How many Copts are there, really?

Published June 15th, 2016 - 07:40 GMT
A Coptic priest stands inside what remains of a church after it was attacked by arsonists.  (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
A Coptic priest stands inside what remains of a church after it was attacked by arsonists. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Coptic Christian figure Najib Sweres last week accused the Egyptian state of purposefully concealing the true number of his fellow Copts living in the country.  The government’s reason for supposedly hiding the data?  Apparently, Sweres claimed, out of fear that the often-oppressed minority community might demand more official representation should the true figures come to light. 

Sweres’ accusation is the latest episode in an ongoing debate – or confusion, rather – over the true size of Egypt’s minority Coptic community.  In most media reports, Copts tend to hover at around 10% of Egypt’s 91 million-strong population. Other estimates range from 6% to a perhaps over-optimistic 18%.   

Hate crime-weary Copts, and not the government, might well themselves be the ones keeping their numbers low on census reports, argues the Pew Research Center. Hesitant to report their religious identities for fear of attacks, many Coptic Christians may simply go unrecorded as such. But in the Arab World’s most populous nation, where the ranks of the Copts are dramatically dwarfed by the roughly 90-95% of the population who follow Islam, size matters.

Size especially matters now.  Though many Copts trace the beginning of their current troubles to former president Sadat’s embrace of public Islam in the 1970’s, Muslim-Copt relations soured sharply after the demise of Egypt’s Islamist-led government in July 2013, after which Coptic Church leaders pledged their support for the new post-ouster constitution.  Since then, dozens of Coptic churches have been torched by arsonists, while mobs have killed Christians and attacked their homes – last month, one such mob stripped an elderly Coptic woman naked then paraded her through the streets of her village.  Daesh, too, whose presence in Egypt seems increasingly sinister, has targeted the Copts (unsurprisingly) for their faith. Meanwhile, the government has done little to stem the sectarian tensions. 

Still, Sweres sees far more for his sparse Coptic community in Egypt.  “We hope to see a Christian prime minister and hope to see more than one Coptic minister in government,” he said at last week’s conference, in reference to Egypt’s sole Coptic government minister, immigration chief Nabila Makram.  “The Copts deserve this.”   



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