Religion plays a central role in most Egyptians' lives, as visitors to the country quickly discover. The rolling calls to prayer that are heard five times a day have the informal effect of regulating the pace of everything from business to entertainment. Cairo is famous for its numerous mosque minarets and church towers.
Egypt is predominantly Muslim, at approximately 90% of the population, with the majority being adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam. A significant number of Muslim Egyptians also follow native Sufi orders. Christians represent about 10% of the population, 95% of whom belong to Coptic denominations (primarily Coptic Orthodox, but also Coptic Catholic and Coptic Protestant), while the remainder include Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox, largely found in Alexandria and Cairo.
According to the constitution, any new legislation must implicitly agree with Islamic laws. The mainstream Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is largely organised by the state, through Wizaret Al-Awkaf (Ministry of Religious Affairs). Al-Awkaf controls all mosques and overviews Muslim clerics. Imams are trained in Imam vocational schools and at Al-Azhar University. The department supports Sunni Islam and has commissions authorised to give Fatwa judgements on Islamic issues.
Egypt hosts two major religious institutions. Al-Azhar University is the oldest Islamic institution of higher studies (founded around 970 A.D) and considered by many to be the oldest extant university. Egypt also has a strong Christian heritage as evidenced by the existence of the Coptic Orthodox Church headed by the Patriarch of Alexandria, which has a following of approximately 50 million Christians worldwide, most importantly in Ethiopia and Eritrea (one of the famous Coptic Orthodox Churches is Saint Takla Haimanot Church in Alexandria).
Religious freedom for Egypt's Coptic Christian community is hampered to varying degrees by extremist Islamist groups and by discriminatory and restrictive government policies. Until recently, Christians were required to obtain presidential approval for even minor repairs in churches, but the law was recently eased. Copts have faced increased marginalisation after the 1952 coup d'état. That however changed to some degree when President Sadat appointed Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as the Egyptian Foreign Minister. Prominent Copts on the cabinet now include Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and Environment Minister Maged George. In addition, Naguib Sawiris, an extremely successful businessman and one of the wealthiest people internationally is an Egyptian Copt. Under the Mubarak government, Coptic Christmas (January 7) was recognised as an official holiday in 2002. The Coptic community however has occassionally been the target of hate crimes and physical assault, most recently during attacks on three churches in Alexandria. In addition, many Copts continue to complain of being minimally represented in law enforcement, state security and public office, and of being discriminated against in the workforce on the basis of their religion.
Egypt was once home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Jews partook of all aspects of Egypt's social and political life; one of the most ardent Egyptian nationalists, Yaqub Sanu' (Abu Naddara), was a Jew, as was popular singer Leila Mourad. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, some 25,000 Egyptian Jews were expelled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, their Egyptian citizenship was revoked and their property was confiscated. A steady stream of migration of Egyptian Jews followed, reaching a peak after the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967. Today, Jews in Egypt number less than 200.
Bahá'ís in Egypt, whose population ranges between several hundred and a few thousand, have their institutions and community activities banned. Since their faith is not officially recognised by the state, they are also not allowed to use it on their national identity cards (conversely, Islam, Christianity, & Judaism are officially recognised); hence most of them do not hold national identity cards. In April 2006 a court case recognised the Bahá'í Faith, but the government appealed the court decision and succeeded in having it suspended on 15 May.
There are Egyptians who identify as atheist and agnostic, but their numbers are largely unknown as openly advocating such positions risks legal sanction. In 2000, an openly atheist Egyptian writer, who called for the establishment of a local association for atheists, was tried on charges of insulting Islam in four of his books.