined the protests. On 3 July, the army ousted President Morsi. When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the deposition on state television, Orthodox Pope Tawadros II appeared on the broadcast and spoke briefly. Within hours, mobs of Morsi supporters began to attack Christians and their homes, businesses and church buildings.
On 14 August 2013, police and soldiers forcibly broke up two large pro-Morsi camps in Cairo, and hundreds of people died. Hours later, in retaliation, radical Islamist Morsi supporters attacked churches and Christian-owned buildings all over Egypt with firebombs, Molotov cocktails and stones. Graffiti was painted on church buildings and Christian homes and businesses, which were daubed with anti-Christian slogans and large crosses overpainted with a red X. Over 70 churches and Christian institutions were destroyed by fire, including a monastery and three Bible Society bookshops, as well as many Christian homes and businesses. Some Muslims tried to protect Christians and their churches. Morsi supporters also attacked police stations, hospitals and other private and public properties.
Following the events of 2013, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were jailed and sentenced to death. Egypt’s Defence Minister ordered the army to rebuild churches burned by protesters, and some of Cairo’s biggest churches were given armed security.
Violence in the Sinai Peninsula increased greatly following the ousting of President Morsi, in an attempt by Islamists to avenge the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the perpetrators are foreign jihadists who attack military and police facilities and Christians. Hundreds of police officers and soldiers have been killed, as well as civilians, and homes and churches have been torched.
Attacks in 2017
Between 31 January and 23 February 2017, militants from a group calling itself Islamic State of Egypt killed seven Coptic Christians in Al-Arish, North Sinai Province, and on 19 February the group released a video threatening Copts. Hundreds of terrified Christians fled Sinai. Elsewhere in Egypt, five Copts had been murdered in under two weeks in January.
At least 49 people were killed and over 120 others were injured when suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches during Palm Sunday services on 9 April 2017. The first bomb exploded at St George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 and wounding 78 others. Hours later, a suicide bomber was stopped at the door of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. He detonated explosives that killed at least 22 people, including four police guards, and injured 48 others. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks.
On 26 May, militants armed with machine guns killed 30 Copts in an attack on a convoy of buses carrying pilgrims to St Samuel Monastery in Minya, southern Egypt. Around 25 other Copts were injured. Once again, Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Between 26 May and 6 July, five more Copts were murdered in individual attacks. No one claimed responsibility for the deaths of the four men and one woman.
In mid-July, churches cancelled all summer activities for at least three weeks apart from church services, following an Interior Ministry warning of terrorist attacks. The Ministry sent letters to churches saying investigations revealed that Islamist terrorists were planning nationwide attacks against the military, police and churches.
On 12 October, a Coptic Orthodox priest was murdered in Cairo by an attacker armed with a machete.
On 29 December, gunmen killed eight Copts and a Muslim police officer in Helwan, just south of Cairo. Six of the Christians were leaving a service in Mar Mina Coptic Orthodox church, where the police officer was on security duty, and two were Christians shot in a nearby shop. At least five other Christians were injured in the church attack, which was claimed by an affiliate of Islamic State.
Attacks in 2016
On 11 December 2016, 23 Christians were killed in a bomb attack on a chapel attached to St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. The death toll later rose to 28. Another 65 Christians were injured, and the building was badly damaged. President Sisi responded by declaring three days of national mourning, and the army repaired the building. Islamic State claimed responsibility, and hundreds of Copts protested that the government was not doing enough to protect them from extremist attacks.
On 25 November 2016, a mob attacked buildings belonging to the Coptic community of Al-Nagameesh village, Sohag governorate, Upper Egypt, thinking that a community centre was being used as a church. The mob torched the centre, which was being used as a care home for the elderly and a nursery. The mob also torched Coptic houses and businesses in the village, injuring several people, and prevented access to the village for emergency services – when police eventually arrived, they had to use tear gas before arresting 29 people (15 were later released). The 2,000 Christians in the village had no church building, as their application for one was pending.
Similar attacks occurred elsewhere in Upper Egypt during 2016, also following rumours that buildings were being used as churches.
Copts beheaded in Libya in 2015
In February 2015, Islamist extremists released a video showing the beheading of twenty Egyptian Copts in Libya, where they had gone to work. The men came from Minya Governorate, 250 kilometres south of Cairo, a region with a relatively large Christian population. Minya is comparatively undeveloped, and many men from poor villages travel to find work outside Egypt. In March 2015, an armed mob attacked the martyred Copts’ village church.
(Assist News, BBC, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Compass Direct News, Irish Times, Middle East Concern, Morning Star News, Sat-7, Telegraph, World Watch Monitor)
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains has been involved in supporting Christians in Egypt for over twenty years. Two fact-finding visits and constant monitoring of persecution incidents have led to a number of meetings with successive Egyptian Ambassadors to Ireland to discuss religious freedom issues. Church in Chains has sent aid to poor Christian families and Christians from a Muslim background.
The militants shot Bassem Herz Attalhah in the head, killing him instantly.
Copts of Kom El-Loufy, 250 km south of Cairo, began construction work on a new church building in December, ten years after filing an application.
Getting permission to open a church in Egypt is difficult and controversial, as highlighted by two recent cases.
Gunmen killed nine people in Helwan, just south of Cairo, on 29 December – six Christians leaving a church service, a Muslim police officer on security duty at the church building and two Copts in a nearby shop.
St George’s Cathedral, Tanta, has reopened eight months after the Palm Sunday suicide bombing that killed 28 Christians and injured 74 others.