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Egypt

The toppling of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi on 3 July 2013 after a popular uprising raised hopes that the condition of Christians in Egypt might improve. In the short term, however, it was the trigger for a furious backlash against them by angry Islamists. At the height of the reprisals in mid-August, at least 16 Christians were killed and some 60 church buildings destroyed, as well as countless Christian homes and businesses. In the Islamist stronghold of Minya, Christian properties were marked for destruction with a black X.

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Mariam Ashraf Messeiha (8) was killed in a drive-by attack on a Christian wedding in 2013
Source: Morning Star News

Sporadic attacks have continued since. In October four Christians, including two children, were killed in Cairo in a drive-by shooting that targeted wedding guests. Many Christians have been kidnapped for ransom and others forced to pay protection money to Islamists in the form of jizya, the traditional Islamic tax on Christians and Jews.

But the churches continue to hope for better times ahead. A new constitution was approved in a referendum in January 2014; it replaces the Islamist-sponsored code that was pushed through by Morsi at the end of 2012 and strengthens rights and freedoms. It enshrines the equality of all citizens and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, sex, race and other factors. Christians and other minorities are granted greater political representation.

Freedom of belief is declared “absolute”, while freedom to practise religion and establish places of worship is granted to Christians (and Jews) as well as Muslims. The constitution requires Parliament to issue a law that would relax the longstanding restrictions on the building and renovation of churches so as to allow Christians to worship freely.

It is a remarkable turnaround after Islamists appeared to be consolidating their grip on power following the Arab Spring of 2011, and the country’s Christian minority were facing the grim prospect of life in an Islamic state. There was a surge of violent attacks against them, and an escalation in the number of Christian women being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married against their will to a Muslim man. The number of blasphemy cases, in which some Christians were jailed for allegedly insulting Islam, also increased. The regime was failing to offer them adequate protection or bring their assailants to justice.

Egyptian Christians have suffered centuries of discrimination, and most of the wealthier Christians have left the country in the last few decades. Those Christians who remain largely live in extreme poverty. Converts from Islam are acutely vulnerable.

The Church in Egypt is one of the oldest in the world. Egypt’s former capital Alexandria was one of the great Christian centres until 640 AD, when the country was invaded by Muslim Arabs. Today there are an estimated eight to ten million Christians; around 90% of the population are Muslims.

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