His office overlooked a small courtyard where young people gathered in loosely tied knots and families huddled together in circles. They were lingering, buying the sweet rolls for sale and reviewing religious books laid out at another table. The courtyard of the church is set back behind a wrought-iron gate, protected and separated form the bustling streets of this poor corner of Cairo where Muslims have often lived peacefully with Christians, but where religious tension have also periodically flared into violence.
Through centuries, Copts, who make up between five and ten percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million, have learned how — and when — to profess their faith and when to hide it. For women that sometimes means slipping the cross necklace discreetly inside their shirts and for men it means pulling their cuffs down over the cross tattoos. Under Hosni Mubarak and now under the Muslim Brotherhood leader-turned-President Mohamed Morsi, human rights activists say, they have often been treated as second-class citizens.
Mina Gergis Khalil, 20, who was standing in the courtyard after mass with a group of friends, said, “We feel the discrimination. And there is never justice when this happens, which makes it even worse.”
He estimated that of the 50 young, Coptic men who graduated with him from high school two years ago, 30 to 40 percent have left the country and are trying to emigrate by overstaying tourist visas while visiting family in the United States, Canada, Australia and throughout Latin America.
He began to count on two hands his cousins and siblings who had left just in the last year.
“What you do is take a tourist visa anywhere and then apply for asylum. I am hoping to do this. If I can do it, I will,” he said.
It is hard to get a precise number on the size of the dwindling Coptic Church and even harder to get a handle on the extent of the exodus. The government has long claimed approximately 9 percent of the country is Christian. But there is no reliable census data and so it is impossible to tell. Some critics believe the failure to implement a census is intentional as it would reveal far fewer Christians remain in Egypt. Experts say there may be 10 percent of all Copts — in Egypt and in the diaspora — who are Christian but a very large percentage of that Coptic community lives all over the world.
The percentage of Copts as a whole in Egypt is probably no more than 4 percent, according to some demographers who have studied the numbers. Some church officials will agree to this figure off the record, but none will say it on the record as they fear that such a low number weakens the standing of the church.
There are anecdotal signs of a diminishing population, such as the recording of more funerals than births in a local parish. Or a family’s story of losing its young sons and daughters as they emigrate to America and elsewhere. And there are interesting new signs, such as long lines for visas at the Embassy of the Republic of Georgia.
Two Facebook pages have been established for Copts seeking to emigrate to Georgia, which is offering citizenship in exchange for investment in the country. Because the former Soviet country is an Eastern Orthodox country, the Copts feel at home there and so the invitation is open. How many have gone is uncertain, but some church officials say they believe the number is in the thousands.
The fear that prompts Christians to flee emanates from stories — some real and some imagined — of persecution. One recent story is almost medieval in its barbarity. The story is of a torture chamber in a mosque in Moqattam, a village on the outskirts of Cairo where reportedly local Copts who dared to protest against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up and taken and savagely beaten.
The story has been reported by Christian news services last week and Fox News picked up on their reports. But the story has not been independently confirmed. Another big story is of a small town called Wasta, about 60 miles south of Cairo, where there has been a series of attacks on Christians and a boycott of Coptic shops after some members of the Muslim community began making inflammatory claims that Christians were carrying out a forced conversion of a Muslim girl, who has gone missing.
Amnesty International has documented the tensions in Wasta. Hassiba Hadj Sahraou, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said, “Coptic Christians across Egypt face discrimination in law and practice and have been victims of regular sectarian attacks while authorities systematically look the other way.”
Human rights organizations including Amnesty International have, over time, documented what they say is a pattern of discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Under Hosni Mubarak, at least 15 major attacks on Copts were documented and the situation didn’t improve under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled the country between the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the election of President Morsi.