Statistics indicate that the Christian population across the Middle East has dropped from 13.6% to 4.2% in the past century. As the Egyptian Christian community continues to decrease, Valentina Primo speaks to those leaving the country to unveil the reasons behind this post-modern exodus.
“I’m leaving. I don’t want to live in a country that does not grant my family freedom,” says Mariam*, whose international bachelor's degree in commerce, three spoken languages, and 29 years of age did not suffice to find a job in her home country. Her husband, a mechanical engineer working at an automotive company, faced financial difficulties as well due to what she perceives was a case of religious discrimination. “It happened in two different companies; there were always new openings in higher ranks, but he was refused the position. He was the only Christian employee among Muslim counterparts, and there was always a younger person with no experience who would get the position instead of him,” she says as she awaits for the Canadian Embassy to approve her migration application.
Mariam’s case echoes with the realities of thousands of Egyptian Christians seeking better opportunities in foreign lands. Last January, research published in The Economist stated that the Middle East’s Christian population has dramatically decreased, in an exodus that has shrunk their presence in the region from 13.6 per cent of the population in 1910 to 4.2 per cent in 2010. The document, entitled Ongoing Exodus: Tracking the Emigration of Christians from the Middle East, states that this proportional decline is “one of the most profound changes in the global religious landscape.”
Although the regions where the drop is more dramatic are Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, Egypt - one of the largest Christian populations by 1910 - saw an accelerated decline in the 1970s, dropping from 18.7 per cent in 1910 to 10.1 per cent in 2010. However, Egyptian Coptic Christian organisations have long contested official population estimates, claiming that the numbers are higher. By 2025, the report released by the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy estimates the percentage will be as low as 8.5.
Large-scale migration of Coptic Christians began after the indiscriminate nationalisation of assets by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, as the documentary The Immigration of Roots illustrates. But the flight radically accelerated after the 2011 revolt, as increasing sectarian violence, social hostility and governmental restrictions made life more difficult for religious minorities, including Christians but also Jews, Baha’is, and minority Muslim sects.
One of the most notorious cases took place in August 2013, following the dispersal of pro-Muslim Brotherhood Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in, when dozens of churches and Coptic properties were burned down and hundreds of Christians were attacked and intimidated in several governorates. Far from isolated episodes, human rights organisations indicate that incidents of sectarian violence continued after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, with up to 15 cases reported by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms between 2013 and 2014.
“I received a death threat, but I would never leave my country,” says Michael, a 53-year-old businessman from Cairo. It was the summer of 2013 when the businessman, who runs a textile company in Cairo, received an anonymous phone call. “There was a man on the other line who threatened me with death if I didn’t leave the country. He said ‘Flusak halalna (your money is our legitimate entitlement)’ and they would take it away because Egypt would become an Islamic state. Then they hung up,” he recalls. “It happened several times; my wife didn’t want the kids to leave the house, but I didn’t give it too much thought. I was sure nothing would happen.”
The businessman says that none of his acquaintances has left Egypt. "And I wouldn’t do it either. Why would I? I would consider it if I had family abroad, but my entire life is here. I think that no Egyptian should leave their home country,” he says.
But for Mariam and her husband, living prospects in her homeland do not allow her to afford the stay. “It’s not just Christians who are leaving Egypt; the problem is that there aren't jobs,” she explains. The young graduate applied for immigration with her husband in 2011 and, while they await approval, they have moved with their 16-month-old daughter to a Gulf country, where her husband can earn a higher salary and save money for the future move.
Mariam has seen five other Christian couples leave Egypt in the past years, seeking a better life in Sweden, the UK, or Canada. “One of my friends, who is now a successful physician in the UK, felt constantly discriminated at university because of his religion,” she says.
“Christians are facing many problems; it’s not just the extremism represented by Islamists,” says Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “They are facing a conservative community, a community that cannot accept the other, and authorities that have no respect for minority rights. And this has not changed since Mubarak’s regime or the military council. Last week, about 10 Christians were arrested because they tried to build a wall for a church,” he says.
Despite the fact that president El Sisi has announced efforts to counter extremism, for instance preventing Salafi preachers from delivering sermons at mosques, Human Rights NGOs condemn the country’s persistence of the blasphemy law, a legal instrument which is used to persecute the Coptic community, Christian leaders say.
The number of blasphemy prosecutions – in which people convicted of insulting Islam are sent to jail – had rocketed following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, but rights advocates claim that the overall number of prosecutions has remained the same even after the advent of the more moderate government of El-Sisi, according to a report by Foreign Policy. Last May, four teenagers aged 15 to 16 were arrested in Minya for making fun of the Islamic State in a video where they use some words that are used in Muslim prayers.
“I have seen a lot of Christians that have been charged with blasphemy and accused with insulting religion, so they seek asylum in Western nations and leave Egypt. They don’t want to be in jail,” says Thabet, who specialises in minorities and vulnerable groups.
While many Egyptian Christians left the country due to security concerns in the years following the 2011 uprising, the vast majority is now doing so driven by the search of better living prospects, a motive which is not exclusive to Christians but instead applies to Egyptians across the board who are leaving. “A lot of my friends left during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. I saw nearly five families leave for the US, Australia, Canada and Germany. They were afraid that Egypt would become an Islamic state; I was scared myself too,” says Georges*, a 29-year-old engineer who lives in Cairo’s urban district of Heliopolis. Together with his Peruvian wife, he is concluding his application for a work Visa in Canada, where he plans to settle with his wife. “We want to leave because there is more quality of life abroad. But migrating makes me uneasy as well. When I speak to the ones who have left, they miss Egypt; they have the nostalgia of coffee shops, family gatherings, and the Egyptian social life,” he explains.
In a thought-provoking essay, Egyptian diaspora blogger Salma Moussa claims that the issue of identity has been a primary motif for Coptic Egyptians leaving their homeland. The blogger observes that, while the narrative of the Egyptian nation and “the romantic idea of Copts as ‘Original Egyptians'" gave the Coptic community an important role, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and their definition of Egypt as part of a larger Arab/Muslim identity left them estranged.
“All the practical reasons given [for migrating] are but a facade to hide an anguished sense of lost identity, of an “Egypt” slipping away, and of the heart-rending choice between being aliens in their land or natives in an alien land,” she says.
*In order to protect the interviewees' privacy, and following their request, their names have been changed.
Photos by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.