Religion in Egypt

Religion in Egypt controls many aspects of social life and is endorsed by law. The state religion of Egypt is Islam. Although estimates vary greatly in the absence of official statistics. Since the 2006 census religion has been excluded, and thus available statistics are estimates made by religious and non-governmental agencies. The country is majority Sunni Muslim (estimated to be 85-90% of the population), with the next largest religious group being Coptic Christians (with estimates ranging from 10-15%[note 1]). The exact numbers are subject to controversy, with Christians alleging that they have been systemically under-counted in existing censuses.[1]

Egypt hosts two major religious institutions.[2] Al-Azhar Mosque, founded in 970 AD by the Fatimids as the first Islamic university in Egypt and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria established in the middle of the 1st century by Saint Mark.

In Egypt, Muslims and Christians share a common history, national identity, ethnicity, race, culture, and language.[3]

In 2002, under the Mubarak government, Coptic Christmas (January 7) was recognized as an official holiday,[4] though Christians complain of being minimally represented in law enforcement, state security and public office, and of being discriminated against in the workforce on the basis of their religion.[5][6]


According to research by Pew Research Center for the PEW-TEMPLETON Global Religion Futures Project in 2010, based on the contested 2006 Census data, estimated that 94.9% of Egyptians are Muslims, 5.1% are Christians, and less than 1% are Jewish, Buddhists, or other religions. The share of Christians in the Egyptian population has according to official statistics been declining with the highest share reported in the past century being in 1927, when the official census put the percentage of Egyptian Christians at 8.3%. In each of the seven subsequent censuses, the percentage shrank, ending at 5.7% in 1996.[7]

However, most Christians refuted these figures claiming they have been under-counted. Christians uphold that they represent up to 15 or even 25% of the Egyptian population.[8][9][10][11][12] In 2017 state-owned newspaper Al Ahram claimed that the percentage of Christians ranged from 10 to 15%[13][14][15], similar to the range claimed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.[16]

Recent self-identification surveys put the Christian percentage at around 10%, as found by Afrobarometer in 2016 (which estimated the country to be 10.3% Christian and 89.4% Muslim)[17] and by Arab Barometer in 2019 (which estimated it to be 9.6% Christian and 90.3% Muslim)[6].

According to 2015 figures from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Sunni Muslims make up 90% of the population, with Christian making up the remaining 10%[17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26]. A significant number of Sunni Muslims follow native Sufi orders.[27] There are reportedly close to fifty thousand Ahmadi Muslims in Egypt.[28] Estimates of Egypt's Shia Twelvers and Ismaili community range from 800,000 to about two to three million members.[29][30][31]

Most Egyptian Christians belong to the native Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an Oriental Orthodox Christian church.[32][18][21][22][23][24] Other Christian denominations include Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, Maronite and Anglican. The Greek Orthodox number between 250–350,000. The most recent declarations, made by Pope Shenouda III and bishop Morkos of Shubra in 2008, claimed that the number of Orthodox Christians in Egypt was over 12 million. Other estimates made by church officials put this number at 16 million.[1] The Coptic Orthodox Church claimed that these figures are based on regularly updated membership records.[33] Protestant churches claim a membership of about 300,000 Egyptians,[34] and the Coptic Catholic Church is estimated to have similar membership figures.[25][26] These figures would put the percentage of Christians in Egypt between 10% and 20% of the total population.

There is a small but historically significant non-immigrant Bahá'í population, estimates place the number at around 2,000 people,[3] and a far smaller community of Jews;[35] an unknown number of Egyptians identify as atheist and agnostic as public expressions of irreligion risk harassment and legal sanctions.

Freedom of religion and human rights

Freedom of belief and worship are formally recognized as absolute by the Egyptian Constitution under Article 64, but are effectively limited by government intervention and sectarian conflict. Some aspects of the country's laws are heavily founded on Islamic principles. Egyptian authorities only recognize Judaism, Islam and Christianity, allowing them public worship unlike other faiths.[36] President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other senior figures have emphasized religious tolerance. In 2019, Sisi's cabinet approved a number of churches. Authorities however, have often failed to sanction or take stringent action against mobs who have indulged in violence against Christians. While construction of mosques is freely allowed by the authorities without any intervention, they have sometimes let mob rule dictate that even registered churches be closed down. Christians have also been consistently targeted by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Contempt or blasphemy against a religion can be charged under the section 98 (f) of the Egyptian Penal Code. Conversion from Islam to any other faith is not recognized officially, though issues have also occurred for those converting to Islam.[36] The government also discriminates against Islamic religious minority groups, most notably Shi'a Muslims, who face open official discrimination, including being barred from admission to Al-Azhar University.

In 2006 Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court made a clear legal distinction between "recognized religions" (i.e., Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) and all other religious beliefs. This ruling effectively delegitimizes and forbids practice of all but the three Abrahamic religions,[37] and made it necessary for non-Abrahamic religious communities to either commit perjury or be denied Egyptian identification cards (see Egyptian identification card controversy), until a 2008 Cairo court case ruled that unrecognized religious minorities may obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents.[38]

Restrictions on conversion

While freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution, according to Human Rights Watch, "Egyptians are able to convert to Islam generally without difficulty, but Muslims who convert to Christianity face difficulties in getting new identity papers and some have been arrested for allegedly forging such documents.[39] The Coptic community, however, takes pains to prevent conversions from Christianity to Islam due to the ease with which Christians can often become Muslim.[40] Public officials, being conservative themselves, intensify the complexity of the legal procedures required to recognize the religion change as required by law. Security agencies will sometimes claim that such conversions from Islam to Christianity (or occasionally vice versa) may stir social unrest, and thereby justify themselves in wrongfully detaining the subjects, insisting that they are simply taking steps to prevent likely social troubles from happening.[41] In 2007, a Cairo administrative court denied 45 citizens the right to obtain identity papers documenting their reversion to Christianity after converting to Islam.[42] However, in February 2008 the Supreme Administrative Court overturned the decision, allowing 12 citizens who had reverted to Christianity to re-list their religion on identity cards,[43][44] but they will specify that they had adopted Islam for a brief period of time.[45]

Relations with the Coptic minority

Coptic Christians, being the largest ethno-religious minority in Egypt, are the most negatively affected by possibly discriminatory legislation. Copts in Egypt have faced increasing marginalization since the 1952 coup d'état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.[46][47] Until recently, Christians were required to obtain presidential approval for even minor repairs in churches. Although the law was eased in 2005 by handing down the authority of approval to the governors, Copts continue to face many obstacles in building new churches. These obstacles are not as much in building mosques.[3][48][49]

Muslims and Christians share a common history and national identity; however, at times religious tensions have arisen, and individual acts of prejudice and violence occur.[50] The most significant was the 2000–2001 El Kosheh attacks, In which Muslims and Christians were involved in bloody, inter-religious clashes following a dispute between a Muslim and a Christian. "Twenty Christians and one Muslim were killed after violence broke out in the town of el-Kosheh, 440 kilometres (275 miles) south of Cairo."[51] In 2005, in Kafr Salama village, Sharqiya governorate, an altercation between a Muslim and a Christian resulted in the death of the Muslim. Muslim villagers later attacked the Abu Sifin Church and several Christian homes and looted several shops before the authorities restored order.[50] In 2006, one person, described by police as drunk and mad, attacked three churches in Alexandria, leaving one dead and from 5 to 16 injured, although the attacker was not linked to any organisation.[52][50][53] On January 7, 2010, Muslim gunmen open fire on Christian worshipers leaving a church in Nag Hammadi resulting in the murder of nine Coptic Christians.[54] On January 1, 2011, at least 21 people were killed and 83 injured when a car bomb exploded outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria.[55] On 7 May 2011, a church was burnt down in Cairo.[56] Then on October 14, 2012 in the absence of security officials 2 Muslims from a group were killed after they tried to kidnap a woman from a Christian family.[57]

In January 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, Christian nonprofit organization Open Doors ranked Egypt as the 25th most difficult place to be a Christian, on their annual World Watch List.[58]

Religions in Egypt

Recognized religions


Islam has been the state religion in Egypt since the amendment of the second article of the Egyptian constitution in the year 1980, before which Egypt was recognized as a secular country. The vast majority of Egyptian Muslims are Sunni, with a small Mu'tazila, Shia Twelvers and Ismailism communities making up the remainder.[59] A significant number of Sunni Egyptians also follow native Sufi orders.[27] Egypt hosts the most important Sunni institution in the world, Al-Azhar University. It is the oldest Islamic institution of higher studies (founded around 970 CE), and is considered by many to be the oldest extant university in the world.

The Shia Ismaili caliphate of the Fatimids made Egypt their center, and made Cairo their capital. Egypt's various social groups and classes apply Islam differently in their daily lives. The literate theologians of Al-Azhar generally reject the popular version of Islam practised by religious preachers and peasants in the countryside, which is heavily Sufi-influenced. Sufism has flourished in Egypt since Islam was first adopted. Most upper- and middle-class Muslims believed either that religious expression is a private matter for each individual or that Islam should play a more dominant role in public life. Islamic religious revival movements, whose appeal cuts across class lines, have been present in most cities and in many villages for a long time.

According to the constitution of Egypt, any new legislation must at least implicitly agree with Islamic law. The mainstream Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is largely controlled by the state, through Wizaret Al-Awkaf (Ministry of Religious Affairs). Al-Awkaf controls all mosques and supervises Muslim clerics, but the Shafi'i and Maliki madhhabs were mixed together. Imams are trained in Imam vocational schools and at Al-Azhar. The ministry supports Sunni Islam and has commissions authorized to give Fatwā judgements on Islamic issues.


The Coptic Christian population in Egypt is the largest Christian community in the Middle East and North Africa standing at between 10% – 15% of Egypt's population according to different statistics.[32][60] About 95% of Egypt's Christians are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.[21][22] an Oriental Orthodox Church, Traditionally believed to be established in the 1st century A.D. by Saint Mark. The Church is headed by the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, attests to Egypt's strong Christian heritage. It has a followers of approximately 20 million Christians worldwide.

Other native Egyptian Christians are adherents of the Coptic Catholic Church, the Coptic Evangelical Church and various Coptic Protestant denominations. Non-native Christian communities are largely found in the urban regions of Alexandria and Cairo, and are members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Latin Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Maronite Church, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, or the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Significant minorities within Egypt's Christian community include the following denominations:[23]


Before 1956 and according to the 1948 census there were 65,639 Egyptian Jews, including Karaites. Jews participated in all aspects of Egypt's social, economic and political life; one of the most ardent Egyptian nationalists, Yaqub Sanu' (Abu Naddara), was Jewish, as were the musician Dawoud Husni, popular singer Leila Mourad and filmmaker Togo Mizrahi. For a while, Jews from across the Ottoman Empire and Europe were attracted to Egypt due to the relative harmony that characterized the local religious landscape in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, a great number of Jews were expelled by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Their Egyptian citizenship was revoked and their properties were confiscated. A steady stream of emigration of Egyptian Jews followed, reaching a peak after the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967. As of mid-2016, there were a total of 6 Jews remaining in Cairo, including their spiritual leader, Magda Tania Haroun, all women over the age of 65.[35] There are a further 12 Jews in the city of Alexandria, whose spiritual leader is Ben Youssef Gaon.[62]

Unrecognized and persecuted beliefs

Ahmadiyya Islam

The Ahmadiyya movement in Egypt, which numbers up to 50,000 adherents in the country,[63] was established in 1922[64] but has seen an increase in hostility and government repression as of the 21st century. The Al-Azhar University has denounced the Ahmadis[65] and Ahmadis have been hounded by police along with other Muslim groups deemed to be deviant under Egypt's defamation laws.[66][67] On 15 March 2010, nine Ahmadis were detained due to their adherence to the movement.[68][69]

Bahá'í Faith

Police also regularly detain those without correct documentation and thus some Bahá'ís frequently stay home to avoid possible arrest.[70] In 2008 a court case allowed Bahá'ís to obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents.[38]

Informal estimates about Bahá'ís population in Egypt suggest that there are approximately 2000 Bahá'ís currently resident in Egypt,[71][72] though some go several times higher.[73][74]

Since their faith is not officially recognized by the state, they were not allowed to use it on their national identity cards. Without valid identity cards Bahá'ís encounter difficulty registering their children in school, opening bank accounts, and establishing businesses.[70] On 16 December 2006, after only one hearing, the High Court of Egypt ruled against the Bahá'ís, stating that the government would not recognize their religion in official identification cards.[37] The ruling left Bahá'ís unable to obtain ID cards, birth certificates, or death certificates.[37] However, on January 29, 2008 Cairo's court of Administrative Justice, ruling on two related court cases, ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents.[38] The ruling accepted the compromise solution offered by the Bahá'ís, allowing for them to obtain identification papers without the Bahá'í Faith being officially recognized.[75][76]

During and since the 2011 Egyptian revolution tensions have remained high – homes have been burnt[77] though Bahá'ís contributed to the dialog.[78] Since 2011 Bahá'ís while hopeful remain concerned[72] and a Salafi spokesman has said of Bahá'ís "We will prosecute the Bahai's (sic) on charge of treason."[73]


Atheism and agnosticism

There are Egyptians who identify themselves as atheist and agnostic. It is however difficult to quantify their number as the stigma attached to being one makes it hard for irreligious Egyptians to publicly profess their views.[79][80] Furthermore, public statements that can be deemed critical of Islam or Christianity can be tried under the country's notorious blasphemy law. Outspoken atheists, like Alber Saber, have been convicted under this law. These types of crime in Egypt hold a status similar to Antragsdelikt, legal proceedings only occur if a citizen takes the step of suing the person engaging in blasphemy, and cases are not initiated by the general prosecutor. In 2000, an openly atheist Egyptian writer, who called for the establishment of a local association for atheists, was tried on charges of insulting Islam in four of his books.[81]

The number of atheists is reportedly on the rise among the country's youth, many of whom organize and communicate with each other on the internet.[82][81] In 2013 an Egyptian newspaper reported that 3 million out of 84 million Egyptians are atheists.[83] While the government has acknowledged this trend, it has dealt with it as a problem that needs to be confronted, comparing it to religious extremism. In 2014 the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Awqaf announced a joint strategy to combat the spread of "harmful ideas" among the nation's youth, namely atheism and religious extremism.[84] In December 2014 Dar al-Ifta, a government-affiliated Islamic centre of education and jurisprudence, claimed that there are 866 atheists in Egypt, a figure which amounts to 0.001% of the population and was called by The Guardian "suspiciously precise".[85] Despite hostile sentiments towards them, atheists in Egypt have become increasingly vocal since the Egyptian revolution of 2011.[86]

In a 2011 Pew Research poll of 1,798 Muslims in Egypt, 63% of those surveyed supported "the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion"[87] However, no such punishment actually exists in the country.[88] In January 2018 the head of the parliament's religious committee, Amr Hamroush, suggested a bill to make atheism illegal, stating that "it [atheism] must be criminalised and categorised as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions".[89]

Atheists or irreligious people cannot change their official religious status, thus statistically they are counted as followers of the religion they were born with.[81]


  1. Numbers vary widely. The 1996 census, the last for which public info on religion exists has 5.6% of the population as Christian (down from 8.3% in 1927).[90] However the census may be undercounting Christians.[90] The government Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey (2008) of around 16,500 women aged 15 to 49 showed about 5% of the respondents were Christian.[90] According to Al-Ahram newspaper, one of the main government owned national newspapers in Egypt, estimated the percentage between 10% - 15% (2017).[91] QScience Connect in 2013 using 2008 data estimated that 5.1% of Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 59 were Copts.[92] The Pew Foundation estimates 5.1% for Christians in 2010.[93] The CIA Fact Book estimates 10% (2012)[94] while the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs states in 1997, "Estimates of the size of Egypt's Christian population vary from the low government figures of 6 to 7 million to the 12 million reported by some Christian leaders. The actual numbers may be in the 9 to 9.5 million range, out of an Egyptian population of more than 60 million" which yields an estimate of about 10-20% then.[95] Several sources give 10-20%.[16] [96] The British Foreign Office gives a figure of 9%.<ref name='FCO/Egypt/'>"Egypt from "Foreign and Commonwealth Office"". Foreign and Commonwealth Office -UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs. August 15, 2008. Archived from the original on December 12, 2012.
  2. Chan, Kenneth (7 December 2004). "Thousands Protest Egypt's Neglect of Coptic Persecution". Christian Post. Retrieved 28 June 2014.

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