Discrimination Against Christians in Egypt’s National Sport

ICC Note:  Egypt has qualified for the World Cup, which will take place in June, but a close look at the country’s athletes at all levels of the sport shows an alarming trend: for a country with the largest Christian minority group in the region, there are a shortage of Christian athletes. Some point to select high profile Christian athletes as counter examples to claims of discrimination, but this argument cannot keep pace with the number of claims by Christians that they have been denied access to playing their country’s sport.

02/28/2018 Egypt (Al Arabiya) –  Mina Essam, a Copt, wanted to join the junior team in one of Egypt’s most prestigious football clubs, but was turned down because of his religion, particularly the moment his name, which is obviously Christian, was known. “This boy will never be admitted to the field,” said former goalkeeper and current coach of junior goalkeepers Ekramy al-Shahat.

This how the story went according to the boy’s father. However, Shahat denied the incident altogether and said that the boy’s name was not in the list to begin with. While Shahat expressed his willingness to see applicants who were not in the list, the father insisted in his version of the story. This complaint was not, however, the first as a few months earlier 13-year-old Tony Atef accused one of the trainers at the same club of turning him down after pointing to the cross tattoo on his wrist. While Atef was eventually accepted following the campaign launched by his brother, the club still denied any claims of discrimination. Between this and that, the question of whether sectarianism in Egypt has reached sports becomes inevitable.

While both incidents took place back in 2016, their repercussions are far from over. In the same year, the US-based Coptic Solidarity organization filed a complaint with the International Olympic Committee and the FIFA about systematic discriminations against Christian athletes face in Egypt.

“There are approximately ten million Christians out of Egypt’s ninety million citizens, yet Egypt’s Olympic mission to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, which comprised 122 players, did not include a single Copt. Egypt’s 2012 London delegation also did not include any Copts. Additionally, not a single Egyptian Christian player, coach or trainer can be found on any club in the country’s premier league,” stated the complaint, adding that over the past four decades only a few Coptic athletes were included in official sports competitions.

“This is not an impossible statistical anomaly, but instead is the product of deep-rooted discrimination that exists in the administration of athletics and football in Egypt, and in Egyptian society at large.”

The recurrence of similar incidents and failure to secure places in Egyptian clubs also led a young Copt to establish an academy for Christian footballers. Academy Je Suis, based in Alexandria, was established by Mina Bendary to include rejected Coptic footballers, according to Mina Samir, who also failed to join any club. “I tried several clubs and failed. The moment they know my name they say they’d contact me and I never hear from them again,” Samir said.

“It was only when I met Mina Bendary, who also failed like me, that I was able to play football. The academy, which currently includes more than 60 players, specializes in training youths from seven to 20 years old and started to open branches in other cities outside Alexandria, particularly in the Nile Delta. Academy founder Mina Bendary denies that his project is for profit. “I only take 100 pounds per month from each player.”

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For interviews with Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org

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