Conversations with Egyptian Christians*
By Embrace the Middle East
*Piece originally published on Embrace the Middle East’s Blog
Archbishop Samy is the Anglican Bishop of Egypt and the Archbishop of Alexandria. Dr Ghada Barsoum is an Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo and an advisor to the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services (BLESS) – the development arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As well as being a great destination for the holiday of a lifetime, Egypt is also a country with immense biblical significance and a long Christian history. It has a population of around 106 million, with Christians comprising roughly 10-15%*, making it the country with the largest Christian population in the Middle East.
Embrace the Middle East supports 10 different partner organisations in Egypt, in the fields of education, healthcare, women’s empowerment and helping people with disabilities.
Rev Colin Chapman: What does it feel like to be a Christian in Egypt today?
Archbishop Samy: Things have changed dramatically with the economic situation over the past year, and it is a great crisis for many poor people. But Egypt is a very stable country and, as Christians, we feel secure. Our vision for the church in Egypt is a living church for a better society. We are passionate about discipling, evangelising, and being salt and light in our communities. None of this is for its own sake but because we want to reflect the light of Christ and influence society for good. We are not an NGO doing social work – we are a living church, serving and helping society in so many ways.
Dr Ghada: I think we are at a historical moment – there is a strong emphasis on religious dialogue. The Egyptian president visits a church every Christmas Eve, which is very unusual in Egyptian history. 2013 was a very difficult time for Christians, and in less than a week 200 churches were burnt. Today, most of these have been repaired. The state even builds churches today, which is a new and unusual development.
Rev Colin Chapman: Tell us about the general situation in Egypt.
Dr Ghada: There are two crises that are defining the moment now. The first one is increasing food prices and inflation. The war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on this and Egypt is one of the top countries in the world impacted by it. We worry a lot about children – we have stepped up our nutrition programmes at BLESS and we provide nutritious meals to children on a regular basis.
The other big defining moment is what’s happening in Sudan. The conflict has led to a huge refugee crisis in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community in Sudan are generally upper middle class and well-educated, but they are coming to Egypt with nothing – and they are coming to the ‘mother church’ for help. The church had to respond – we started with food vouchers, and then onto housing. We used some of the church facilities for immediate housing for people with nowhere to stay. We’re now working on providing furniture and healthcare support, and getting children back into school.
Rev Colin Chapman: We talk a lot about the cost of living in our country. What is the reason for the economic crisis in Egypt?
Archbishop Samy: Covid-19 played a big role. Then immediately after that, the Russia-Ukraine war had a huge impact on pushing up food prices. It hasn’t been easy for us to cope with these big changes.
I think the government has been clever – bread is a staple here and it’s very important. The government has been careful to keep bread affordable, and as a church we try to offer to help to poor families, especially refugees, by distributing packets of food. We have thousands of refugees from Sudan – they have no home, no food. The need is great but we do our best to help people in need. At 5am, Sudanese refugees stand in the street around the cathedral, waiting for a small parcel of food – often they stand for hours, just waiting for this food. It shows there is a great need.
Rev Colin Chapman: How are the relations between the different Christian churches in Egypt?
Archbishop Samy: We have a wonderful relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church and other denominations, like the Catholics and the evangelicals. There are conferences we attend together and it is wonderful to have fellowship with many different Christians in Egypt.
When it comes to Christian-Muslim relations, the world can learn from Egypt! We have experience of living together for 1,400 years. We live in peace and harmony with Muslims – I have many Muslim friends and many Muslims come to the church for cultural activities. At our Centre for Christian-Muslim Understanding and Partnership, we have regular lectures from leaders in both faiths. We have lived with each other for many years – in many ways we understand each other very well. It is good to discuss what unites us rather than looking at the things that divide us.
Rev Colin Chapman: How can Christians in the west support Christians in Egypt?
Dr Ghada: We need to pray for the many people who are serving their communities. We need to pray for the peace of Sudan. Before the crisis, I never thought about Sudan but now we pray that these displaced people would be able to return to their homes. It is devastating for them. We also need to pray for wisdom – at BLESS, we have to make tough decisions all the time.
Archbishop Samy: Pray that our vision (a living church for a better society) will become true. Pray for the refugees ministry. So many things are happening in Egypt. Pray for us as we continue to serve God and reflect the light of Christ in different ways.
Following the conversation with Colin, webinar attendees were invited to put their own questions to Archbishop Samy and Dr Ghada.
Q: What is the role of women in Egyptian society?
Dr Ghada: The MENA region has one of the worst rates of female labour force participation in the world, and we’re not sure exactly why. Women in Egypt are not as present in public life as they should be. I think more women are starting to join the labour force, but we’re not yet seeing this reflected in the statistics.
Q: For young Christians in Egypt, how do they engage with the church?
Archbishop Samy: This is a hard question. I think the most important problem for youth in Egypt is to find their vocation in life so it’s really important to give them training and opportunities to develop new skills. In the churches, when the church allows them to participate, many young people are so gifted.
Dr Ghada: We want them to have a strong relationship with God – that gives them meaning in life. A lot of the time we talk negatively (e.g. about high levels of unemployment) but we need to adjust the narrative and think about how young people can have a more purposeful life.
Q: How is the church engaging with climate change?
Dr Ghada: Water is a big issue. We have the River Nile but the water from River Nile is not enough for the growing population. We are working with farmers on improving irrigation methods and choosing the best seeds that can handle drier conditions. We are also working on sending text messages to farmers about expected weather patterns.
Archbishop Samy: We do a lot of work around raising awareness about this issue, for example in schools. We talk about keeping the environment clean and recycling. We want to help young people look after the environment. Climate change is a big problem for us in Egypt. Sea level rises pose a huge threat to Alexandria.
Q: Can you talk more about how Christians in Egypt are helping refugees?
Archbishop Samy: More people are coming every day. The latest statistics tell us there are about 9 million refugees in Egypt. Egypt has always been a land of refuge, since the time of Jesus. We do our best to help and accommodate refugees. Egypt is not a rich country, but you cannot ignore people who cross your borders for help and support. The presence of refugees in Egypt does not help with the cost of living and inflation – but we welcome refugees because it is very important.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
*There are no official figures as to the exact number of Christians in Egypt.
The above post is a condensed version of the third session of our summer series, “Conversations with Middle East Christians”, from August 2023. Watch the full session above.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).