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Christian Religious Liberty in Egypt

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending three weeks in Egypt. I travel regularly to Egypt for my work with Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), but it was my husband’s first time in the country. Thus, we did some of the prerequisite things like getting our pictures taken at the pyramids and traveling along the Nile River to learn about the thousands of years of ancient history when the Egyptian empire existed at the center of civilization. 

Today, Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East with more than 107 million people. Egyptian empires have been rising and falling since more than 3000 years before Christ, and Egypt today is a leader politically and culturally across the Middle East and in Africa. Egypt has also been the center for Christianity since the early church in the First Century. Although Christians make up only about a tenth of modern Egypt’s population, they are by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East. 

Christians around Egypt today largely affirm that religious freedom and their personal liberties are moving in a positive direction.

The political situation in Egypt determines a lot about what life is like for Christians living in the majority Muslim country. Hosni Mubarak served as the Egyptian president for more than 30 years. In 2011, as a result of the Arab spring and the January 25 revolution, the people of Egypt ousted Mubarak and he was forced to step down. Mohamed Morsi, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 election and became the next president. Under Morsi, Christians experienced increased violence and persecution. 

I remember traveling to Egypt during that time and Christian friends warned me that I should be veiled, for traveling alone as a Western woman, became increasingly dangerous. In 2013, Morsi was ousted and Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former Minister of Defense, emerged as the new president. Interestingly, governments in the west view this leadership transition as a sort of coup, but many Egyptians consider the June 2013 protests an even greater display of the will of the people than the previous January 25, 2011 revolution. In 2019, the Egyptian government extended the presidential term such that Sisi might remain in office 12 years beyond his current term. 

Regardless of one’s perspective about the transition in leadership to the Sisi Presidency, Christians around Egypt today largely affirm that religious freedom and their personal liberties are moving in a positive direction. The country has seen a decrease in radical Islamist violence and ani-Christian mob attacks, some progress in implementing the registration process for unlicensed churches and related buildings, and the launch of a government program to address religious intolerance in rural areas. However, systemic and ongoing religious inequalities remain affixed in the Egyptian state and society, and various forms of religious bigotry and discrimination continue to plague the country’s Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. In April 2022, a Coptic priest was killed in Alexandria. In January 2022, the Egyptian government arrested nine Copts for protesting the lack of permits to rebuild their churches. 

Kamel’s release symbolizes a step in the right direction.

During my time in Cairo in January, I had the opportunity to meet with members of the Egyptian government. On behalf of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), I talked to these leaders about our concerns related to the Christian church in Egypt and about the necessity of human rights. Human rights remains a large concern in Egypt. International observers and human rights groups maintain that the Egyptian government is detaining or imprisoning more than 20,000 people based on their political beliefs or activities. In March 2021, 32 states condemned human rights violations in Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council. 

One of the cases I talked about was that of Coptic Christian activist Ramy Kamel. In January, during my meetings, I called for Kamel’s release. Ramy Kamel had spent two years being held in pre-trial detention in Egypt. Kamel was arrested on November 23, 2019, and charged with spreading false information and involvement in advocating for minority rights as a part of his leadership with the Maspero Youth Union. Prior to his arrest, Kamel was intending to raise concerns about Egypt’s human rights record and the treatment of minority communities at the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues. 

Upon my return to D.C., CMEP received the good news that on January 8, 2022, Ramy Kamel had been released. You can read CMEP’s statement about the good news here. We shared our appreciation for this news with our contacts at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington D.C. and with government officials in Cairo.  

[We're] committed to the building of inclusive societies where persons of all religions can live in harmony and peace. 

Kamel’s release symbolizes a step in the right direction. Other good news came on February 9, 2022, in the appointment of Coptic Christian Boulos Fahmy Eskandar as the “president” of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt. Judge Fahmy became the first Christian President of the court. This appointment holds great significance as previous high ranking officials of the Egyptian government had held this position and a previous president, Adly Mansour, even became the Egyptian President briefly in 2013-2014. Identified as a “historic decision,” perhaps the appointment of Judge Eskander represents positive movement and progression toward religious freedom for Christians living in Egypt. 

Historically, Christians in Egypt have argued it can be difficult for them to receive justice in the courts. One of the most well known cases happened in 2016 when Souad Thabet, a Christian woman had been stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to the rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Ultimately, a criminal court acquitted Thabet’s attackers, making her case a primary example of the difficulty for Christians to receive justice in the Egyptian courts. Our hope and prayer with the appointment of Judge Fahmy is that today might be a new day for Christians in Egypt. 

While we do see some progress, CMEP remains very concerned about discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt. We celebrate positive news such as the release of Ramy Kamel and the appointment of Judge Boulos Fahmy. CMEP, along with our member denominations including the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is committed to the building of inclusive societies based on citizenship rights where persons of all religions can live in harmony and peace. 

Photo provided by the author.

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