timep single page

The Quiet and Dangerous Anti-LGBTQ+ Ideology of The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church 

Non-Islamic religious institutions in Egypt, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church, receive little to no scrutiny for their anti-LGBTQ+ actions, even though the church plays a role in the state’s anti-queer agenda.

Egypt is a country with a worsening reputation for LGBTQ+ rights. Egyptian society largely does not accept LGBTQ+ people, with data from a 2013 survey showing that 95 percent oppose homosexuality. Despite the absence of any explicit criminalization of queer identities, the authorities often rely on morality and sex work laws to arrest and prosecute LGBTQ+ people in Egypt. The country’s religious institutions in particular play a significant role in intensifying these sentiments with hate speech that dehumanizes queer people. However, while Egypt’s Islamic institutions are rightfully and often criticized for such actions by international non-governmental organizations and national queer groups, other non-Islamic religious institutions, such as the Coptic Orthodox Church, receive little to no scrutiny for their similarly anti-LGBTQ+ actions. 

Egypt’s Copts are the largest Christian minority group in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Accurate population figures are hard to find (due to the government’s refusal to release census data), but In 2018, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, estimated the community to be about 17 million people—about 16 percent of the population—contradicting the official state estimate of around 6 to 8 percent of the population.

The Coptic church has tremendous soft power on Coptic affairs whether with the state or socially. Being a minority means that Copts often live in tight-knit communities where the church could greatly influence its followers’ livelihoods, especially in civil matters, as the Egyptian constitution and laws give the church the power to play an influential role in deciding civil legal matters of people within its dominion. “The Coptic church and the Egyptian government have had a long-standing but tumultuous entente, whereby the Egyptian government offers the church and Copts protection in exchange for political support. Over the years, the church and state have diminished all forms of political leadership by lay Copts, leaving the church to be the primary representative of Copts in all matters pertaining to religion, social life, and politics,” says Miray Philips, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

The Coptic church has tremendous soft power on Coptic affairs whether with the state or socially

As a result, the Coptic church can, and does, play a role in the state’s anti-queer agenda. The Coptic church and other churches in Egypt, for example, never use the term LGBTQ+; instead, they use the term “homosexuality” as a catch-all term for it. Thus, they view anyone LGBTQ+ as automatically a homosexual, and it is unclear whether this outdated approach is intentional or if the church generally did not develop a specific understanding of transgender and intersex people as its Islamic counterpart Al-Azhar did. The church’s influence also extends to its branches abroad.

Regardless, in Coptic Christianity, like in other Abrahamic religions, being LGBTQ+ is considered a sin for which a person should repent or otherwise be expelled from the community. In 2003, as an increasing number of western churches in the United States and Europe were moving toward accepting LGBTQ+ people within the fold of the religion, the Coptic church, headed by the late Pope Shenouda III, organized a meeting for all Egyptian churches to create a united front against this trend. This meeting was deemed necessary by the church, as it always found itself in a sensitive position—where they have to prove their morality and piety, otherwise they risk being labeled immoral by conservative Islamists. Thus, according to this thinking, if Pope Shenouda, the Coptic church, and others did not act swiftly to distance themselves from such acceptance, these radical segments would use it as evidence of Christian immorality. The meeting ended with a statement denouncing western churches’ acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, declaring that a marriage is between a man and a woman and that the Coptic church and other Egyptian churches will not accept homosexuality. 

This statement was the first of many to come, as whenever a western church would declare its acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, Egyptian churches would quickly go to national media to denounce such an action and reaffirm their opposition to it. In 2017, in the aftermath of the Rainbow Flag Crackdown, when 75 queers were arrested after a rainbow flag was flown in a Mashrou’ Leila concert, the Coptic church announced it stood by the government’s actions and that it planned to organize a conference called “the Volcano of Homosexuality,” focused on how to combat “homosexuality.” Moreover, there have been other conferences and trainings that have regularly taken place to train social workers, therapists, priests, and parents on dealing with homosexuality. For the Coptic church, homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured with prayer, confession, therapy, as well as family and church support; homosexuality is perceived as a sin like any other, and any sinner can be welcomed back to the church if they repent. 

As a result, in recent decades, a network of priests and therapists have emerged with the goal of treating “good Christians” for their homosexual sins. At the center of this network is the priest Boutros Samy, a lecturer at Orthodox Counseling Center in Maadi, Cairo. In a 2018 interview, Samy explained how homosexuality develops in a child due to a lack of parents’ love and care—and how he and other priests can play a role in healing it through “prayers of love” and by stopping the person from consuming “homosexual content.” Samy insists that this method works, and that he had treated many by using it. 

I spoke to Mark, a queer Coptic Christian from Minya, in Upper Egypt, who agreed to share his experience with “love prayers” on the condition of anonymity. “I was 16 or 17 when my parents found gay pornography on the family’s computer. I’m an only child, so it was easy to know it was me. They went and spoke to the priest of our church to ‘find a solution.’ The priest offered intensive prayer sessions, putting me under constant observation and limiting my access to the outside world. I was locked up: only allowed to go to school and the church for ‘treatment’ for almost a year. I played along because I had no other option, and finally, the priest declared me healed to my parents, and then I was free.”

Love prayers are essentially conversion therapy, a practice considered to be a human rights violation by various human rights entities, with different branding. Its origins are unknown, but it may have originated in the United States, where the practice is popular with many Christian institutions as the religious way to “pray the gay away.” The American influence in the Coptic Church’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people is noticeable when examining the courses to heal “homosexuality” provided at the Coptic church’s educational institutions

For example, in 2021, the church’s addiction and mental health committee organized a training course on the treatment of “unwanted same-sex attraction.” The course hosted Richard Cohen, an American Christian who claims to “treat” homosexuality through “Sexual Orientation Therapy.” Cohen claims that his experience as an “ex-gay” allows him to provide such treatments, despite not having a license to practice psychotherapy in any American state. Cohen provides his pseudo-therapy services to entities in the Global South through the Positive Approaches to Healthy Sexuality (PATH), “a non-profit that believes in traditional family values based upon time-honored Biblical principles,” whose main goal is to “promote healthy sexuality,” according to their website. 

If a queer Copt wishes to survive these practices, they must either escape or play along until the abuse ends. Otherwise, they may be expelled from the Coptic church altogether

The Coptic church and other churches in Egypt often incorporate Western components in their conversion therapy programs, and American Evangelicals and other anti-LGBTQ+ American Christians often lend their names or “credentials” to assist those churches in creating the illusion of the scientific merit of conversation therapy. If a queer Copt wishes to survive these practices, they must either escape or play along until the abuse ends. Otherwise, they may be expelled from the Coptic church altogether.

However, conversion therapy is not the only tool in the Coptic church’s anti-queer strategy. Recently, it started implementing what it called an awareness campaign targeting children and their parents who attend the church’s kindergarten and Sunday schools. In 2023, Pope Tawadros II announced that “the church had implemented awareness campaigns to protect the child when they hear the word ‘homosexual.’ The child has to understand the abnormality of homosexuality and that the true human condition is that of Adam and Eve.” The pope added one particularly interesting sentence: that such awareness programs started within the Coptic diaspora abroad. 

There are no accurate numbers for the Coptic diaspora; however, some experts place the number at 2 to 3 million, primarily located in Canada, the United States, and Australia, where the Coptic church still exerts some influence to maintain the Coptic identity among the diaspora. As LGBTQ+ rights started gaining more steam in those countries, the Coptic church became increasingly active abroad. For example, in 2017, Pope Tawadros II visited Australia and met with the Coptic community there, where he instructed them to vote against marriage equality in the upcoming national referendum.

Conversion therapy is legally banned in Canada, Australia, and some parts of the US, so one might think that the Coptic church might have trouble initiating its conversion therapy programs in these countries. However, these are branded as “love prayers” or “sexual orientation therapy,” not conversion therapy.

“The church in Canada found creative ways to bypass the federal ban on conversion therapy. They often avoid using such terms, rely heavily on in-house ‘church-approved counselors’ for the therapy, and use vague terminology when organizing awareness lectures on ‘sexual orientation,’” says Marcus Zacharia, a trained pharmacist and a community health worker based In Ontario, Canada. “Even Boutros Samy comes here regularly in Canada to deliver lectures to parents, priests, and everyone else on ‘sexual orientation.’ Such branding is important to avoid any legal backlash from the Canadian government,” he adds.

Boutros Samy was last invited to Canada by the Ottawa, Montreal, and Eastern Canada Diocesan Clerical Council in November 2022 to provide “lectures on sexual orientation.” The lectures’ announcements and documentation do not mention conversion therapy at all; instead, these are educational sessions to provide clarity for those who have questions on “sexual orientation.” Across the border in the United States, this rebranding is not necessary in some states where conversion therapy is legally allowed. The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, for example, denounces LGBTQ+ rights and the churches that support them on its website. Lydia Yousief from Al-Mahaba Center, a Coptic community center based in Nashville, Tennessee said: “We are a tight-knit Coptic community here, and the church plays a huge role. Anyone who dares to walk outside the lines of what the church leader prescribes is an outcast. Queer people have limited options including leaving the church to be able to live freely, as the church will not accept you being openly queer. Rather, they will try to heal you.”

In recent years, many Copts, especially in the diaspora, have attempted to reform the church’s position and pressure it to adopt a more accepting one

However, in recent years, many Copts, especially in the diaspora, have attempted to reform the church’s position and pressure it to adopt a more accepting one. In 2020, a group of progressive Copts issued a public statement slamming a church’s conference organized in Cairo on “treating homosexuality.” The statement critiqued the refusal of the church to change and its use of pseudoscience that only harms its queer followers. The statement and other queer Coptic initiatives in the diaspora, such as Queer Coptic Stories, showcase the growing need for change in the Coptic church’s stance. Marcus told TIMEP about diaspora Copts’ growing activism movement: “Many are frustrated at how the church controls Copts’ life in the diaspora. Many do not think reform is needed with the church [itself], but rather [believe in] creating alternative spaces to connect them outside the church’s walls and control. That’s why many are using social media to create these spaces to celebrate their diverse identities beyond the church’s limitations.” 

However, Coptic queer organizing stays limited to the diaspora, as the national Egyptian queer movement is mostly made of non-believers and Muslims. Perhaps this explains why so many of the church’s anti-LGBTQ+ acts have gone without much scrutiny in Egypt. This gap is dangerous in a queer movement that must be inclusive of everyone; for this reason, national queer groups must examine the reasons behind such a gap and find solutions to include Coptic queer needs and challenges in their programming and advocacy. 

And it does not look like the church will be reforming its anti-LGBTQ+ stance any time soon. In 2022, it announced plans to amend the civil status law for Copts to include homosexuality as a valid reason to receive the right to divorce, as the church does not allow divorce generally and limits the conditions that permit divorce. Moreover, the Coptic church will likely continue with its conversion therapy with other churches around the globe. In March 2024, the Coptic church published a new statement reaffirming its position on homosexuality, indicating that the church is far from reforming such a position. The current work of queer Copts, their allies, and the changing global dynamics on LGBTQ+ rights shall hopefully pave a path toward reform for the Coptic church, even if it will take decades. 

Nora Noralla is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on gender and sexuality in the Middle East and North Africa region. She is also the institute’s first Sarah Hegazi Fellow.


The International Criminal Court decided to open an investigation into atrocities that have been committed in…

Egypt’s education system has long been criticized for an increasing intrusion of religious discourse in its…