He was found in the bathroom of Saint Mary’s Church in Az Zawiya Al Hamra, a lower-middle-class neighborhood in northern Cairo. A 1-day-old baby wrapped and abandoned, left for others to find in 2018. It wasn’t a mistake; no woman came forward to find a forgotten child. The priest was at a loss as to what to do. He remembered a middle-aged couple in the church: Amal Mikhail, 47, and her husband Farouk Bolous, 51, had been married for a quarter of a century and, despite fervent wishes and prayers, had no children of their own. The baby was placed in their welcoming hands. God seemed to have answered their prayers.
For four years, the child was theirs. They named him Shenouda, “Son of God” in Coptic, a name carried by many Coptic saints through the centuries. Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite had been one of the fathers of monasticism in the late-fourth and fifth centuries, but it was because Bishop Shenouda had been chosen as Pope Shenouda III in 1971 that the name became common again. The family wasn’t rich; the father worked selling cloth. But pictures from those years show a happy child, playing with his toys and photographed next to Coptic icons. They never told him he wasn’t their biological child. It didn’t really matter. They loved him and treated him as their own. He was only 4 years old anyway. To circumvent any future problems their son might face in being admitted to school, a birth certificate was produced bearing his name, Shenouda Farouk Bolous. Official adoption was never an option. It is illegal in Islam and hence illegal in Egypt, even for Christians. The certificate wasn’t that hard to acquire. This is Egypt, after all.
Their joy was short-lived. Farouk’s niece Mariam was unhappy with the situation. Under Shariah inheritance laws, imposed on Copts as well as Muslims, she would inherit her childless uncle’s estate. Now Shenouda stood in the way. She made her way to the police station in February 2022 and filed a complaint. The parents were quickly summoned and a DNA test was administered. The public prosecutor’s decision was swift. Shenouda was to be taken from them and placed in an orphanage. But it didn’t stop there. Since the child’s parents couldn’t be ascertained, the child was to be automatically considered a Muslim. Under Islamic law and tradition, as the public prosecutor understood it, all human beings are born Muslim by nature, with some parents making theirs Christians or Jews. A new birth certificate was issued; Shenouda became Youssef Abdullah Mohamed.
For seven months, Amal and Farouk tried everything to get their son back. Nothing worked. They were forbidden to see him and told that they were lucky to have escaped prosecution. Finally, they reached out to the media. The Coptic media have grown tremendously in the past two decades, but even non-Coptic outlets showed great interest. The public was split. Copts, of course, supported them, but many Muslims did, too. Regardless of the religious element of the story, the Christian couple were the only parents the child had known, and he was certainly better off with them than thrown into a state orphanage. But not everyone agreed. Many believed that the child was Muslim, no matter where he had been found. Given that he was a Muslim, he had to be raised as such. There were even suggestions that if the parents truly loved him, they could just convert to Islam, and then all would be in order, and they could raise him.
As the public debated the issue, a Coptic lawyer took up the case in court. For the next several months, Egyptians followed the twists and turns of the legal proceedings. The father’s pleas for his son, the mother’s tears and her offer to work as a servant in the orphanage just to be near her son—such scenes became the nearly daily stories of newspapers and social media. But the court case wasn’t going well. Finally, in March 2023, the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the matter. The cycle would have to be repeated again, the ordeal relived.
A few days later, the Egyptian state changed its mind. We may never know why. Perhaps it was the mounting public support for the family, perhaps it was the ridiculous nature of the whole thing. Or perhaps someone had finally reached the ear of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It didn’t really matter. A decree opinion was issued by the state’s official religious bodies; some Islamic jurists had opinionated before that a child found in a church or a Christian home was to be presumed Christian. The opinion was hardly unanimous in Islamic jurisprudence, but it was enough. With the religious question settled, the public prosecutor ordered the child to be released to the family. He would never carry their name—adoption is still illegal, recall. But they could raise him as Christian. A day later, Shenouda was home.
Shenouda’s ordeal came to a happy end, but the details of his story sheds light on the contradiction at the heart of modern Egypt. On the one hand, the state authorities had decided that he was Muslim by virtue of having unknown parents, and took him from the only parents he had known. On the other hand, the outcome of the case showcases a state able to make accommodations for the Coptic minority. Which of these is Egypt? The country with a constitution enshrining equality for all its citizens, regardless of their religion? Or the one whose same constitution declares Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Shariah as the principal source of legislation?
The answer is both and neither. For more than 200 years, ever since Napoleon Bonaparte easily conquered the country and destroyed the myth of Islamic military superiority, Egypt has been preoccupied with the question of how to catch up with the West while maintaining Islamic conceptions of economics, law, and politics. Egypt’s rulers from Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of the modern state, to Sisi have grappled with this question, and so have the country’s intellectuals and political movements. The result of their efforts has been an absurd contradiction that mashes conflicting notions of justice and political order.
Egypt’s legal system combines French laws with Islamic Shariah. Modern concepts of equality and democracy are attached to systems of supremacy and military oppression. It is a contradiction that manifests itself not just in Shenouda’s ordeal, but in numerous other examples: Christian children forcibly converted because one of their parents had converted to Islam and they were hence automatically Muslims; adults facing the same prospect because a parent had converted when they were children without them even knowing. Those court cases had lasted years before the people in question were allowed to live as Christians.
Nor is this contradiction limited to forced conversions. Islamic inheritance laws have been applied to Copts regardless of their wishes, though there may be some glimmer of change in this regard as a result of a recent court case. Mobs regularly oppose the building of churches in their villages, because no church should be constructed on Islamic land; too often, the government surrenders to their wishes. Legal inequality persists in Egypt, with a Christian’s testimony not accepted in Egyptian courts in cases involving personal-status matters for Muslims. Until last year, no Muslim, outside of members of terrorist organizations, had received the death sentence for killing a Christian.
This contradiction isn’t new, but was evident from the start of Egypt’s modernization efforts. Clot Bey, the French doctor who established Egypt’s modern medical sector, couldn’t testify against a student who had struck him, because he was a Christian and his attacker a Muslim. When a Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali, was assassinated by a fanatic in 1910, his murderer received the death sentence from the civil court, but Egypt’s Mufti refused to approve it, unable to bring himself to see the life of a Christian, even a prime minister, as equal to that of a Muslim. The “legal” excuse: the lack of a punishment in Islamic jurisprudence for murder by pistol. The British, of course, had no time for such nonsense and swiftly hanged the assassin.
For centuries, non-Muslims in Egypt were tolerated subjects, but never equal citizens. In 1854, dhimmitude as a financial burden was finally revoked, with Copts no longer required to pay jizya and allowed to join the military. But dhimmitude was never just a financial burden. It was, and remains, a system of subjugation, intended to affirm the supremacy of Islam in its own land, and encompassing every aspect of life from the social to the political sphere, from the special-colored clothes non-Muslims had to wear to what position Coptic civil servants could attain; and from the prohibition against Christians riding horses to the rule preventing their homes being above those of Muslims.
These other aspects of dhimmitude have never been completely dismantled, as the story of Shenouda illustrates. Some may hail the outcome of Shenouda’s case as progress. But such claims shouldn’t blind us to reality. The Coptic predicament remains the same: The Copt is not an equal citizen of Egypt.