By Raymond Ibrahim – Special for Coptic Solidarity –
Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments recently announced a new record: an additional 1,200 new mosques were opened in the year 2022.
Moreover, in the two years between September 2020 and September 2022, a total of 3,116 mosques were opened (2,712 new; 404 renovated). Since Abdel Fateh al-Sisi became president in 2014, the total number of mosques to be opened, repaired, or replaced—costing Egypt more than ten billion pounds—is 9,600.
(One can hear the “Allahu akbars!”)
What about the religious places of worship that for centuries before Egypt’s conquest by Muslim Arabs littered that nation’s landscape—namely, churches? How fare they?
As is well known, when it comes to any question concerning the indigenous Christians of Egypt, the Copts, and their churches, accurate information—especially by way of numbers—is difficult to ascertain from the official channels.
As such, I contacted and spoke with one of the most astute analysts on the so-called Coptic question, the Egyptian-born Magdi Khalil, an author and public debater (appearing in approximately 1,500 televised debates, including on Al Jazeera) who specializes in citizenship rights, civil society, and the situation of minorities in the Middle East.
During our phone conversation, Khalil offered up the best known figures he has been able to ascertain, after making clear that, “as you know, there are no absolutely accurate numbers from Egypt that aren’t politicized.”
He said there are a total of approximately 5,200 Christian institutions in Egypt, including all churches and monasteries, from all denominations. As for Islamic institutions in Egypt, there are 120,000 mosques and over one million prayer halls.
This disparity alone underscores the extreme discrimination Christians face in Egypt. Considering that Copts make up, at the very least, 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 104 million, there is one mosque or prayer hall for every 83 Muslims, but only one church for every 2,000 Christians (*).
In 2016, a new Egyptian law was touted as “easing” restrictions on and helping many more churches to open. Since its implementation, however, human rights groups have noted that it has only marginally helped. Khalil agreed, and said that, at best, the 2016 law has made a “5-10 percent improvement.” But, by applying only to churches, as opposed to being a universal law for all religious places of worship, the new law has also formalized the Egyptian government’s divisive—or in Khalil’s words, “racist”—approach to its citizens. He is not alone in making this charge; even Human Rights Watch says that the new law ultimately “discriminates against the Christian minority in Egypt.”
Along with the ease Egypt grants to the building of mosques, often overlooked is the fact that the government also completely subsidizes a great many, if not most, of Egypt’s mosques. (Note: over 4 billion Egyptian pounds are paid annually by the state to subsidize the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, which is charged with affairs related to mosques and Islamic da‘wa (propaganda). Moreover, 22 billion Egyptian pounds are annually paid to Al-Azhar institution, which has a parallel educational system, or madrasa, from KG to university, with 2.8 million pupils and students).
Conversely, not only does Egypt make it immensely hard for Christians to open or maintain churches, but the government does not contribute a “single penny” to their survival said Khalil. Churches are even required to pay their utility bills, which no mosque in Egypt does, as the government happily picks up their bill.
Aside from the obvious discrimination and legal obstacles the government of Egypt has set up against churches, Khalil and I also spoke a bit about the Muslim mob violence that sporadically rises up against churches. According to Khalil, “close to one thousand churches have been attacked or torched by mobs in the last five decades [since the 1970s] in Egypt.” This is a much larger number than is commonly assumed.
Khalil closed by saying, “The persecution of Egypt’s Christian Copts is the longest ongoing persecution in the history of mankind, from 642, to today, 2022. Through all this time, maybe 70 years under British occupation were peaceful and good—the “golden era” for Copts in all this duration. Then [during the colonial era] there was much more diversity in the government, including some Coptic ministers, etc. But the overwhelming majority of the time witnessed the Copts’ persecution.”
“I know of no group,” concluded Khalil, “that has been persecuted for nearly 1400 years—with still no light at the end of the tunnel.”
(*) 93.6 million Muslims divided by 1,100,000 mosques and prayer halls, versus 10.4 million Christians divided by 5,200 churches.