Egypt plays a significant role in the early history of Christianity. The country is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis, and the apostle Mark established the Church of Alexandria around 55 AD. The Coptic Orthodox Church (to which most Egyptian Christians belong) is one of the five most ancient churches in the world. Today the Coptic Christians boast approximately 12 million faithful in Egypt (accounting for approximately 10% of the population) and are led by Pope Tawadros II. Egypt is also home to a diverse assortment of other Christian groups, including Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Maronite, Orthodox, and Anglican adherents.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made inclusive overtures to the Coptic community, even attending Christmas Mass for the first time in 2015, and again in 2016. He has talked about helping the Coptic community recover from the damage they suffered in 2014 when religious agitators launched a coordinated series of attacks on Coptic Christians and their property, killing several Copts and damaging more than 200 Christian homes, churches, and businesses. He has also tried to overcome sectarianism by calling for a common Egyptian identity and vowed to reconstruct the Coptic churches that were destroyed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The new parliament is comprised of the highest percentage of Christians in decades. Despite these positive developments, however, both Egyptian society and laws continue to marginalize members of the Coptic community.
The Egyptian constitution states that freedom of belief is “absolute,” but many laws actively discriminate against Christians. Islam is the state religion, and national identification cards invite discrimination by including the individual’s religious identification on the card. Furthermore, Christian men are still legally unable to marry Muslim women.
Most egregious is Egypt’s blasphemy law, preventing citizens from “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife.” This law results in the regulation of speech on behalf of Islam and fans extremist ideas. Recently, the law has been enforced more aggressively, and most of the prison sentences have been given to Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists.
The past year has seen an increase in violent attacks on Copts, particularly in Upper Egypt. While President al-Sisi has repeatedly condemned sectarian violence, he has been slow to acknowledge these tensions still exist. Furthermore, perpetrators of these sectarian crimes are rarely punished. Instead, local authorities conduct “customary reconciliation” sessions between Muslims and Christians. These reconciliation sessions do not result in punishment and Christians are often dissuaded from taking legal action.
The Egyptian government has also failed to implement other reforms to which it has publically committed. For instance, although the latest Constitution ensures the right to build churches, the law loosening restrictions on building churches has yet to be implemented in any meaningful way. Egyptian Christians must still receive governmental approval to repair or rebuild churches.