(AINA) -- The number of Christians in Egypt has for a long time been a tightly held secret by the authorities, leaving the door open for wide speculation, from over 25,000,000 according to some Copts to 3,000,000 according to the Muslim Salafists. The Coptic Orthodox Church has always known the number of Copts from its church database, but has kept the number secret, following the policy of the late Pope Shenouda III, that Copts may not be counted and treated as mere numbers because they are part of the fabric of society. Pope Shenouda was against the idea of setting a quota system for the Copts in parliament and other high level posts.
After 26 years of silence, an unexpected announcement of the official population count of Egypt's Christians was made last week on Al-Tahrir TV by Major-General al-Guindi, head of Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. He said that the number of Christian in Egypt was not more than 5,130,000 out of a current population of 83,150,000. He added that the low number of Christians is because of low birth rate, high immigration and the highest income level.
This announcement, which prompted a wide debate, was heavily criticized by Copts and especially by the Coptic Church. It was covered by all media. Some supported the 5 million number, some found it surprisingly low.
Those in support of the low numbers say the 2011 Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life study revealed the Christian population is 5.3 percent (4.3 million out of 80 million). The Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development studies puts the number of Copt at 8 to 8.5 million, nearly 10%, and said that if the church has other numbers then these should be published so that they could discuss and verify them.
The importance of the number of Copts at this time is viewed by many as a political issue par excellence, and this announcement comes in conjunction with the process of drafting the constitution. It is seen as an attempt to marginalize Copts and to suggest that they are a minority not entitled to participate in decision-making. Hard-line Muslims believe that the voice of the Copts is growing stronger and disproportionate to their number as a minority, especially in the Coptic fight against Sharia within the committee drafting the new Constitution.
Anba Pachomius, acting Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, rejected the census results, telling Al Dostour el-Asly newspaper "Is this a special census for Christians in the district of Cairo's Shubra district only or the whole of Egypt?" Bishop Pachomius said he was bewildered at the significance of this statement coming out specifically at this time when Egypt is going through important transformations and experiencing heavy sectarian tensions.
The acting Patriarch wondered where al- Guindi got his numbers and demanded the numbers for each of the 27 Egyptian governorates, saying "We have different numbers which are by far higher, but we will not declare them yet as the time in not suitable."
Bishop Anba Marcus of Shubra el-Khaimah said the number of Copts in Egypt ranges between 15 and 18 million, explaining that the number of Christians in the province of Minya alone, 1,200,000, exceeds their population in Cairo and other Upper Egypt governorates which are densily populated with Christians.
It is worth noting that those numbers do not include Copts of other denominations such Catholics, Evangelicals and Protestants, who are estimated at 1.5-2 million.
Bishop Marcus said that the number of Copts in Egypt is known to the Church as every Diocese knows the full count of it parishioners, but the numbers are not compiled in one list. "We can easily do so if the acting Patriarch Anba Pachomius or the next Pope would ask each bishop to provide the count of Christians in his diocese"
After heavy criticism, the census chief retracted his statement, claiming that his statement was taken out of context and issued another statement saying that he referring to the census of 1986 when the Copts were 5.7% of the total population, and that since then the agency has no definitive number for Copts. He said that according to the Declaration of the United Nations Statistics Commission of 1985, it was optional for people to add their religious affiliation in the census form, and therefore in the two following censuses of 1996 and 2006, this information was unavailable.
Kamal Zakher, coordinator of the Front of Secular Copts, said the number of Christians in Egypt is a state secret. He believes that the recent statement was deliberately politicized to the idea that Christians remain a minority, "but citizenship means that the rights and duties have nothing to do with the numbers."
Attroney Dr. Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization, filed a lawsuit with the administrative court against the Prime Minister and the head of the census agency, for the issuance of a court order to carry out a census of Christians in Egypt and to determine their percentage of Egypt's population, to be taken from the data base of the Civil Status Department and under international observation. "Egyptian identification cards include religious affiliation of the cardholder and it would be easy to get the numbers required," he said. The hearing is scheduled for 9 October.
Gabriel also said that Copts have suffered over a long time from the wrong and random way the census agency has dealt with their numbers, with very peculiar percentages which are drastically different from reality.