The Copts, an indigenous Christian sect, constituted Egypt's largest religious minority. Estimates of their numbers in 1990 ranged between 3 million to 7 million. The Copts claimed descent from the ancient Egyptians; the word copt is derived from the Arabic word qubt (Egyptian). Egypt was Christianized during the first century A.D., when the country was part of the Roman Empire. The Coptic Church claims to hold an unbroken line of patriarchal succession to the See of Alexandria founded by Saint Mark, a disciple of Christ. Egyptian Christianity developed distinct dogmas and practices during the more than two centuries that the religion was illegal. By the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Coptic traditions were sufficiently different from those in Rome and Constantinople (formerly Byzantium; present-day Istanbul) to cause major religious conflicts. Dissension persisted for 150 years until most Copts seceded from the main body of Christianity because they rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ had a dual nature, both human and divine, believing instead in Christ's single, divine nature.
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Following Islam's spread through Egypt, Muslims alternately tolerated and persecuted the Copts. Heavy taxation of Christians encouraged mass conversions to Islam, and within two centuries, Copts had become a distinct minority. By the tenth century, Arabic had replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language, and Coptic was relegated to a liturgical language.
The Ottoman millet system of drawing administrative divisions along religious lines reinforced Coptic solidarity. The dismantling of the millet system during the nineteenth century helped open new career opportunities for the Copts. Egypt's Muslim rulers had traditionally used minorities as administrators, and the Copts were initially the main beneficiaries of the burgeoning civil service. During the early twentieth century, however, the British purged many Copts from the bureaucracy. The Copts resented this policy, but it accelerated their entry into professional careers.
In the twentieth century, Copts have been disproportionately represented among the ranks of prosperous city dwellers. Urban Copts tended to favor careers in commerce and the professions, whereas the livelihoods of rural Copts were virtually indistinguishable from their Muslim counterparts. Urban Copts were stratified into groups of long-time residents and groups of recent migrants from the countryside. The latter group was often impoverished and fell outside the traditional urban Coptic community. The former group included many university professors, lawyers, doctors, a few prominent public officials, and a substantial middle echelon of factory workers and service sector employees.
Anti-Coptic sentiment has accompanied the resurgence of Islamic activism in Egypt. Since 1972 several Coptic churches have been burned, including the historic Qasriyat ar Rihan Church in Cairo. Islamist groups frequently and explicitly denounced Copts in their pamphlets and prayer meetings. The increasing tensions between Copts and Muslims inevitably led to clashes in Upper Egypt in 1977 and 1978 and later in the cities and villages of the Delta. Three days of religious riots in Cairo in 1981 left at least 17 Copts and Muslims dead and more than 100 injured. Isolated incidents of Muslim-Coptic violence continued throughout the 1980s and during 1990.
Since the revolution, sources have been suggesting that the ousted Mubarak regime was responsible for some anti-Copt atrocities, apparently operating with a strategy of tension in mind ("Look, we can barely protect the Copts as is, how bad would a democracy be?"). I only hope that a more democratic Egypt will move decidedly away from that decidedly cynical tack.
How many Copts, members of the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, are there? That's a major problem. Wikipedia's three-line entry on the number of Copts gives an idea.
Living in a country of Muslim majority, the size of the population of Copts is a continuously disputed matter, frequently for reasons of religious jealousy and animosity. Some official estimates state that Christians represent from 5% to 10% or less of a population of over 83 million Egyptians while other independent and Christian sources estimate much higher numbers, up to 23% of the population.
Yes, that's 22 different in-text citations, pointing to different estimates. The estimates do run from a low of four million (~5% of the Egyptian population of nearly 80 million) to a highs of 12 and even 16 million quoted by Coptic Orthodox Church authorities.
How many are there really? Philippe Fargues' 1998 essay "The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective" provides a good sober look at the numbers, and he concludes that the low numbers--the ones closest to official numbers--are the most likely ones.
Among the seven Middle Eastern countries which currently have an Arab Christian community - Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine -Egypt is the only one to meet the two conditions which enable its Christian population to be examined over the course of time. One of these conditions is the recording of religious affiliation as a variable, individual characteristic in all the population censuses since 1897; the other is the geographical consistency of the territory covered by these censuses. The latest, carried out in 1986, showed 2,829,349 Christians, 5.9 per cent of the whole population of the country. Updated to 1995, this percentage would give a figure of 3,300,000 people. The Coptic authorities, some politicians, and a number of Coptic or Muslim intellectuals consider this figure to be a gross underestimation of a community which may actually number between 6,000,000 and 12,000,000 people, in other words between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of Egyptians. The statistic is thus alleged to be false, both directly - the results of the census are said to have been manipulated at the top before being published - and indirectly, as it is claimed that some Christians tend to declare themselves Muslims, due to pressure from their environment. Contrary to these allegations however, the statistic seems to be reliable, with the margin of error that all statistics carry. This argument, developed in another essay, is based on the observation that the Egyptian figures are consistent in two respects: both over the whole period of time and at each individual moment in time. The graph formed by the nine Egyptian censuses over a period of ninety years is quite regular, both as regards the whole country, where the percentage of Christians falls in a gradually sloping straight line from 1927, and in the different provinces. If there had been any manipulation, this pattern would not have been constant. On the contrary there would have been variations in the numbers and perhaps also in the consistency of the graph, according to the changing attitude of political forces, of regimes, and of society towards the Christian part of the population. Furthermore, censuses are not the only source of religious statistics in Egypt. The registration of births, marriages, and deaths provides another source. The two operations are carried out by completely separate branches of public administration using quite different methods. They nevertheless provide results which are completely consistent with each other. For example, the birth rate of 30 per thousand, obtained by matching the 85,000 Christian births recorded every year throughout the 1980s to the 2,800,000 Christians counted in the census of 1986, would only be 11 per thousand if the number of Christians were 8,000,000. 17 With such a low birth rate their percentage of the whole population would have undergone a very sharp fall, instead of showing just a slight drop, which clearly contradicts the numbers claimed. So we might as well admit the plausibility of the published statistics.
Fargues' argument is supported by the Pew Research Center's Conrad Hackett in a February 2011 note.
The highest share reported in the past century was in 1927, when the census found that 8.3% of Egyptians were Christians. In each of seven subsequent censuses, the Christian share of the population gradually shrank, ending at 5.7% in 1996. Religion data has not been made available from Egypt's most recent census, conducted in 2006. But in a large, nationally representative 2008 survey -- the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey, conducted among 16,527 women ages 15 to 49 -- about 5% of the respondents were Christian. Thus, the best available census and survey data indicate that Christians now number roughly 5% of the Egyptian population, or about 4 million people. The Pew Forum's recent report on The Future of the Global Muslim Population estimated that approximately 95% of Egyptians were Muslims in 2010.
Of course, it is possible that Christians in Egypt have been undercounted in censuses and demographic surveys. According to the Pew Forum's analysis of Global Restrictions on Religion, Egypt has very high government restrictions on religion as well as high social hostilities involving religion. (Most recently, a bombing outside a church in Alexandria during a New Year's Eve Mass killed 23 people and wounded more than 90.) These factors may lead some Christians, particularly converts from Islam, to be cautious about revealing their identity. Government records may also undercount Christians. According to news reports, for example, some Egyptian Christians have complained that they are listed on official identity cards as Muslims.
Even if they are undercounts, the census and survey data suggest that Christians have been steadily declining as a proportion of Egypt's population in recent decades. One reason is that Christian fertility has been lower than Muslim fertility -- that is, Christians have been having fewer babies per woman than Muslims in Egypt. Conversion to Islam may also be a factor, though reliable data on conversion rates are lacking. It is possible that Christians have left the country in disproportionate numbers, but ongoing efforts by the Pew Forum to tally the religious affiliation of migrants around the world have not found evidence of an especially large Egyptian Christian diaspora. For example, in the United States, Canada and Australia, the majority of Egyptian-born residents are Christian, but the estimated total size of the Egyptian-born Christian populations in these countries is approximately 160,000. In contrast, there are more than 2 million Egyptian-born people living in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the overwhelming majority of whom are likely to be Muslims.
Elena Ambrosetti and Nahid Kamal note in their brief paper "The relationship between religion and fertility: the case of Bangladesh and Egypt" that not only has the Egyptian Christian TFR been consistently 15% lower than the Egyptian Muslim TFR in the 1988-1995 period, but that over the 1944-1980 period crude birth rates among Muslims did not fall to the level of the crude birth rates among Christians at the beginning of this period. Thus, even though the Egyptian Christian population more than tripled from 1907 to 1996, from 913 thousand to 3 321 thousand, the Egyptian Muslim population grew more quickly.
If the low numbers are the more accurate ones, why are the higher ones offered? The key lies in the fact that the estimates are offered by the Copts, a minority that has suffered not-inconsiderable persecution to the point of fearing for its survival. The very highest estimates would suggest that there are more Copts in Egypt than there are Dutch in the Netherlands. Security in numbers always appeals. Compare the situation in the United States, where disputes over the size of that country's Muslim population have produced a variety of estimates ranging as high as six or even seven million people. The Pew Research Center's of the United States latest estimate, part of the larger survey of global Muslim populations I've mentioned here earlier, is that there were 2.5 million Muslims in the United States in 2009. Their rationale?
This is a survey-based estimate that has been augmented with an analysis of census data. Let me just describe briefly what the steps were. When I say it's a survey-based estimate, what we have to work with here is what percentage of all the people we screened, from a national random sample, self-identified as Muslim. All of the survey-based scientific evidence we reviewed is lower than our number. As Andy mentioned, the average of the survey-based incidences have been between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent.
Our own history with this in screening hundreds of thousands of people over the years has been that among the English-speaking public, about 0.5 percent, or slightly under, are Muslim. That number can then be projected against the total adult population of the U.S. All of that would come up with a lower number than we got.
What we got, however, was in incidence rate of 0.61 percent, largely, I think, because we were interviewing not only in English but in other languages. This is a landline telephone survey. We take the incidence number from the landline telephone survey, and we multiply it not times the landline population but times the total adult population because there are people who do not have landlines; they have cell phones - that number is over 10 percent now - and there are a few people in the country, still a couple of percent, who do not have any telephone service at all. We take that into account in the projection.
As far as it goes, that number gets you to about 1.35 million or 1.4 million, but we take a second step, which was done by Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center. He's been recognized for his work in estimating the size of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States. He took the survey evidence I've just described to you, and also the 59,000 screening interviews we did in which we asked everybody we reached, Muslim or not, if they were born in the U.S., and if not, where they were born; if they were born in the U.S., where were their parents born. He took that information and knowing then what percentage of each of the nationalities we talked to identified as Muslim, multiplied that times the census numbers for the size of those groups. Let's say eight out of 10 Pakistani Americans that we spoke to said they were Muslim. That could be multiplied times the census data on the size of the Pakistani-born population in the U.S.
He then accumulated all of that, made an estimate on the size of the child population, which also can be taken partly from the survey, because we asked people how many children and how many Muslim children they had, and summed it all up.
We think this is a good estimate. It might be low because Muslims may be more likely to be cell-phone only than the rest of the population. There certainly may be some reluctance to identify as Muslim. We didn't pick up people who maybe were born Muslim but have lost their identity and are completely secular. We don't include those. But we think this is a defensible number, and it's scientifically based. The numbers we reviewed that are 3 million or more do not have a scientific basis in estimation, according to our review of the evidence.
See here for more on the methodology used in the group's 2007 survey of Muslim Americans.
Consider the stories surrounding these two populations just two more data points demonstrating the need to be careful when making specific claims, about populations or about anything else.