Islam as the official state religion and Islamic law is the basis for legislative decisions in Egypt. One of the ways in which the government does not promote religious freedom is by not recognizing Muslim individuals who have converted to a different belief system. Additionally, the government must officially recognize a religion for it to be practiced freely. This official recognition is obtained by submitting a request to the Department of Religious Affairs. The department then determines if the proposed religions would cause a threat to national peace; the last time a religion was granted recognition was in 1990. If individuals are found practicing an unrecognized religion, they may be arrested, prosecuted, and punished.
The government only recognizes three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. This article takes a look at those religions and their relationship to Egyptian society.
Islam - 94.9%
Approximately 94.9% of the population of Egypt is Muslim. The majority of these individuals follow Sunni Islam and a minority is made up of Mu’tazila, Shia Twelvers, and followers of Ismailism. Egypt is home to Al-Azhar University, the most important and oldest university of Islamic studies in the world. Islamic beliefs and practices shape all levels of Egyptian society and government.
Christianity - 5.1%
The Christian religion is thought to be represented by 5.1% of the population although some estimates put the percentage from as low as 3% to as high as 20%. The vast majority, 95%, of Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. These followers are referred to as Copts meaning they are of Coptic origin. It is the largest ethnic minority group in the country.
Other - <1%
Although Judaism is a recognized religion in Egypt, its number of adherents is very low. Today, it is estimated that the number of Jews in the country is less than 40. Prior to 1950, it was estimated at somewhere between 70,000 and 85,000. In 1948, Israel was created which caused a massive out-migration of Egyptian Jews and after the Suez Crisis of 1956, thousands more were pushed out of the country and had their property confiscated.
A small minority of the population belong to several unrecognized religions including Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, Atheism, and Agnosticism. Those of the Baha’i faith are not able to register their religion on state identification papers which leave them without valid identification. The lack of identification makes it difficult to open bank accounts, start legal businesses, and register children for school. Recent court rulings have, however, allowed them to obtain identification by omitting their religion. Atheists and Agnostics live in fear of openly expressing their beliefs due to the risk of legal repercussions.
Religious tolerance does not seem to be widely practiced throughout Egypt. Non-Muslim groups have experienced many instances of persecution, including the followers of legally recognized religions like Christianity and Judaism. The Christian community has often been the target of hate crimes, faced restrictions to building new churches or repairing old ones, and been denied new state identification papers after converting from Islam. The Jewish community that remains after having large populations of Jews being forced out of the country in the 1950’s, faces restrictions in marriage because Jewish men may not marry Muslim women and Jewish women must convert to Islam to marry Muslim men. This has effectively decreased the Jewish population as well.
Recently, the government has made some progress toward religious tolerance and freedoms. Increasingly, public officials are appointing women to serve in public office; this has included Christian women as judges. Courts have also ruled in favor of Christians after instances of violence against their communities. These actions are few, however, and much more is needed for Egypt to uphold its constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.