Egypt's Persecuted Christians


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Egypt's Persecuted Christians


Egypt has a population of 63 271 000 and has the largest Church in the Arab world. Egyptian Christians experience though harassment and persecution from both the Egyptian Government and various Islamic extremist groups such as the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia.

The Coptic minority makes up around 10% of the population but the Coptic Orthodox Church comprises around 90% of the Christian community in Egypt. Protestant, Catholic, Anglican and other Orthodox denominations (eg Syriac) represent the other 10% of Christians in Egypt.

St Mark is traditionally described as the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic means Egyptian in the pre-Arabic language of the country. It became ecclesiastically isolated from the European church in 451 AD when political and theological differences with Rome led to and irrevocable split at the Council of Chalcedon. Christian monasticism began in Egypt.

Since 1993, Jubilee Campaign has produced several reports and papers on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, two of which have been launched in Parliament.


The problems facing the Christian community in Egypt are varied.


The legal foundation for the Egyptian State’s control of church property is the Ottoman Hamayouni Decree of 1856. The Decree required Christian congregations to submit petitions for any form of building, repair or renovation of church property to the head of state. Any work depended on his approval. Over the last ten years only thirty-five permits were granted to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Ten permits were for building new churches and twenty-five were for repairs and maintenance work. This averages one new church per year for ten years and gives a ratio of new churches to church members of 1:900 000.

In December 1999, the Egyptian President relaxed the Decree. He ordered that permits for 'all houses of worship' be obtained from the local authority. This means that all mosques as well as Christian churches have to obtain permits for repairs. There are fears though amongst some Christians that Christians will be blamed for the delayed maintenance and construction of mosques.


Converts from Islam to Christianity in Egypt face heavy persecution. Under Islamic Sharia Law, conversion from Islam to any other faith is punishable by death. Converts to Christianity face harassment from both the State and their own family.

CASE STUDY: Hanaan Assofti - 26 year old convert from Islam to Christianity.

She was arrested by Egyptian State Security officers on 10 October 1992 at Cairo International Airport. She was attempting to leave the country to seek asylum and to join her fiancée in Europe. Police told her father that she intended to leave for Europe, where Christians would employ her as a prostitute. The woman’s parents were advised that she should not be permitted to leave home for a period of one year. She has been regularly beaten by family members who are trying to convert her back to Islam.

The Government authorities have been unwilling to intervene to allow Hanaan to leave the country.

The Government does not allow converts to change their religion and/or the names on their identity cards and other personal papers. This regulation does not apply in the case of converts from Christianity to Islam.


The Egyptian Government has done little to control those who incite hatred against Christians.

The nationally famous Sheikh Muhammad Mitwalli Al-Sharawi was reported in an Egyptian newspaper to have referred to Christians as "infidels". He was also accused by a Christian leader of making extremely derogatory remarks about Christians and Christianity. On one occasion he allegedly stated that "the Sons of Dogs call the Torah the Old Testament." His implication was that Christians are "Sons of Dogs".


Jubilee Campaign has received reports from Christian sources in Egypt of the use of rape by Islamic extremists to coerce Christian women into converting to Islam.

In Egyptian society a girl’s virginity is highly valued and its loss through rape is often viewed by her family members as a loss of honour. This leads to their ostracising the victim or even killing her. It is very difficult for a victim of rape to find a marriage partner.

Extremists use rape to pressurise Christian girls to convert. After the girl has been raped the extremists promise that they will arrange her marriage to a Muslim if she will convert to Islam, guaranteeing her a husband who would provide for her. Conversion offers marriage to a member of the group and "security" to the victim, whereas returning to the family after the rape would result in potentially fatal consequences. This practice is reportedly becoming more widespread.

There have been complaints of inaction on the part of the Egyptian authorities in the face of such practices and refusal to act on behalf of the victims and their families. This has led to a significant change in lifestyle among the Christians of Upper Egypt. There is a growing reluctance to allow girls to attend school, and when girls are allowed out of the house, they are usually accompanied by a male member of the family.

CASE STUDY: Kidnapping and Multiple Rape, Cairo

A 14 year old girl in a poor district in Cairo supported her family by working as a maid in a different area of the city. She returned home only at weekends.

An extremist Islamic group put pressure on the girl’s mother and the family friend who had found her the job to stop the girl working and spending the night outside the district. The friend ignored the threats, but the mother asked him to bring her daughter home. The girl gave up her job and returned home.

The Sunday after her return the girl was kidnapped on her way to church. For more than two years, she was kept as a slave of the local leader of the extremist Islamic group and raped by several group members. During this time she was forced to telephone her mother to try to persuade her to let her sister "visit" her. Fearful of the same fate befalling their other daughter, the family was moved to a safe house by the local church.

The girl’s mother tried to file a complaint with the police on more than one occasion. Each time, however, each time the police merely insulted her and refused to accept her complaint. The girl was released several months after the arrest of the group’s leader.


Under Egyptian law a Christian must speak to a priest or pastor before converting to Islam. This law is however rarely applied and the clergyman is usually informed only after the conversion has taken place. This deprives the clergyman of an opportunity to discuss the matter with the convert.

One major reason for conversion is economic. Due to the widespread unemployment and discrimination against employing and promoting Christians, conversion to Islam is a way of improving one’s economic prospects.

Pressure to convert is also applied to Copts with offers of material reward, such as money, jobs, accommodation and even a spouse. Many Christian leaders believe that this activity is being funded by individuals and groups abroad in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

One Coptic Bishop reported that in 1996 more than 25 Copts in his diocese have converted to Islam, mainly due to economic reasons. In a single month he had five cases of conversion to Islam. It was the first time in more than 15 years as a bishop that he had seen so many cases of conversion in just one month.

Another method used by Islamic extremists is to put the Copt in a position of debt. A Copt may, for example, be offered money with the assurance that he need not worry about paying it back, only for the lender to claim the debt back later. Copt is unable to pay and then is in the faced with a choice of either converting to Islam, which would erase the debt, or being severely beaten, perhaps even killed.


On 4 May 1992 armed members of the Islamic group, Al-Gamma Al-Islamyia, conducted a co-ordinated attack resulting in the killing by gun fire of 13 Christians. 10 farmers were killed whilst working in their fields, a teacher as he was in the primary school and a doctor who was coming out of his home on his way to work. Five other people were wounded. One of them, a Christian child, suffered gun shot wounds and died of his injuries a day later. A Muslim was also shot and killed by a stray bullet bringing the total dead to fifteen.

Christians were driven out of their homes by sectarian violence in September 1993 in the villages of El Mashobak, Koum El Sayed, Koum El Biga and Izbit Daoud, at Awlad Nigm, Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt. They were unable to return to their homes for fear of further attacks by Muslims against them. In February 1996 there were at least two violent attacks against Christians in Egypt, part of a long-running series by extremists against Christians. Attacks appear to be part of an attempt to eliminate the Christian minority in Egypt by converting them to Islam, killing them or making conditions so unbearable that they must flee the country.

A Muslim mob destroyed 41 houses belonging to Christians in the Christian villages of Demiana, Al-Malak and Al-Nassara in the Nile Delta and injured many others. The attack was due to rumours that the Christians were enlarging the Church in Demiana village.

In the village of Ezbal-Al-Akbat, Badary, in the Province of Assiut, eight Christians were massacred by Islamic extremists in a gun attack. The police took several hours to appear at the scene.

On 31 July 1996 two Egyptian Christians were murdered. The victims were grocer, Mohsen Badia Girgis, 30 and his 20 year old cousin Ihab Amin Gabriel. "Both were good Christians," said a relative. "They frequently went to church, lived an exemplary life and had no enemies." Three gunmen opened fire in Girgis' shop in Atledem village, 150 miles south of Cairo. All escaped. Police authorities identified them as members of the Islamic extremist group, Gamaa Islamiya.

Sources said they suspected Girgis had refused to pay the so-called "protection money" demanded by Gamaa extremists to fund their campaign of violence. They reported that many local Christians had received death threats during the past 18 months as a result of refusal to pay and several of these had already been killed.

In August/September 1998, more than 1200 Christians were detained in Sohag province, Upper Egypt, many of whom were tortured, including 13 and 15 year old girls. September 1999 - A Coptic Orthodox monk was shot dead near his monastery in Upper Egypt by a suspected Muslim squatter on the monastery land. January 2000 - the largest massacre of Egyptian Christians in decades. At least 20 Egyptian believers were killed by Muslims, following rioting in Sohag province.