From a population of 102 million approximately 90 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim and approximately 10 per cent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 per cent). An estimated 90 per cent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
According to USCIRF “Religious freedom conditions in Egypt are trending tentatively in a positive direction… However, systematic 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.”
While the constitution declares that “freedom of belief is absolute”, it only allows this freedom for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are severe penalties for declaring oneself to be an atheist, including up to five years’ imprisonment, and a new law is being drawn up to criminalise atheism. It is illegal to register an explicitly humanist, atheist, secularist, or other non-religious NGO and those that attempt it face harassment from the authorities.
One of the most visible signs of discrimination against atheists, apostates from Islam and members of minority religions is the policy concerning the Egyptian State ID cards, which include a section on religion where only one of the three “divine religions” can be recognised. It is in practice almost impossible to change the designation from ‘Muslim’ on the ID card.
Concerning atheists and agnostics, they are “one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities”, according to Human Rights Watch, and there has been a prolonged campaign to turn “youth” away from atheism, with several prominent atheists arrested and convicted. In June 2020, activist and blogger Anas Hassan, was convicted and sentenced on appeal to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 EGP (approximately $ 19,144) for managing the Facebook page ‘The Egyptian atheists’ which allegedly criticized the “divinely revealed religions”.
Also in June two young men were sentenced to a year in jail for promoting the Shi`a doctrine of Islam.
Restrictions on church building remain largely in place. Four years after the issuance of Law 80 of 2016 on the construction of churches, the government has only conditionally legalized 1,638 churches that were operating without official permits, roughly 25 per cent of church buildings that applied for legal status.
Persecution against Christians happens mostly at the community level, especially in Upper Egypt where Salafist movements exert a strong influence on the rural communities due to high levels of illiteracy and poverty. Incidents include false accusations, community ostracism, mob violence, and the abduction of Christian women (causing many to feel unsafe leaving the house alone). Although Egypt’s government speaks positively about Egypt’s Christian community, the lack of serious law enforcement and the unwillingness of local authorities to protect Christians leave them vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, communal hostility and mob violence. For example, an Egyptian court acquitted three men who led a Muslim mob to strip, beat, spit on and humiliate a Christian grandmother whose son was falsely accused of having a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman.
There is particular concern for Ramy Kamel, experiencing rapidly declining health amid the threat of the spread of COVID-19 in Egypt’s prisons. Egyptian State Security arrested Mr. Kamel, a founder of the Maspero Youth Union, on November 23, 2019, one day before he was expected to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to testify at the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues. He has remained in perpetual pre-trial detention since that time, ostensibly under Case no. 1475 of 2019, and yet prosecutors have failed to arrange a trial date, release detailed charges, or provide documented evidence as required by law. Mr. Kamel has spent much of that time in solitary confinement, with limited access to legal counsel and no access to healthcare despite suffering from acute asthma—which his family found during a rare visit has worsened considerably.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
There were some improvements with regard to freedom of religion or belief. In January, the Prime Minister’s then Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti, welcomed the inauguration of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue—Alexandria’s oldest—following a three-year restoration. In 2020, the number of licenses issued under the 2016 Church Building Law increased, with over 1,800 more church buildings receiving licenses. However, the continuing detention of Coptic rights activist Ramy Kamel remained a cause for concern.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Approximately 90% of the Egyptian population is Sunni, with a large proportion of these following Sufism. Salafi Muslims number approximately 6 million, with Ahmadis, Shi’ites and Mu’tazilis making up the remaining number of the Muslim population. Coptic Christians (c.8-9%) are the bulk of the non-Muslim population, along with other Christian denominations (1%), Baha’is (0.003%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.002%) and Jews and other groups.
There remains a high level of societal hostility towards different religious groups. Mobs regularly attack churches; Shia Muslims experience active discrimination and Copts have been harassed for drinking water during Ramadan fasting hours. Egypt has long been divided along sectarian lines, with short-lived Muslim Brotherhood rule and the influence of Daesh exacerbating tensions.
President Sisi has spoken about the need for greater tolerance and has taken some symbolic action, including becoming the first Egyptian leader to attend a Christmas Eve Mass. However, the government is largely unable to protect Christian places of worship from bomb attacks or Christians themselves from kidnap and extortion.
In 2018, Coptic Christians were attacked multiple times and in several places during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha. A week earlier, a suicide attack on a Coptic church in north Cairo was thwarted. In November 2018, three buses carrying Christian pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo were ambushed, killing seven people and wounding 19 with the local Daesh affiliate claiming responsibility. While in this case police killed 19 terrorist suspects, in general the authorities have failed to prosecute those who attack Christians and have instead enforced state-sponsored reconciliation agreements which provide impunity for the perpetrators and leave Christians vulnerable to future attacks.
It remains difficult to open places of worship for recognised faiths, though the Egyptian government has prioritised the reconstruction of several significant non-Muslim places of worship. In October 2018, it was reported that only 340 out of 3,730 applications for legal status and building permits for unlicensed churches had been granted under the 2016 Church Construction Law, which was meant to provide an avenue for Christians to legally build and renovate churches. Many unregistered churches have waited around 15-20 years to be registered by the state. In the meantime, they remain vulnerable to being shut down or attacked. For instance, the church in Ezbet Sultan Pasha village, Minya, faced mob attacks with police complicity when seeking legalisation in July 2018.
In January 2018, the Head of the Egyptian Parliament’s Committee on Religion put forward legislation to outlaw atheism. This was debated in Parliament and considered by the President. This highlights the environment that those with no religious beliefs experience in Egypt. It is illegal to register as humanist, atheist or as a secularist and those who have attempt to do so have faced harassment from the authorities.
Blasphemy cases are increasing in Egypt. Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal code criminalises contempt of religion, thereby acting as a blasphemy law. In December 2017 a 29 year-old man was accused of ‘contempt of religion’ for running a Facebook page called ‘Atheism’. In July 2018, a mob attacked several Coptic Christian homes in Minbal village, Minya, following the publication of a Facebook post deemed offensive to Islam. Atheists and adherents of non-recognised religions are barred from registering their chosen belief on ID cards. Thanks to a 2008 court ruling, official recognition of conversion from Islam is impossible, and those who do so in practice face significant social and governmental hostilities.
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
There were some positive developments on FoRB, starting in January with President Sisi opening the largest cathedral in the Middle East, and ending with preparations to reopen a newly restored synagogue in Alexandria.
The number of licences issued under the 2016 Church Building Law continued to increase, with over 1,222 church buildings receiving licences since the middle of 2018. Dr Murrison visited Cairo in September, meeting the Coptic Pope and reaffirming our mutual commitment to FoRB. However, the arrest of Coptic activist Ramy Kamel for alleged terrorism offences on 23 November gave cause for concern.
In the UK Parliament, 2020