Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service
EGYPT (ANS) -- The number of Christians in Egypt has for a long time been a tightly held secret by the authorities.
The range is from over 25,000,000 according to some Copts, to 3,000,000 according to the Muslim Salafists.
According to a story by Mary Abdelmassih of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), the Coptic Orthodox Church has always known the number of Copts from its church database. The secrecy follows 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.
AINA said 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, AINA said, 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.
AINA reported 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 according to AINA 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, while some found it surprisingly low.
AINA said 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 percent, and said that if the church has other numbers then these should be published so that they could discuss and verify them.
AINA said the importance of the number of Copts at this time is viewed by many as an important political issue, and the announcement comes in conjunction with the process of drafting the constitution.
According to AINA, it is seen as an attempt to marginalize Copts and to suggest 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.
AINA said 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 at this time, when Egypt is going through important transformations and experiencing heavy sectarian tensions.
AINA said 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 is not suitable."
AINA reported that Bishop Anba Marcus of Shubra el-Khaimah said the number of Copts in Egypt ranges between 15 and 18 million. He explained 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 densely populated with Christians.
AINS commented it is worth noting that those numbers do not include Copts of other denominations such Catholics, Evangelicals and Protestants, who are estimated between 1.5 and 2 million.
AINA reported 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. However, 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, AINA reported, the census chief retracted his statement. He claimed that his statement was taken out of context. He issued another statement, saying he was referring to the census of 1986 when the Copts were 5.7 percent 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. As a result, 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. AINA said he believes that the recent statement was deliberately politicized to further the idea that Christians remain a minority, "but citizenship means that the rights and duties have nothing to do with the numbers."
AINA said Attorney 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. It was 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. The figures would be taken from the database 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," AINA reported he said. The hearing is scheduled for Oct. 9.
Gabriel also said that Copts have suffered for a long time from the inconsistent way the census agency has dealt with their numbers, with what he called peculiar percentages which are very different from reality.