Due to the direction of the meeting it is necessary to mention that while the group of students and professors mainly were Christians, one of the Austrian girls was a Muslim, which showed very obviously in that she was wearing the hijab, covering her hair and neck.
The meeting started with Professor Ishāq giving his estimate of the number of Christians in Egypt, which he argued would be fair to assume is no less than 10% of the entire population in the country. He mentioned that it primarily is Christian youth who migrate and convert from Christianity to Islam.
It was asked if the professor had access to church registration books or other statistics to back up his stated figures but he did not. Meaning that it was his estimates only, without any further source.
Professor Ishāq continued the conversation by making a clear distinction between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, arguing that Muslims are referred to as Arabs, while Christians are referred to at Egyptians, why he stated the two terms do not have the same meaning attached to them. He continued that the Muslim population increases more than that of the Christians due to bigger families, conversions to Islam, and emigration of Christians.
One of the students asked for the reason why he believed that Muslims tend to have bigger families. He responded that in general Egyptian Christians have a higher level of education than Egyptian Muslims, why they chose to have fewer children to be able to take better care of them. Also he argued that there is a Christian problem, which he states is persecution, not discrimination! He elaborated that there are attacks on Christianity taking place and refers to historical events, like when it has been tried to force Christians to migrate from one village to others. He says that it is important to convince Muslims that persecution is not good for Islam. Also he mentions that: “Egyptians convert by force”, the word ‘Egyptians’ used in the context of this statement refers to Christians according to the earlier definitions made by the professor. In this relation he also mentioned that it is mainly poor people who convert due to poverty, why giving money to these poor Christians is a help to prevent conversions to Islam.
However, when he was asked, if he was aware of concrete examples of forced conversion he thought for minutes, and seemed not to able to come up with specific examples supporting this statement. He then argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, who has come to play a significant role in the Egyptian politics, will force Christians to convert to Islam through education.
He went on by stating that: “Islam allows Muslims to take the money and the women of the Christians!” The atmosphere in the room got a little tense; some students did not really take the statement serious, others seemed to be chocked, but all were one way or the other scowling to the one Muslim in the room, and when the professor continued: “The same is happening in your countries!” referring to the European countries, she left the room, clearly very upset, with the professor shouting after her: “Yes, you can just leave!” This made the feelings ran high among several students who were closely affiliated to the girl, and soon after left the room as well, presumably in support. Meanwhile the two Austrian professors were clearly chocked and did not know whether or not to continue the meeting, but finally decided that it would be inappropriate to go on, why the meeting was cut off in this very awkward way. The professor later apologized to the girl for his behaviour.
It can be discussed whether or not it was the right decision to cut off the meeting because of statements that was (totally) disagreed with or even offensive. Maybe it is exactly statements like these that could create the ground for a very interesting –not to say important and necessary- debate, discussing different points of views with the aim to investigate the opinions and the reasoning for these opinions. In particular it shows that the discussion about Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt is much more complex than is sometimes portrayed in the Western world.
In relation to the article above the attention could be drawn to an earlier interview with Prof. Kamāl Farīd Ishāq by previous intern at Center of Arab-West Understanding (CAWU), Maria Rezzonico. She used the interview below for her report on church response to poverty, http://www.arabwestreport.info/year-2007/week-35/2-report-church-response-poverty-egypt.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Interview: Report on the meeting with Dr. Kamāl Farīd Ishāq
Kamāl Farīd Ishāq is a doctor specialized in dermatology, venereology, and sterility. In addition, he is professor of the Coptic language at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo. He welcomed me in his house in Heliopolis on Wednesday, August 29, 2007. The meeting was extremely friendly.
When I asked him what he thinks about the heated debate on the number of Christians in Egypt, he responded:
“Some Christians claim that we are 15 million, the government claims that we are three million, and I think that we are about 10%, so maybe from 7 to 8 million. But there are no statistics. The census does not openly declare the results, or they may announce false results, in order to say that if there are not that many Copts they do not have the same right to have the same percentage in official posts and in the government.”
When invited to comment on the percentage of less than 6%, that is the last published census result of Christians in Egypt, he said:
“I do not think this is right. I’ll tell you why: I know villages in Upper Egypt where the majority are Christians. There are also some governorates in which there is a high percentage of Christians. In Cairo, here in Heliopolis, and in Shubra and in Imbaba there is a high percentage of Christians. There is also a high percentage of Christians in Alexandria. Let me tell you something: When you read a newspaper like al-Ahrām and you read the names in the obituaries, you will find that more than 50% are Christians, but Christians prefer to use al-Ahrām to place advertisements for those who have passed away. So there are many things that show that the percentage is not low as the government claims. I also remember that some important personality said that Christians are roughly 10% of the population in his speech. It was maybe two months ago.” Dr. Ishāq however, was unable to remember either the name of the personality or the source.
I then showed Dr. Ishāq a summary of an article published in AWR (it was written by Amr Bayyūmī and appeared in al-Misrī al-Yawm, May 12, 2007, same article as referred to above), in which Dr. Ishāq is quoted as saying that the number of Copts is dangerously decreasing in Egypt due to reasons such as emigration, conversion, and birth control. He confirmed all the statements attributed to him, saying:
“Do you know Sa ‘ad Zaghlul? There was a total revolution against the British occupation and all the Egyptians were one hand, Copts and Muslims, and the Muslims said that Christians are the same as the Muslims. After, when Egyptian revolution of Nasser , the Copts were neglected, they lost most of their money and the high posts, in all aspects of their life they were neglected.”
I then began questioning Dr. Ishāq about the claims in his article:
Q: In this article you said that the number of Copts is dangerously decreasing
A: Yes, certainly.
Q: How can you say this? Do you have sources?
A: We hear every now and then about Copts who convert to Islam, either to marry a Muslim man or a Muslim woman, or to keep their job. Also, most Coptic families only have two or three kids. Muslims have more.
Q: So the main difference is the birth rate?
A: I also read [in a] magazine an article entitled, ‘Change your religion to keep your job,’ in Rose al-Yūsuf (Dr. Ishāq gave me a photocopy of this article, which was published in Rose al-Yusuf, April 28, 1997, on page 22). I also heard that some people accuse them by some accusations and tell them: change your religion to Islam and then we will drop the accusation. Sometimes it is a shaykh [the transliterated version of the word Sheik]. If they change their religion, they drop the accusation. This was also written in Rose al-Yūsuf.
I then showed Dr. Ishāq the percentages of Christians in Egypt published by the statistician Philippe Fargues (Western authority in the world on Coptic statistics. I mentioned that there is a big contradiction between this data and what people say, to which Dr. Ishāq agreed:
“I heard something about an internal census within the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2007 to count the number of Christians.” Dr. Ishāq replied. “I do not know anything about it.”
I then showed Dr. Ishâq an article (N. El-SAYED, ‘Counting Egyptians,’ in Egypt Today, May 2007) in which the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization (CAPMAS), General Abū Bakr al Jindī, stated that:
“The question about religion in the application [the form/questionnaire used when carrying out the census] was an optional one because according to international standards and specifications, we cannot make it an obligatory question. Thus the information is [incomplete] and the data [gathered] will not be meaningful.”
Dr. Ishaq commented:
“If he now says with the standards of international census, how can they insist that we write our religion in the ID?”
Q: What about migration to the West? Do you think it is an increasing phenomenon?
A: Yes, if they can, many Christians and also many Muslims [migrate].
Q: Is it not a matter of religion?
A: Christians [migrate] more than Muslims.
Q: But only the well educated?
A: Yes, those who can find a good job.
Q: Do you believe that the official census is inaccurate?
A: Yes, even those responsible for it [al-Jindi] claim this is not accurate. I know families that were not visited by the census interviewer.
Commenting on al-Jindi’s abovementioned declaration, we returned to the discussion of religion on the identity cards:
“Only Bahā’ī is not written. The government refused to write on their identity card that they are Bahā’īs. They need to have an identity card. Now the government says: if you insist on writing your religion you will not get your identity cards. They tell them to write that they are a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew [Ahl al-Kitāb]. This is against their fundamental human rights. Islam only makes up 17% of people in the world. So now they are denying the majority their rights. I read that Christians are 29% and Muslims 17%: so the majority of the people [54%] of the world are not from Ahl al-Kitāb#.# And the Egyptian government is denying them the right to write their religion.”
I then asked Dr. Ishāq if there is another way to count Christians, due to the inaccuracy of the census:
“Do Christians themselves want to know their number? Do they try to count themselves or it is not a priority?” He answered:
“Well, I think that the pope may prefer to not do this if he knows that the government does not want him to.”