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Obscure population number of Christians in Egypt further confused by Coptic Pope’s inaccurate claims 

07/06/2023 Egypt (International Christian Concern) – Amid wide coverage of Pope Tawadros II’s visit to the Vatican earlier in May this year – a decade since the first visit of His Holiness to the Papal state – little attention has been given to his statements on Egyptian Christian population numbers, reflective of a longstanding obscurity regarding accurate numbers in Egypt. Earlier in April this year, the Pope declared to Egyptian journalists that fifteen million Copts lived in Egypt today, with two million living abroad.  

The last official number of Egyptian Christians (of all denominations), recorded in a national census, was published in 1986 and put the number at just under six percent, to outcry from the Coptic community. The Egyptian government has consequently ignored the population number altogether in three subsequent censuses. Estimates are further confused by Islamists who seek to deny the historical and ethnic precedence of Christianity in Egypt and are thereby quick to downplay estimates; on the contrary, Coptic Christian activists and clergy often exaggerate figures, with some claiming that the Christian population is as large as 35 percent. Both reactions reflect a fundamental distrust of Egyptian state figures and bureaucracy – a government with a record of identifying Christians officially as “Muslim” on identity papers 

According to Providence, the first “semi-official” estimate of Egypt’s population was in 1798 under Emperor Napoleon, with a non-Muslim population of around 43 percent – a figure which included the Egyptian Jewish community, Armenian and Levantine Christians, as well as Copts. By 1882, non-Muslims were around 7.3 percent of the population, which rose to 8.3 percent in 1927 on account of tens of thousands of non-Egyptians immigrating to Egypt from Greece, Italy, and the Levant. This number declined in subsequent censuses after foreigners fled or were deported under the Nasser regime. Indeed, the last time there was public discourse around the number of Christians in Egypt was during the revolution in June 2013 that ousted President Morsi. During this time, the Muslim Brotherhood spread false information that Egyptian Christians were responsible for this and, subsequently, the appointment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the new ruler – a reputation that has not left the minority, despite no Christian Deputy sitting in the Egyptian People’s Council – and which in July 2013 led to the burning of seventy churches by mobs.  

Pope Tawadros has previously suggested that baptismal records are the most accurate source, but these records are ill-maintained in the majority of Egyptian dioceses. Inflated figures – unchanged from those His Holiness cited five years ago – do little for Copts, who are discriminated against at all levels in Egyptian society. Inaccurate, even fantastical figures delude both the Coptic community of their diminishing presence in society, as well as aggravate opposition or governmental groups. Middle Eastern scholar, Samuel Tadros, outlines the possible effect of this misrepresentation in a recent article for Providence (May 26, 2023): 

“If the Christian population in Egypt numbers fifteen million with another two million [abroad], then unlike other Christian communities in the Middle East, immigration has had [minimal] impact on the Coptic Church. Around 88% of the church followers still reside in Egypt, so the Coptic Church is still a national church, and its future remains anchored around the Nile Valley. If, on the other hand, the Christian population in Egypt is closer to five million, with another two million abroad, then immigration in the last fifty years has indeed had an overwhelming impact on the Copts, with nearly 30% of Copts now living outside of Egypt’s borders. With trends of immigration intensifying, it is not inconceivable that in fifty years’ time, the majority of Copts will be living abroad […] When he does consider the Copts outside Egypt, he thinks of them as a diaspora, as Egyptians living abroad, but still Egyptians. In a conference he held for Coptic youth abroad, he continued to refer to them as Egyptians in the diaspora until they corrected him, stating they were Coptic Americans and Coptic Canadians who are citizens of those countries. By continuing to act as an Egyptian Christian leader, he has created a wide gulf between himself and his followers abroad.”

The governmental disregard for accurate figures regarding the Christian population in Egypt speaks to the fact that, in a highly sectarian society, authorities still consider the number of Coptic Christians a matter of national security. On the contrary, to muddle these figures further from the head of the Synod does little for the persecuted reality faced by Christians in Egypt.  

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