In the run-up to Easter, it is customary for Egypt’s Coptic Christians to go to church every evening. Churches are packed with worshippers – as they were on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the altar in a Coptic church in Tanta, about 90 miles north of Cairo, killing 29 people and injuring 71 – some of them gravely.
Three hours later, another suicide bomber tried to enter St Mark’s Church in Alexandria, where Pope Tawadros – the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church – was presiding. A police officer prevented the bomber from entering the church – but he and two policewomen were killed as the man detonated the bomb, killing at least 18 and wounding 35. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both bombings.
The bombings in the two churches bear a striking resemblance to the bombing in another church in Cairo on December 11, 2016, also a suicide bombing, which killed 26 people and injured 49. IS also claimed responsibility for the killing, vowing to “continue war against the apostates”. In February 2017, IS murdered seven Christians in Sinai and described Copts as its favourite “prey”, calling for further killings.
These attacks appear to have been carefully organised. The tactics were similar – trained suicide bombers wearing explosive belts acting at times of the year when churches are packed. These atrocities are aimed at breaking the morale of the Coptic community and IS is promising more to come. The Copts, who account for roughly 10% of the country’s mainly Sunni Muslim population, are angry and frightened.
Survival against all odds
Over centuries, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have endured the ebbs and flows of persecution and integration and developed into a strong, resilient and fairly cohesive community. But the growing influence of Islamist movements together with exclusionary state practices in Egypt have posed an ever-present threats to the Coptic church and made it hard for Copts to live as equal citizens.
During the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the security apparatus was complicit in failing to prevent assaults on the Copts, intervening too late when sectarian violence threatened Coptic communities and enforcing informal “reconciliation meetings” which denied Coptic victims of assault from seeking recourse to justice in courts.
Assaults on Copts increased markedly after the 2011 revolution with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated administration of Mohamed Morsi and, in June 2013, Copts came out in force to join the protests that led to the fall of Morsi’s government.
They had been warned about what might happen should they dare to protest against the Morsi regime – and they paid a heavy price. On August 13, 2013, pro-Morsi factions looted or torched 64 Christian places of worship, instigating assaults on Copts and their property.
But this latest wave of IS bombings is different. IS has vowed to pursue a campaign of annihilating the Copts and with every bloody terrorist attack they believe they are contributing towards that goal.
We are no longer dealing with local Salafi groups obstructing Copts from praying in a local church or fanatical mobs burning Christian homes and property – or even a state that resorts to divide-and-rule policies to detract attention from its governance failures. The attacks are not perpetrated by a national entity – IS is a global actor, well networked and resourced and acting with a wide array of splinter cells everywhere. In the past, sectarian violence against Copts has been largely isolated, local acts, while the recent IS violence is on a much grander scale.
Internationally, while recognising that IS has struck against many different groups, the targeting of the Copts should be seen as part of a broader strategic plan on the part of IS to eliminate religious pluralism – particularly the Christian element of it – in the region. This is not, as Amnesty International said in its press release, a continuation of the sort of “sectarian violence” we have witnessed in the past half century, it is a concerted terror campaign which poses an existential threat to the Coptic community.
We are also likely to see IS targeting Copts further afield – not only in Egypt, but in neighbouring countries (as they did in Libya) and in the diaspora in Europe, the US and Australia.
There needs to be recognition that it is not so much that “Egypt’s security situation has rapidly deteriorated”, as the Daily Telegraph reported, but that the threats are now of a scale and intensity dramatically greater than at any time before.
One policeman and two policewomen heroically gave their lives blocking the suicide bomber from entering the church in Alexandria, but there were – and continue to be – major flaws in the security system’s protection of churches. The government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – and its security service – need to be held accountable for this failure.
And there is still denial: the prominent Egyptian commentator, Fahmy Howeidy, wrote in an Arabic-language newspaper that he is “against the idea that the targeting of churches – as awful as it is – amounts to a targeting of Copts and their persecution”. He is wrong – by arguing that this is a political, not a religious, act, he not only ignores what IS itself has said, but denies the nature of the terrorist threats that Copts face because of their religious affiliation.
There has been an outpouring of support from Muslims, friends, and members of the public keen to show solidarity with their Coptic neighbours. But as long as the dominant narrative belongs to those who refuse to accept the Copts are targeted because of their religion, this ancient branch of Christianity remains under deep threat.