Home / Egypt / Population / Religious groups

Religious groups

View on the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo / Photo Shutterstock.
View on the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo / Photo Shutterstock.

Introduction

The state officially recognizes only the three so-called Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Every citizen is obliged to have one of these recognized religions stated on his or her national identity card, but, after a five-year struggle in the judicial system, an Egyptian court ruled in March 2009 that followers of the Bahai faith have the right to leave empty or write ‘ – ‘ in the space allotted for identifying their religion on their identity cards.

Sunni Muslims

Making up roughly 90 percent of the population, Sunni Muslims dominate social, cultural, and political life in Egypt. Although there are many religious differences within the Muslim community in Egypt, the Hanafi school of law is considered mainstream by most people. Among the four established Sunni schools of legal thought, the Hanafi is the oldest and is generally regarded as the most liberal school of thought, with its emphasis on reason, in contrast to the Hanbali school of law, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. Stricter and more rigid interpretations of Islam, known as Salafist (which is not a school of law), have in the past been popular for certain periods and seem to have been gaining ground again in recent years.

The state controls most of the mosques and supervises Muslim clerics through the Ministry of Religious Endowments. In 2011, however, after the fall of President Mubarak, the state lost control of hundreds of privately-owned mosques that it had seized in the middle and late 1990s, during the confrontation with violent Islamic groups such as al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and the Jihad groups.

Islamic scholars are trained at al-Azhar University, the oldest school of Islamic thought in the world. It was, ironically, established in the Ismaili Shiite tradition by the Fatimids in the 10th century CE. Al-Azhar Institute, which is linked to the university, is officially authorized to issue fatwas (religious judgements and edicts) but is struggling to compete with the growing number of religious scholars who offer judgements on television shows. Besides appointing the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, who leads the institution, the President also appoints the Grand Mufti, who is officially authorized to issue religious fatwas on questions referred to him by ordinary citizens and the state. At the present, the two highest religious authorities in Egypt are the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb (born 1946), a former Grand Mufti, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa (born 1951). The fact that both the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti are appointed by the state has always put their credibility and independence in question. Thus, independent scholars popular on private TV channels, nicknamed ‘satellite-fatwa-sheikhs’, have gained popularity and standing among the public.

About 10 million Sunni Egyptians follow the mystical traditions of the numerous Sufi orders, known for their communal festivals and sessions to establish spiritual contact with God through the repetitive recitation of words, repetitive movements, or dancing. Since the fall of President Mubarak, Sufis have complained of arson attacks by radical orthodox Islamic groups against shrines of religious figures they hold to be saints. Extremists, mainly members of Salafi groups, view as un-Islamic the Sufi practice of visiting shrines to seek their blessings and have vowed to destroy them. Sufis have been largely apolitical and tend to support any government in power, as long as they are granted freedom to practice their rituals.

Christians

The largest minority in Egypt consists of Coptic Christians, but there are no official recent statistics available for their population. According to a national census in 1986, 6 percent of the population was Coptic Christian. In more recent censuses, citizens have not been obliged to state their religion in the questionnaires, but the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt estimates that Copts make up 8 to 10 percent of population, making Egypt home to the largest Christian population in the MENA region.

According to Coptic Christian tradition, it was during the rule of the Roman emperor Nero that Christianity was brought to Egypt by Saint Mark. Anti-Roman sentiment was conducive to the spread of Christianity in Egypt, and many converted to the initially banned faith. The Patriarchate of Alexandria was established in 61 CE.

The schism in the Church in the 5th century led to diverging branches of Christendom, and Copts were persecuted severely by the Roman Christians.

The Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria has always served as an independent seat of the Coptic pope, completely separate from the Vatican in Rome. Shenouda III (1923-2012) was the pope of the Coptic Church for 40 years, until his death. In 2012, the Coptic Church elected a new pope, Bishop Tawadros, who took the name Theodoros II. Under Shenouda’s leadership the Coptic Orthodox Church became more restrictive. Politically, however, Pope Shenouda III promoted tolerance and unity of all Egyptians. The church excommunicates Coptic women who marry Muslim men. Although there are several official grounds for divorce, in practice, the Church permits divorce only in cases of adultery or change of faith.

Egypt is also home to a small number of Catholic Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Protestant Christians.

There is a degree of formal and informal discrimination against Copts in Egypt; they face difficulties with governmental bureaucracy and unwillingness of civil servants to provide them with services or required documents. Construction and repair of churches require permits, which could, until recently, be issued only by the President. Currently, governors have the authority to make these decisions, but this has not always been an improvement. There are very few Copts on the police force or in the judiciary. Tensions flare up occasionally between Muslim and Coptic communities, and there have been attacks on churches.

Copts emerged as an influential political force after the fall of President Mubarak, particularly in the face of the increasing influence of Islamist political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. More Copts have joined new liberal parties that emerged after Mubarak’s removal – for example, the Free Egyptians Party. The President traditionally appoints a small number of Copts to offices in government and to seats in the People’s Assembly and on the Shura Council, in order to compensate for the failure of Coptic candidates to win seats in elections. President Mubarak maintained the tradition of appointing one or two Coptic ministers to his cabinet, and, since Mubarak’s fall, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, followed the same tradition in the newly appointed cabinet.

The most notable Copts in the private sector belong to the Sawiris family. Naguib Sawiris is the founder, chairman, and chief executive of Orascom Telecom, a large mobile-telephone network. He and his brothers Nassef Sawiris, who runs Orascom Construction, and Samih Sawiris, who is in charge of Orascom Hotels and Development, are by far the richest and most powerful businessmen in the country. After the fall of Mubarak, Naguib Sawiris formed the Free Egyptians Party. He also owns a satellite channel, ONTV, which was influential in supporting the uprising against the Mubarak regime. ONTV also aims to counterbalance the influence of political Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Group, by giving liberal and leftist parties more opportunities to air their views.



Shiite minority

Shiite Islam was the faith of several Arab tribes that immigrated to Egypt upon the arrival of Islam there. Present in Egypt throughout the Umayyad and Abbasid eras, the Shiite faith intensified under the rule of the Fatimids – who were Ismaili Shiites – in the 10th century CE. In the late 12th and first half of the 13th centuries, the Shiites were persecuted by the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt, causing many of them to flee to neighbouring countries, but there is still a small minority of Twelver Shiites in Egypt, consisting of some of the descendants of the original Shiite population of the country and those who converted from Ismaili Islam in earlier times or Sunni Islam more recently. Their numbers are unknown, and estimates vary enormously, from no more than 5,000 to nearly one million. According to some analysts, many Egyptian Shiites conceal their true identity out of fear of discrimination and persecution.

Certain traces of Shiite practice remain in Egypt, particularly in religious rituals and festivals surrounding the family of the Prophet Muhammad. The head of the Prophet’s cousin, Husayn, who is highly regarded and celebrated by Shiites, is believed to be buried in Cairo. The annual festival to mark his birthday is usually attended by 1-2 million people. The strict Wahhabi version of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia and now spreading in Egypt views many of these practices, as well as those of Sufi Muslims, as undesirable relics of Shiite Islam.

Although the Egyptian government does not officially recognize Shiites as a religious minority in the country, the highest religious institution, al-Azhar, has acknowledged Shiite Islam as a legitimate branch of the religion since the 1960s when the then Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar issued a fatwa to that effect. While the former Sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, reaffirmed the validity of the fatwa in 1997, the Ministry of Religious Endowments recently stated it will prohibit the Shiites from practicing their rites or spreading their faith in Egypt.

Under the former Mubarak regime, beginning in 1988, the state security services attempted to root out Shiite elements from Egyptian society. Various unlawful arrests ensued, as did torture and detention without formal charges. Often, the media were used to popularize the idea that the Shiites were to be mistrusted as a fifth column operating as agents for Egypt’s political rival Iran and seeking the downfall of the Egyptian state. Formal charges against the Shiite detainees usually contained accusations of ‘damaging social peace, causing strife, and joining an unlawful organization with the aim of impeding the rule of the constitution and of law’. According to reports of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, however, the main reason for the arrests, detentions, and torture is the fact that they are Shiite Muslims and are subjected to religious discrimination and persecution.

Egyptian Shiites have been frightened by the state security services’ behaviour and by the nationalist and sensationalist media’s depiction of the Shiites as part of Iran’s efforts to convert Egyptians and destroy Sunni Islam and have often concealed their religious identity. Although Shiites have, since the January 25 revolution, begun to speak out more and have even celebrated religious festivals more openly, the above mentioned statement by the Ministry of Religious Endowments does not give cause to believe that any improvement will take place soon in the situation of Egyptian Shiites.

Bahai

Although official numbers are not available, there are at most a few thousand Bahai in Egypt. The Bahai are not persecuted, but they are often discriminated against. As their religion is not recognized by the state, Bahai have been forced to state either Islam, Christianity, or Judaism as their faith in order to obtain an identity card. However, early in 2009, a court ruled that they should be allowed to leave the religion space blank on the identity card and on the birth certificates of their children.

Jews

In earlier times, there were many Jews in Egypt, but very few are left today. After the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and the Suez Crisis in 1956, Jews were no longer welcome. In the following decades, especially after the 1967 June War, almost all Jews emigrated from Egypt. There are an estimated 70-100 Jews left in Egypt. The small community is responsible for two or three synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria that are still in use.

Clashes


On New Year’s Eve of 2011, explosives rocked the Church of the Two Saints (al-Qiddiseen) in Alexandria, killing 25 people. The Interior Ministry under former President Hosni Mubarak blamed ‘external elements’ affiliated to al-Qaeda for the attack and linked it to similar attacks against Christian churches in Iraq.

The Mubarak regime insisted that there were no sectarian tensions in Egypt, but the fact that sectarian clashes took place on a regular basis was evidence of the existence of the problem and the failure of the regime to handle it. Violent clashes between Muslims and Copts are more frequent than the government likes to admit, and the relations between the two communities have generally been tense for the past thirty years. That tension has been linked mainly to the rise of political Islamic groups and the influence of Egyptians who spent years in conservative oil-rich Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Clashes often arise from a minor local dispute that develops into wider sectarian violence. Incidents such as alleged harassment of women, love affairs between members of the two communities, the renovation of a church or monastery, and the use of a private house for prayer by Christians have been the most common reasons for recent clashes. The fact that such topics can ignite angry responses from Muslim neighbours – often youths incited by a preacher – shows decreasing tolerance between the two faith communities.

Coptic Christians have emerged as a vocal political force following the fall of President Mubarak. After the destruction of a church in the village of Atfih, near Cairo, by Muslim locals angry over a love affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in early March 2011, Copts held demonstrations and sit-ins for nearly two months to demand justice and accountability. Police said thirteen people were killed in clashes in Cairo between Muslims and Christians after that incident. Violence broke out again in early May in the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba, this time after a Christian woman eloped with a Muslim man. Six people were killed in clashes. Other bloody attacks and clashes (in October 2011 with the army) would follow.

Extremist Islamic groups accuse Coptic community leaders of using outside pressure, mainly American and European, to gain more rights, but Copts say they are demanding equal rights in a civilian state and have vehemently rejected demands by Islamist political groups to implement Sharia (Islamic law). That controversy is likely to continue as Egypt drafts a new constitution.


Freedom of Religion

In the category of ‘freedom of conscience and belief’ on the Freedom House (Washington, D.C.) scale Egypt scores only 2.33 out of a possible seven points. There seems to be a contradiction in the Egyptian Constitution, which states that Islam is the official religion and that the Sharia (Islamic law) is the principal source of legislation, while at the same time it provides for the freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as these are not in conflict with the Sharia.

However, the Sharia prohibits conversion from Islam, and conversion from Islam to Christianity is rejected by the courts. Since 2007, only a few dozen Christians, who had converted to Islam and wanted to return to their original faith, have been able to change their papers through a court order.

There is some formal and informal discrimination against Copts in Egypt. Although the government claims that there are no religious tensions in Egypt, religious strife does surface occasionally. Often these clashes are caused by anger in a community over alleged love-relationships between a Muslim and a Christian or because of rumoured abductions of girls.

al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Photo Shutterstock.
Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the largest in the Middle East
image_pdfimage_print