Amidst the excited coverage of his historic visit to the Vatican and the warming ties between the Sees of Rome and Alexandria, little attention has been given to Coptic Pope Tawadros II recent statement on Christian population figures in Egypt. Two weeks ago, during a meeting with Egyptian journalists working on the Coptic portfolio, the Pope declared that there are fifteen million Christians in Egypt with another two million Copts residing abroad. The neglect is unfortunate. While hardly the first time a Coptic clergy member or the Pope himself had remarked on the number, the statement deserves careful consideration, not just because it is factually wrong, but because it is dangerous for the future of the Coptic Church.
For nearly forty years, the number of Christians in Egypt has been shrouded in mystery with the figure highly contested across Egypt’s political spectrum. The last official Egyptian census to state the number was released in 1986 and put the percentage of Christians in Egypt as slightly less than six percent. The Coptic outcry at what they perceived as a gross undercount has driven the Egyptian government to simply ignore the number in the three subsequent censuses. Ever since, as the joke goes, you can know the number of cars in Egypt, but not the number of Christians.
The number is of course not merely a demographic figure, but for a minority struggling to survive in its ancient homeland has acquired important political significance. It is thus no surprise given the absence of an official figure since 1986, that the percentage of Christians in Egypt would become a highly contested matter with a wide range of numbers floating. Islamists who seek to deny Egypt’s ethnic and religious diversity in service of their totalitarian project are quick to downplay the number claiming five percent of the population as Christians, while Coptic activists fighting for their peoples’ rights throw in figures from 15 to 20 percent with some claiming numbers as large as 35 percent of Egypt’s population. International bodies and news agencies have attempted to sidestep the controversy by quoting the U.S. State Department’s figure of around ten percent.
For Copts and their church, that the government numbers are inaccurate is nearly a tenant of faith. Part of this may be simply the natural phenomenon of members of minorities being disproportionately surrounded by their coreligionists and assuming that is a reflection of society, but largely it is a reflection of Copts’ mistrust of the Egyptian state and bureaucracy. Given the long history of persecution and discrimination that Copts face, as well as documented incidents throughout the years of Christians being issued identification cards with their religion marked as Muslim, such mistrust is not to be unexpected. However, leaving aside individual incidents and the possibility of human error, the Copts’ claims of figures widely divergent from government statics, suggest an impossible conspiracy stretching for over 200 years and involving every regime that has governed the country from Napoleon to the current one.
The first semi-official estimation of Egypt’s population took place in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the country. The French estimate of Egypt’s population at the time was two and a half million, including 215,000 non-Muslims who paid Jizya or 8.6% of the population. This figure included both small minority Christian groups such as Armenians and Levantine Christians as well as Egypt’s Jewish community. A similar figure would be repeated throughout the years in the official census conducted by Egypt’s British overlords. In 1882, non-Muslims were 7.3% of the population, in 1907 8%, in 1927 8.3%. The percentage rise is attributed to tens of thousands of non-Egyptians flocking to the country as it modernized, especially from the Levant, Greece and Italy. It would decline in the following census’ as those foreigners left or were kicked out under the Nasser regime. In 1960 the figure was 7.3%, 1966 6.6%, and in 1976 6.3%. The consistency of the figures throughout nearly two centuries leaves little doubt that the number is accurate. In addition, numerous academic demographic surveys since have reached similar figures leading the PEW Research Center to accept the government figures as accurate. More recently, election results from Egypt’s only free parliamentary elections in 2011 reaffirm the number.
Some might claim that the Coptic Church surely knows the actual number. Previously the Pope has mentioned baptismal records as an accurate source of the number, but such confidence is misplaced. In reality, very few dioceses if any keep records of baptisms, and the church as a whole lacks the organizational structure to gather such information and come up with an overall figure. Each bishop may know, roughly how many he serves in his diocese, but not only are these numbers not added together, but they suffer from gross overcounting as a result of migration both internal to Cairo and external to the growing Coptic Diaspora.
Why does any of this matter? Even if government figures are accurate, Copts are grossly discriminated against in all levels of government appointments from the cabinet, army, and police force to the foreign service, school headmasters to heads of public sector companies. Whether they are six or fifteen percent, the Copt is not an equal citizen in Egypt. An outsider may simply say, let the Copts enjoy their fantasy. But the danger of believing those highly inflated numbers does not pertain to the Copts’ position vis-à-vis Egypt but rather in how Copts and especially their Church think about themselves and their future.
If the Christian population in Egypt indeed numbers fifteen million with another two million residing abroad, then unlike other Christian communities in the Middle East, immigration has had some, but not an overwhelming 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 and the Coptic Church will no longer simply be a national church of Egypt but instead a global church.
Pope Tawadros seems unaware of the transformation, not realizing the necessary and painful changes the church needs to undergo in order to adapt to changing demographics. Unlike his predecessor he has hardly traveled abroad to visit his congregations spread across the world, creating a physical as well as an emotional barrier between them. 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 him and his followers abroad opening the doors for a future rift that could tear the church apart. The Pope’s blindness to reality is tragic. All he needs to do is open his eyes and look at the bishops sitting with him in the Coptic Holy Synod. One-third of the bishops he has ordained since becoming Pope in 2012 have been from dioceses abroad.