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Egypt’s Three Religions

Posted on by Reverend Lauren


Responding to calls that human rights workers around the world should incorporate a religious element to their work so as to connect with local residents, some say that in many deeply religious countries, the notion of associating a religious identity with secular service work is fraught with peril. This is particularly so in Egypt, where by official edict, “religion” is limited to just three of the world’s recognized faiths. Of Egypt’s three religions, ninety percent of the people in the country are registered as Muslim.

What is Religion in Egypt?

By an amendment to the Constitution of Egypt in 1971, Islam is the official state religion. Citizens who fill out official paperwork find that nearly all forms require the applicant to check a box indicating religious identity. On the forms that relate to identity, employment, banking, finance, housing, and every other aspect of life, each person in the country is required to identify with one of the three choices that are accepted under the Muslim Sharia law that rules the country: Muslim, Jewish, or Christian.

Members of Baha’i are not able to register their faith on their government ID cards, as theirs is not a recognized religion in the country. While atheism is not strictly a crime, there is evidence that security services track down and arrest suspected atheists in the country.

Free to Attack Some Faiths but Not Others

A prominent Muslim preacher burns the Bible of Christianity in front of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, and then later repeats the act in court, all with impunity. Meanwhile in the country, Christians are prosecuted for contempt of Islam, often without direct proof, just on the word of one person against another.

Those who are not Muslim are limited not just in private life, but are also forbidden to hold key posts in government and beyond such as:

  • Senior posts in the army and police
  • Leading positions in the ministries of Defense, Finance, Interior, Foreign Affairs
  • Heads of universities

While Christians may serve in lesser positions within these institutions, including as professors at universities, the burdens placed by law on minority religions extend to all areas of Egyptian life. Discrimination is both written into the law and enshrined in tradition. Checking the box on many official forms to identify an individual as other than Muslim is essentially relinquishing the right to be treated as a full citizen in the country. When it comes to some jobs and promotions at work, subtle discrimination flows to those who are not aligned with the ninety-percent majority who identify as Muslim on their paperwork and ID cards.

The Kids Are All Right but Not Really Effective

In response to attacks on one religious minority in Egypt, a group of young men and women gathered to found the Maspero Youth Union. The Copts are persecuted and attacked for their beliefs that stand outside of the mainstream in the country. The group formed to conduct monitoring of incidents of hate-crimes targeted against the Copts, and came together after extremists placed a bomb in a church on the eve of 2010. While they write reports, attempt to use social media and public campaigns to get the attention of government agencies, and address international and other groups about the situation in the country, most admit that their efforts have had extremely limited impact in the polarized country.

Service With a Secular Angle

In a country such as Egypt where the institutions of the state and society are built by long tradition to favor one religion and specifically exclude many others, it does little good to approach human rights issues from a religious perspective. Ideally, education on the reality of the deep connections that all beings share as children of the same universe can lead to changes and a growth of greater tolerance throughout society. Human rights are not related to the faith or worthiness of the particular individual, but are the possession of every person in every country.

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