Egyptian Copts: It’s All in the Number

An Egyptian Christian Copt touches the image of Jesus Christ during Sunday mass at a Coptic church in Cairo, on 23 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Maher Iskander)

By: Abdel Rahman Youssef

Published Sunday, September 30, 2012

The number of Copts in Egypt has been argued over for many years, with estimates varying drastically depending on the religious background of the speaker. As Copts vie for full citizenship in Egypt’s purportedly secular state, these numbers are an increasingly political issue.

Controversy has erupted over the number of Christians in the land of the Pharaohs. It is a new explosive issue that has sparked controversy in Egypt and stoked the flames of the ongoing clash of identities in the country. This time, however, the controversy is not between Islamists and secularists but rather amongst those who use religious demographics for their own ulterior motives.

For the first time in about 26 years, Major-General Abu Bakr al-Guindi, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), announced last Monday evening on Egypt’s al-Tahrir TV the official population count of Egypt’s Christians. He said the number is no greater than 5,130,000 Christians out of a current population of 83,150,000 Egyptians. He explained that Copts tend to have the highest emigration rate, the lowest birthrate and the highest income level.

Shortly thereafter, Guindi retracted his statement. Even though there is a public record of what he said, he claimed that the response that was attributed to him was used out of context.

He issued a statement which read: “My response was based on the last definitive data of the number of Christians and Muslims in Egypt from the 1986 census when Copts were 5.7 percent.” The statement added: “The agency has not had definitive data on the number of Copts since then.”

According to Guindi, the state has not made public the number of Christians because the United Nations Statistical Commission recommended making the question of religion in censuses optional. Religion, after all, should a private matter.
Guindi said: “the question of religion has become optional on the census form which collects data on the population. So some people in the 1996 and 2006 censuses did not provide that information.”

Guindi pointed out that sometimes government statistics remain confidential until a certain point in time. They are only announced if the state feels the need to do so or upon a request by an official body or if circumstances require them to be made public. He did not elaborate however on the circumstances that prompted the announcement of Christian demographics at this point in time.

Guindi mentioned on TV that the first census in Egypt was conducted by the British occupation in 1882. The Copts constituted at the time 8.1 percent of the population. The British continued to conduct censuses of the Egyptian population until 1937. The number of Christians was decreasing with every census the British conducted and afterwards. In the 11th census, conducted in 1986, the number of Copts was 5.7 million.

Despite his subsequent denials and conflicting statements, Guindi managed to stir a huge controversy. For one thing, the state had not revealed the number of Copts in a long time, as if it were a top secret fact. The issue was subject to speculations, disputed between Christians and Muslims, independent researchers and the church.

Throughout this time, observers outside Egypt have heard contradictory numbers. Some priests and Diaspora Copts claim the number of Christians in Egypt is 25 million. At the same time, some Muslims have claimed that the number is 3 million. Various numbers are thrown around between these two extremes. Many institutions have come to the conclusion that the number of Christians is closer to 10 percent of the population, that is, about 8 million people. This is an average number used by those who walk a tightrope on this issue. It is even mentioned in Wikipedia.

In reaction to Guindi’s statement, Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, filed a lawsuit with the State Council’s administrative court calling on the government to announce the exact number of Christians in Egypt based on the database of the interior ministry’s civil status sector under international supervision and follow-up.

Islamists welcomed the census number arguing that it coincides with the study by the US organization, the Pew Research Center, which announced last October that the number of Copts in Egypt is 4.5 percent of the population. The Vatican number also put Copts at 6 to 8 percent, asserting that their percentage has been stable for the past 60 years.

Father Angelos Isaac, secretary of Bishop Pachomius, the interim head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, announced the church’s rejection of this number, arguing that it is inaccurate. Isaac expressed surprise at the census result, asking CAPMAS chairman to specify the number of Christians in each governorate individually.

The timing of this announcement and the way it was made carry many implications. Egyptian president, Mohammed Mursi, is visiting the United States and meeting with members of Muslim, Christian and Jewish organizations. He wants to affirm that Egypt is neither a religious nor a secular state, but rather a civil state.

A huge debate has ensued in the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution over the question of Islamic Sharia. Islamists, especially Salafis, insist that making Islamic law - and not just the principles of Islamic law - the primary source of Egyptian law is a popular demand. They are calling for submission to the will of the people.

Secularists, on the other hand, talk about the presence of many religious minorities arguing that secularism is the best option for a religiously diverse society. Christian human rights organizations advocate a larger political role for Copts, including holding certain positions through a quota system, because they constitute a sizable percentage of the population.

The circumstances and the way the announcement was made on a TV talk show prompted observers to argue that the timing is “political and intentional.”

Camille Sadiq, Melli Council secretary for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, told Al-Akhbar that “the timing was political par excellence and this is a political not a professional outcome that serves the interests of certain groups.” He declared his “rejection of these numbers” arguing that “the result is very strange and we do not accept it.” He fears that the low figure will be used to marginalize Christians under the new constitution and to convince the average man on the street to accept such marginalization.

Sadiq thinks “the number of Christians ranges between 12 and 15 million inside Egypt and 2 million in the Diaspora.” He asks sarcastically: “Are Christians in Egypt using contraception and birth control methods?”

According to Suleiman Shafik, a researcher in issues of citizenship, “The controversy in Egypt over the number of minorities is a silly one. Numbers do not necessarily reflect effectiveness or competence...Poor people represent three quarters of the world population but wield no power.”

Shafik stresses that: “Neither the church’s nor the state’s numbers are accurate.” He argues that “conflict over numbers takes us back to the notion of tribalism in the pre-state era when people relied on clannishness, family and numbers and when strength in numbers took precedence over competence.”

The Egyptian researcher argued that the number of Copts is irrelevant, whether they are 10 or 10 million. “Copts have just demands. What they are seeking is full citizenship.” He pointed out that according to a previous report issued in 2010 by the Ministry of Manpower, Christians in Egypt own 31 percent of the national wealth. He believes that the purpose behind this revelation about the number of Copts at this time is to undermine the struggle for citizenship rights.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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