In Selected Opinion

By Uzay Bulut

The process of the Islamization and Arabization of Egypt started when Arab Muslims invaded in the 7th century

On the evening of April 23, a large number of Egyptian Muslims gathered and attacked Coptic Christian homes in Minya Governorate’s village of Al-Fawakhir after a rumor spread that Christians had turned a home into a church. 

Representatives of  Open Doors, an organization that monitors Christian persecution on a global scale, told The European Conservative what happened next:

The majority of Muslims in this village are extremists, and there are tribes of Libyan origin causing problems for Christians. The village does not have a church. Christians occasionally gather and pray in one of their homes. Recently, a rumor spread in the village that the Christians would turn this house into a church. 

Radical Muslims attacked the Coptic homes in the village. They looted some houses and set them on fire, preventing the Copts from leaving their homes under the threat of weapons after igniting the fires (some of the Muslims were carrying firearms). The material losses are very high. Before the attack on the Coptic homes, the Copts contacted the police for protection, but the police arrived an hour after the attack and managed to control the situation, arresting some of the attackers, and security forces are still deployed in the village. 

Three days after the mob attack in Al-Fawakhir village, Christians in the village of Al-Kom Al-Ahmar in Minya were also exposed to violent attacks at the hands of Muslims. The Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported:

According to eyewitnesses, hundreds of [Muslim] residents of Al-Kom Al-Ahmar and neighboring villages staged a march after the Friday prayers on 26 April, chanting anti-Christian slogans and protesting the construction of a licensed evangelical church. 

Protesters threw stones at Coptic homes in the village, shattering the doors and windows of some of them. They then went to the plot of land being prepared for the church, damaged 12 tons of cement and backfilled a drain, then moved towards the homes of Copts, breaking the windows and doors of some of them, and damaging three cars. 

EIPR noted that the Egyptian security forces bear responsibility for not preventing these assaults in a timely manner.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) … stresses that security agencies failed to intervene to prevent the attacks before they occurred, despite their prior knowledge of growing sectarian tensions and incitement …

EIPR stresses that these attacks are not “individual incidents,” exceptional or accidental, noting that since September, three incidents have been related to the construction of churches in villages in Minya.

Instead of intervening to protect citizens’ right to practice religious rites and redress the harm caused to them, state institutions prevented the construction of churches. 

Open Doors experts told The European Conservative:

While there are certainly positive elements of the current Church Construction and Renovation Law by which the government issues permits for church construction, it must be noted that since its approval, very few permits have actually been issued.  

Additionally, according to a previous annual report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the law gives to security agencies (namely the National Security Agency, General Intelligence Service, and the Administrative Control Authority) a role in the registration approval process that is non-existent in the approval of mosques. This shows that church matters are treated as a national security issue. We urge the Egyptian Government to cease to consider church construction and legalization as a matter of national security and therefore eliminate the role of security agencies in approving the legalization of churches. 

Minya being home to most of Egypt’s Christians is central to the attacks targeting this community, according to a source who wished to remain anonymous:

Minya is where most of Egypt’s Christians live. There has not been a religious census for decades, but I’ve heard many Copts say that Minya is likely 75% or more Christian and that the reason there is not a census is because with a clear majority of Christians in Minya, Egypt constitutionally would have to give up a political seat to a Christian. It’s a conflict between how the seats are constitutionally set up and Sharia, so the solution is to not do a census and have these attacks from time to time to keep everything as is. 

In Muslim-majority Egypt, Coptic Christians have for centuries suffered severe persecution. Their historic churches are often attacked. Permission to build new churches is nearly impossible. They are frequently discriminated against, killed, or arrested. Mark Basta, an academic researcher and political scientist, reported on November 27, 2023:

On July 18, world news spread as an Egyptian Court sentenced Coptic Egyptian human rights advocate, Patrick Zaki, to three years of prison for “spreading false news.” After 22 months of pre-trial detention, Zaki was reported to have suffered from physical and mental torture during his time in Egypt. Airport security detained him following his arrival to his homeland for a short break from his graduate studies at the University of Bologna, Italy. A few months before, Zaki published an article, “Forced Migration, Murder, and More: A Week in the Life of Egypt’s Copts,” on Daraj, and touched on a hidden iceberg of persecution and discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Was it not for Italian and European pressure for his release, he would have gone unaccounted for like many others. Although Zaki was pardoned, millions remain harmed under the scrutiny of institutional discrimination, kidnapping, forced conversion, looting, and murder.  

Coptic girls and women remain even more vulnerable to Muslim abuse. Within the past decade, hundreds of Coptic girls have been kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. Raymond Ibrahim, an expert on the history of Egypt and the Middle East, reported on behalf of the organization Coptic Solidarity:

Yet another Coptic Christian girl has ‘disappeared,’ with the authorities abetting the kidnapper(s) in Egypt.

On January 22, 2024, Irene Ibrahim Shehata, 21, disappeared in between mid-term exams at the Faculty of Medicine at Assyut National University, where she was a second-year student. Her frantic family immediately went to the police. Although charges were eventually brought against a man whose identity is concealed, from the start, police were uncooperative and even hostile to the family. 

Around four months later, another Coptic Christian woman was kidnapped by a Muslim man. A 21-year-old student, Martina Mamdouh, disappeared from Cairo University. The culprit sent Mamdouh’s father a certificate of her ‘conversion’ to Islam. In a video circulated on social media, Mamdouh’s mother appealed in tears to the Egyptian authorities and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to intervene for her return. She was then rescued.

Mariam Wahba, a Coptic-American and Associate Director of Communications at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the European Conservative:

Martina Mamdouh disappeared on May 10 as she was traveling home after taking her university exams. The kidnapping and forced conversion is nothing new. Coptic girls and women are frequent victims of this heinous crime. Her family has identified the criminal, yet Egyptian security forces have been complicit.

While Martina’s return is welcome, and a huge relief to her family, this does not change the facts. By creating a culture of impunity, the abductions and forced conversion of our girls and women will continue to happen. The Sisi regime needs to hold the perpetrators accountable and ensure this never happens again.

Sadly, the abductions of these two young Coptic women are not an isolated incident. In 2020, Coptic Solidarity issued a statement  condemning increased persecution of Coptic Christians and journalists in Egypt:

The indigenous Coptic Christians of Egypt continue to experience increasing persecution, by the government and society. While many international bodies are praising the el-Sisi government’s few rhetorical gestures, the vast majority of civil society, both inside and outside of Egypt, has repeatedly recognized that Egypt is currently experiencing the most severe crackdown on civil liberties and religious freedom violations in decades.

To illustrate, at least five Coptic women, including some minors, have reportedly been kidnapped or disappeared in just the last few weeks, and Egyptian state security has made no concerted effort to recover them. 

Christians in Egypt are also frequent targets of blasphemy accusations. The Minority Rights Group International reported:

In February 2016, four Coptic teenagers received a five-year prison sentence for mocking Islam in a recorded video in which they ridiculed ISIS. They then fled the country in April. After the incident, insults against Christianity and attacks on Copts were ignored by authorities, underlining the uneven application of Article 98 of the Penal Code, which forbids insulting all ‘heavenly religions’—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The Coptic Church has refrained from openly challenging this and other instances of institutional discrimination, apparently preferring to avoid tension with the government.

In 2022, another Coptic Christian, Marco Gerges, was sentenced to five years in prison for ‘blasphemy.’

Although Christians in Egypt are today a persecuted minority, they once constituted the demographic majority of the land. Coptic was the lingua franca of Egypt when the country was predominantly Christian.

Copts are the indigenous people of Egypt. They identify as the remaining descendants of the civilization of the ancient Egyptians, with Pharaonic origins, according to their genetics as well as the evolution of their language and traditions. 

Egypt was part of the Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empires from 30 BC to AD 642. Saint Mark the Evangelist, who wrote the earliest of the four New Testament Gospels, was the founder and first bishop of the Church of Alexandria in Egypt, even before the Church of Rome was established.

The process of the Islamization and Arabization of Egypt started when Arab Muslims invaded and seized Egypt in the 7th century; demographic changes then occurred through (mostly forced) conversions of the Christian Egyptian populace to Islam. 

Etymologically, the word Coptic is derived from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian. “Copt” thus simply means Egyptian, but after the 7th century Arab-Islamic invasion, the meaning shifted to refer only to those Egyptians who preserved their Christian faith and did not convert to Islam. Hence, today, the word “Copt” refers to an Egyptian Orthodox Christian. Mark Basta explains:

Throughout the different dynasties, Arab leadership treated the Coptic population with various amounts of discrimination that started from radical increases in taxes and up to full-scale massacres. With much of the native population converting to Islam to waive the jizya and dhimmi status, the word Copt transformed to define the native population that has not converted to Islam. With the central theme in the unity of all Muslims as one umma, the term Copt started limiting itself to Egypt’s native Christians.  

From 1517 to 1914, Egypt was under Ottoman Turkish occupation. The Minority Rights Group notes:

The Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers, in turn Arab, Circassian and Ottoman. Churches were destroyed, books burnt, and elders imprisoned. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882, Copts had been reduced to one-tenth of the population, mainly as a result of centuries of conversion to Islam.

Arab Muslims governed Christians and Jews according to the rules of Islamic Sharia. According to Islamic law, they were viewed as dhimmi, i.e. non-Muslims granted a special status in return for paying a heavy poll tax. They had to wear different colors and clothes from Muslims, could not build new places of worship or repair old ones without permission, or construct them in such a way as to overshadow those of Muslims. With the Arabization of governmental positions, Coptic clerks sought to study Arabic and teach it to their children, given the tradition of inheriting jobs. There was a gradual change to the use of Arabic, with the Coptic language being abandoned except as a liturgical language, and many Copts converted to Islam.

While Egypt was technically still part of the Ottoman Empire, Britain took control of the country in 1882. The 1919 revolution led to Egypt’s nominal independence from Britain in 1922. The 1952 Egyptian coup overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and culminated in Egypt gaining complete independence from British rule. 

The Republic of Egypt, part of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-Western Pan-Arabism, was then established as a Muslim country. Decades of persecution against Copts followed, leading to an exodus of Egypt’s Christians. Egypt’s current constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and that Sharia (Islamic law) is the main source of legislation. 

Today, according to Coptic Church leadership, the estimated number of Christians in Egypt is approximately 15% of the Egyptian population. The Coptic Orthodox Church is the primary Christian church in Egypt.

Egypt is currently placed 38th on Open Doors’ World Watch List of the countries where Christians are most persecuted: 

In Egypt, most persecution happens at the community level. Christians regularly experience discrimination because they follow Jesus. Men can experience job loss or lack of employment opportunities, women can be harassed in the street, Christian children can be bullied at school and, in rare instances, mobs of Muslim extremists force Christians to flee their communities after an alleged blasphemy accusation. These incidents are most common in the Upper Egypt region, where Islamic hardliners are active, especially in rural communities. 

Open Doors’ has called on the government of Egypt to respect the religious liberty of Coptic Christians.  

To ensure the respect of fundamental rights of Egyptian Christians and other minority faith adherents, Open Doors recommends that the Egyptian Government seek to partner with the international community on funding and promoting grassroots projects aimed at curbing religious hatred and promoting religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue and collaboration, especially focusing on areas in Upper Egypt.

For this call to not fall on deaf ears in Egypt, the U.S. government and the EU executive should stand firmly with the Christians in Egypt. 


Uzay Bulut is a Turkey-born journalist formerly based in Ankara. She focuses on Turkey, political Islam, and the history of the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment