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Egypt

Excerpts from the report of a May field visit to Egypt by Catholic Near East Welfare Association staff.

photos by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Christianity in Egypt. According to tradition, St. Mark the Evangelist founded the Church in Egypt and died in Alexandria in 63 A.D.. The country became entirely Christian and the center of the life of the Church in the eastern Mediterranean. With the spread of Islam, by the middle of the ninth century Christians had become a minority. However Egypt still has the largest number of Christians of any country in the Arab world.

Although estimates vary, Christians in Egypt probably amount to about ten percent of the population, or five million people. The overwhelming majority of these are Coptic Orthodox, whose patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, presides over the see of St. Mark.

Coptic Catholics number approximately 150,000 and other Catholics, 25,000. Coptic evangelicals and other Protestant faithful make up the remainder.

Christians are found in the large cities and in rural areas, especially in Upper Egypt. Many are peasants, but many others are well educated. Denied access to high government service, most of these are shopkeepers, tradesmen, engineers, physicians, educators and other professionals.

The Catholic Copts are the most recent of the Eastern Churches to come into communion with Rome. Relations between these and their Orthodox neighbors have been correct rather than cordial; however, in the face of Islamic resurgence at least overt animosity seems to have been muted. There are five Catholic Coptic dioceses (Assiut, Ismailia, Luxor, Minya, and Sohag) suffragan to the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Six other Catholic dioceses serve Armenians, Chaldeans, Latins, Maronites, Melkites, and Syrians. Most of them arrived from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq at the turn of the century.

All but one of the Catholic bishops are Arabs.

Socio-political situation. Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country. Both Muslims and Christians are confronted by an economy heavily dependent upon foreign assistance. Jobs are scarce, so competition within the labor pool is fierce.

In the competition for jobs, wasta or influence, not necessarily merit, is a determining factor, and better jobs usually go to the Muslim majority. Christian youth must choose among long-term unemployment or under employment, emigration, or conversion to Islam. The rise of Islamic consciousness has led to rewarding conversion in material ways. In return for leaving the Christian fold, youth are provided spouses, jobs, houses and overall identification with a resurgent Islamic community. Many Christians find the prospects of majority status tempting.

Still others choose to emigrate. For example, the Melkite community, which numbered 30,000 faithful thirty years ago has been reduced to 7,000. Their bishop understands that, conditions being what they are, he must work to preserve the faith of his people and prepare the youth to leave.

Christians in Egypt behave like minorities elsewhere who feel threatened. The response of church leaders has been varied.

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Tags: Egypt Christianity Coptic Catholic Church Patriarchate of Alexandria