YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Persecution is the reality of life in Egypt for Christians, and it is gotten worse over the past decade, according to a leading human rights group.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 100 million people, making the country home to the largest Christian population in the Arab world.
The vast majority of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Church in the Oriental Orthodox communion – However there are about 350,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians, 300,000 Protestants, and just under 200,000 Catholics.
Christians suffer discrimination from the Muslim majority, and often find it hard to find jobs, get a good education, and participate in the social life of the country.
Research by International Christian Concern – a U.S.-based ecumenical Christian advocacy group – says the unemployment rate of Christians in Upper Egypt is 80 percent, compared to the national rate of 9 percent. Meanwhile, the average Christian income is $115 a month, as opposed to the national average of $313.
Most recently, many Egyptians have pushed conspiracy theories blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on the Christian minority.
“Egyptian Christians were already living under the worst conditions, thanks to persecution. The pandemic has pushed this disparity even further. Christians already had the lowest income paying jobs; now they have no income and no savings to get them through the pandemic,” said Claire Evans, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for the Middle East.
She told Crux the Arab Spring of a decade ago made things worse in general for Egypt’s Christian population.
“The Arab Spring brought on a wave of violent persecution that terrorized entire Egyptian Christian villages for days at time. The rise of ISIS in 2014 created an environment where persecution was often seen as individual acts of terrorism, such as the bombing of a church,” Evans said.
“Now in 2020 and because of COVID-19, we are looking at a different chapter of persecution: Rampant discrimination. This problem has always existed, but is much more subtle than terrorism. COVID-19 is showing how engrained discrimination is against Christians, and how significantly it impacts them for an entire lifetime,” she added.
What follows are excerpts of her conversation with Crux.
Crux: How big a problem is the persecution of Christians in Egypt?
Evans: Persecution is the reality of life in Egypt for Christians. But these problems have really come to the forefront within the past decade. The Arab Spring brought on a wave of violent persecution that terrorized entire Egyptian Christian villages for days at time. The rise of ISIS in 2014 created an environment where persecution was often seen as individual acts of terrorism, such as the bombing of a church. Now in 2020 and because of COVID-19, we are looking at a different chapter of persecution: rampant discrimination. This problem has always existed, but is much more subtle than terrorism. COVID-19 is showing how engrained discrimination is against Christians, and how significantly it impacts them for an entire lifetime.
Why does the Muslim majority in Egypt feel threatened by Christians?
Egypt has the largest Christian population in the entire Middle East region and that is simply based on the numbers which we know. Actually, it is likely that Egypt has a much larger Christian population than what the authorities publish, because acknowledging the true number would mean having to give them more representation in the government (which is officially Islamic) as well as giving Christians more civil rights and equality. Egypt was a Christian nation before Islam, but many Egyptians are not aware of such history.
We must also remember how Islamic extremism flourishes within disenfranchised communities. During the height of the Muslim Brotherhood, they planted these extremist seeds among the villages in rural Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood no longer has political power in Egypt, but the consequences of their influence remain. And since most Egyptian Christians live in rural communities, they are constantly exposed to the narrative that Christians are second-class citizens, at best.
How has this persecution affected Christians economically and politically?
Christians do not have the same rights as their Muslim neighbors. Politically, this means they do not have fair parliamentary representation in the government. Certain official positions are impossible for Christians to qualify for, since the government is Islamic.
Furthermore, the government has restricted free speech across all aspects of society, which means that Christians are prohibited from speaking out about the problems they are facing. And these problems greatly impact their quality of life. For example, the government can say “officially there is no discrimination.” But an employer can fire a Christian simply because of his faith, and the Christian cannot speak about it. He is simply forced to move onto the next job. Many of these problems are deeply engrained in society.
Without government policies that encourage all human rights, it is impossible for these issues to be addressed. So the cycle perpetuates, with COVID-19 further accelerating these issues.
How is COVID-19 making things worse for Christians in Egypt?
Egyptian Christians were already living under the worst conditions, thanks to persecution.
The pandemic has pushed this disparity even further. Christians already had the lowest income paying jobs; now they have no income and no savings to get them through the pandemic. Christians were already viewed as “dirty.”
Now, they worry that this perception would be more deeply entrenched should a Christian community become a COVID-19 hotspot. And how can these communities follow COVID-19 health guidelines? Christians do not have the same access to sanitation and medical care as their fellow citizens. They are constantly discriminated against. COVID-19 makes this disparity wider and more apparent.
ICC has been providing microloans to persecuted Christians to help them cope. How has this been playing out on the ground?
ICC began a Hope House program in 2016 which provides after-school tutoring for children, vocational and literacy training for adults, and microfinance loans for entrepreneurs. We have found that because of COVID-19’s devastating impact on economies, Egyptian Christians are increasingly looking for any opportunity to earn an income. For this reason, COVID-19 has caused the microfinance program to grow in importance. This year, we have 13 loans ongoing, benefiting approximately 52 individuals. We anticipate this need growing, as we are increasingly watching families become more desperate for any type of income.