Egypt is struggling with ignorance and fundamentalism, but the government is taking steps to change the culture, according to the top Catholic cleric in the country.
Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, the head of the Coptic Catholic Church, spoke on Friday, October 6, in Rome about the situation in his homeland.
He said after recent Islamic extremist attacks on Christian institutions, the Egyptian government stepped up security efforts to protect the minority population.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, and most of them belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Coptic Catholic Church is much smaller, and has just under 200,000 members.
However, the patriarch said the numbers are just estimates, since there are no official statistics on the Christian minority, “to avoid problems with fundamentalists.”
Sidrak was speaking at an event sponsored by the Italian branch of Aid to the Church in Need.
He said the Church is active in social services and education, even though Christians face discrimination in the Muslim-majority country.
“We run schools, hospitals and programs to promote the dignity of women. Unfortunately, in recent years, only six of our schools have been opened,” he said.
Sidrak said Catholic schools are especially needed now, since Egypt needs a profound change in its educational system, which has been influenced by fundamentalism.
He said this includes the University of al-Azhar, the most respected institution of learning in Sunni Islam.
“There were once several free thinkers, free to think and criticize the same religious institution as well, but today there are elements of extremism inside it. Al Azhar is an undergraduate institution with students coming from around the world, and it should open itself up to other faiths,” the patriarch said, adding there was a need to change its religious outlook.
Sidrak also spoke about relations with the much larger Coptic Orthodox Church.
He said his relations with Pope Tawadros II were good, but this is not always the case with other clergy, whom he accused of “cultivating an attitude of rejection of the other.”
He said this is most apparent in the case of mixed-marriages, where Coptic Orthodox priests try to impose re-baptism on the Catholic parties, forcing them to change churches.
Sidrak also called on other Christians around the world to help Egyptian Christians remain in their country.
The patriarch said, after several attacks in the last 12 months by Islamic militants, Christians in Egypt have shown their “unshakable faith,” even if it has caused fear and a sense of insecurity.
A bomb attack on Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral in December 2016 left at least 25 dead, while Palm Sunday bombings at two other Coptic churches killed 47 people.
In May, a bus packed with Coptic Christians, including many children, was traveling on a side road in the desert to the remote monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Maghagha when it was attacked by Islamic terrorists, leaving 26 people dead.
Sidrak said the strength and perseverance of the Christian community has been noticed by their fellow citizens.
“The attacks on Tanta, Alexandria and Minya, as well as the killing of the 21 Copts in Libya have led many to convert to the idea of Christianity,” Sidrak said. “This shows that in Egypt Coptic Christians are not only victims of violence, but also instruments of the Christian mission.”