From ONE Magazine
Ethnic Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, which derives from the Greek
Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They
received the Gospel from St. Mark, who in the middle of the first century sowed the faith in
the Egyptian city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Centuries before the ascendancy of the Arabs and Islam, Alexandrian Christianity blossomed.
It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary
responsible for Christianitys explosive expansion in the Greco-Roman world. Alexandrian
Christianity introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the
church with some of its greatest saints and scholars.
Demographics. Egypt occupies a choice position. It lies mainly in northeast Africa,
but also includes the Sinai Peninsula. It controls the Suez Canal, which provides the shortest
commercial shipping route between Asia and Europe.
About 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Though the state is secular, the central
government champions Sunni orthodoxy and remains on guard for any signs of dissent, such as
Shiism or Saudi-inspired fundamentalism. The government supports the countrys mosques
(which number over 75,000) and selects the head of the preeminent center of Sunni learning in
the world, Al Azhar University in Cairo.
The Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing more
than 10 percent of Egypts population of 80.5 million, the Copts belong to three groups.
About 95 percent belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is led by Shenouda III, Pope
and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. This church developed independently after breaking
communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Despite centuries of relative isolation and on-again off-again discrimination, the Coptic
Orthodox Church has, since the middle of the last century, experienced a revival.
Other Copts belong to the Coptic Catholic or Coptic Evangelical churches. Other Christian
communities are found mostly in the urban centers of Alexandria and Cairo. The largest is the
Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria and All Africa, led by Theodoros II, Pope and
Patriarch of Alexandria. Others include the Anglican; Armenian Apostolic; Chaldean, Latin,
Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac Catholic; and Syriac Orthodox churches.
Sociopolitical situation. Modern Egypt was born when a military coup détat in
1952 ousted King Farouk and the remnant of British imperial authority, which had controlled
Egypt since the late 19th century. Shortly after the coup, its chief architect, Gamal Abdel
Nasser, assumed power as president. Over the years of his long presidency (he died in 1970),
Nasser initiated reforms that included the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the
centralization of economic planning.
War with Israel in 1956, 1967 and 1973 — all part of the larger Arab-Israeli conflict
— led to the territorial loss of Sinai and Gaza as well as the erosion of Egypts
position in the Arab world. This was made definitive with the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab
League after Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979.
Since Sadats assassination in 1981 by Islamist army officers, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak has
governed the country authoritatively.
At present, most decision-making authority remains vested in him. While opposition parties
do exist, they pose little threat; harassment, intimidation and arrest of opposition leaders,
including suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood, ensure they remain weak and fragmented.
This has hampered any political democratization.
Some of Egypts regional allies criticized the Mubarak administration for its handling
of the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, when Egypt tightened its
borders with Gaza. This worried some allies, who expected Egyptian interests and expatriates
to be targets of symbolic vandalism or violence. Since Israeli commandos took over a Turkish
aid ship bound for Gaza in the spring, however, Egypt has reopened its borders to the densely
In the past several years, homegrown extremists either affiliated with or inspired by Al
Qaeda have carried out a string of small attacks in the country. Most have been directed at
tourist areas, particularly in Sinai. In response, the government has enacted a set of
emergency laws that permits authorities to detain suspects indefinitely and, in
cases, deny them the right of appeal. Activists, journalists, Islamists and members of the
political opposition have decried the measures as undemocratic. Dozens have been arrested.
The Egyptian government has long nurtured strong bilateral relations with the United
States. Over the years, these relations have deepened, due partly to a shared commitment to a
comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict; the preservation of Iraqs unity,
sovereignty and territorial integrity; and the maintenance of overall regional peace and
security. After Israel, Egypt remains the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, but the annual
amount is decreasing. This aid has financed infrastructure projects, strengthened economic and
social reform programs and enlisted U.S. technical expertise. Moreover, trade between the two
countries remains robust and, recently, U.S. foreign investments in Egypt have picked up after
a brief slowdown.
Economic situation. The Egyptian economy is the second largest in the Arab world
after Saudi Arabia. It is also one of the fastest emerging markets for real estate. Until the
late 1990s, Egypts economy was highly centralized — the legacy of
Nassers socialist-inspired economic policies. But from 2004 to 2008, the country
underwent major economic reforms and experienced a dramatic increase in foreign direct
investment, slowed only by the global recession. In 2009, the countrys gross domestic
product (GDP) fell to 4.7 percent from 7 percent just one year earlier.
Poverty and unemployment remain high. About 18 percent of the population lives below the
poverty line (almost 40 percent in Upper Egypt). Another 20 percent straddles the poverty
Unemployment is rising, increasing to 9.4 percent in 2009 from 8.4 percent in 2008.
Since 2008, rising inflation has threatened the Egyptian economy. Multiple factors have
contributed to inflation, including the countrys persistently unstable currency, an
imbalance between exports and imports (Egypt imports the majority of its food and raw
materials) and a dearth of profitable industries.
Though the government has made strides in privatizing and modernizing its industries and
public services, its involvement in the economy remains extensive. Government subsidies are
higher than ever, which suggest that the benefits of economic growth are not reaching the
majority of the population. Subsidies on food and fuel are outpacing government spending on
health care and education. While a small group of prominent businessmen and financiers has
prospered, building posh communities that compare favorably to similar gated compounds in
Amman, Boca Raton or Patmos, Egypts middle class and working poor struggle.
Religious situation. Not since the earliest days of the Alexandrian church have two
men impacted St. Marks spiritual descendants more than Coptic Orthodox Pope Kyrillos VI
(1959-71) and his successor, Pope Shenouda III. Drawn from the ancient Coptic monasteries of
the desert, these men spearheaded a revival in catechesis, particularly among the youth, that
has spawned a resurgence in monastic life, renewed liturgical life and stimulated theological
learning and Scripture study — the latter a result of the influence of Protestant
missionaries in the early 20th century.
For decades at the papal cathedral in Cairo, lessons in Scripture led by the pope have
attracted huge crowds of young Copts. After a lengthy exegesis of that days lesson, the
pope answers questions often centered on items of a personal nature, e.g., marriage, family,
relationships and work. Many young men have entered the priesthood or monastic life as a
result of these gatherings.
Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns;
social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense
of identity for the young, many of whom are emigrating to the West.
Despite stalwart leadership, Egypts Copts and other Christians remain an endangered
minority. Islamic radicals regularly attack Christians and their property. Some reports have
indicated that security personnel have failed to undertake the necessary measures to protect
Christians, despite receiving warnings of impending violence.
Reports of discrimination are common, especially in education and employment. The
government places restrictions on the construction or repair of churches — restrictions
that do not apply to mosques. A permit from the regional governor is required before a church
may be renovated. Permits to build churches require presidential approval, which often take as
long as ten years to obtain. Even with this go-ahead, security forces must investigate whether
neighboring Muslim communities object to the construction. If they do, the church may not be
Circumstances such as these hamper the churchs growth in Egypt. Disenfranchised and
alienated from the Muslim majority, thousands of Copts convert to Islam each year while tens
of thousands emigrate.