Number of Coptic Christians in Egypt Is Far Less Than Media Estimates, Report Says

Elizabeth Harrington | December 19, 2011 | 5:30pm EST
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Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church, leads prayers at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

( – The number of Coptic Christians in Egypt widely reported by the media is more than twice the nation’s actual Christian population, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“In Egypt, the Christian population is only half the size that media accounts typically claim,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Center’s Forum, during a conference call to highlight the center’s new report, “Global Christianity: A report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population.” (Read the full report here.)

The study revealed the Christian population is 5.3 percent (4.3 million out of 80 million), as opposed to the widely used media figure of 10 percent. Researchers arrived at the number from Egypt’s 2006 Census data, rather than the 2010 World Religion database used for traditional estimates.

Although the number is less than half of previous estimates, the 4.3 million Christians in Egypt are “more than in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria combined,” the report found.

“What’s typically reported in the news is that the Coptic Christian population in Egypt is 10, or even 15 and sometimes 20 percent of the Egyptian population,” said Conrad Hackett, demographer at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “These estimates seem to be based upon claims primarily from the Coptic Orthodox Church, that they have this number of members.

“However, religion has been measured in the Egyptian Census going back over a hundred years, and we also have many high quality demographic surveys measuring religion.  And what these Census and survey data points indicate is that for decades the Christian population in Egypt has been less than 10 percent of the population,” Hackett said.

Though there may be some converts in Egypt from Islam to Christianity, “it’s unlikely that that number is very large,” Hackett said.

After speaking to experts to assess if Christians are undercounted by the Census, Hackett said it is unlikely, given that Coptic Christians, as a general rule, are “very proud and want to be identified as Christians.”

“Based on the demographic evidence,” he concluded, “it seems to us that the actual statistic is about one in 20, or 5 percent of the country is Christian.”

The report also found that “Census and demographic survey data suggest that the Christian share of Egypt’s total population has been declining,” due to lower fertility rates for Christians.

“The highest share reported in the past century was in 1927, when the census found that 8.3 percent of Egyptians were Christian,” the report states. “In each of the eight subsequent censuses, the Christian share of the population gradually shrank.”

“For decades, Christian fertility in Egypt has been lower than Muslim fertility,” according to the report. According to a Pew Forum’s report this year, 95 percent of the Egyptian population is Muslim.

The Pew Forum gathered from 2,400 data sources and worked with demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, to determine there are 2.18 billion Christians in the world.

Overall, the Middle East and North Africa region accounts for only 0.6 percent (12.8 million) of the global Christian population, as of 2010, according to the study that analyzed the geographical distribution of the religion throughout the world as compared to a century ago.

“Today we describe how Christianity has spread far from its historical origins,” said Lugo during the conference call.

“Christianity began in the Middle East and North Africa region of the world, but today less than one out of every one hundred Christians in the world live in the Middle East and North Africa region. In fact, there are actually more Christians in Indonesia, a Muslim majority country, than in all 20 countries in the Middle East North Africa region combined,” he said.

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