Palm Sunday Bombings Underscore Depth of Egypt’s Anti-Christian Bigotry
The suicide bombings of two Coptic churches in Egypt on Sunday that were carried out by ISIS terrorists should not be viewed in isolation. These bombings, which killed 44 people and injured 100 more, marked the deadliest in a series of attacks targeting the country’s Christian minority.
ISIS had warned of future attacks in December, after another of its suicide bombers killed 25 worshipers in a chapel adjacent to the Coptic Pope’s cathedral in Cairo. In that case, one of the bombers struck just after the Coptic Pope finished celebrating Mass at the Coptic cathedral in Alexandria.
These attacks reflect a larger epidemic of anti-Christian bias and hate found among a sizeable portion of Egypt’s majority Muslim population. This bigotry remains entrenched, despite President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s symbolic statements about reforming Islam and building a major Coptic church in Egypt. Furthermore, many Egyptian Islamists remain angry with the Coptic community for supporting Sisi after the 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The Minority Copt’s (sic) Of Egypt Should Never Have joined Sisi Against The Sunni’s of Egypt Now They Are Paying The price! No End Soon Either,” an ISIS supporter identified as @HaqqRevolution wrote on Twitter.
Last month, ISIS’s Al-Naba newsletter vowed that attacks against the Copts would intensify unless they converted to Islam or paid the Quranic tax known as jizyah.
Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution, spews anti-Christian statements and issues fatwas that label Christians as heretics. In June 2015, Al-Azhar distributed a free book describing Christianity as a “failed religion,” and suggesting that the Bible contains “seeds of weakness.”
Additionally, building churches is a crime according to Al-Azhar’s curriculum, which also states that churches should be barred in Muslim countries.
“Hence, it is a mistake to say that the attacks currently taking place against Copts in Minya and elsewhere are the acts of individuals [and not part of a larger phenomenon]. [Al-Azhar] students will continue to study until they attain a certificate or a license to preach at a mosque, and then they will spread what they learned among the worshipers,” Egyptian researcher Ahmad Abdu Maher wrote last August.
Much of the anti-Coptic hatred among Egyptian children stems from school lessons that claim “Christians are infidels destined for Hell,” Al-Masry Al-Youm columnist Fathia Al-Dakhakhni wrote on February 26.
“Fanaticism in Egypt is a matter of education, so there is need to reform the education received by [the members of our] society, who are raised on the concept of discrimination against the other,” Al-Dakhakhni wrote. “[The change] must start in school — because fanaticism begins with religion classes that separate Muslims from Christians, so that the child discovers in his earliest formative years that there is an ‘other’ who is different and who must be shunned.”
And Egyptian government forces are either unable or unwilling to protect Christians from ISIS.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued last month criticized Egyptian security forces’ response to ISIS attacks against the Copts. It also noted that the Egyptians have failed to help Christians who have been forced to relocate due to conditions in the country.
Over the past two months, 355 families have fled the northern Sinai city of El Arish, located near the border with Gaza and Israel. Of those, only 59 families have received housing from the government. And after ISIS murdered seven Christians in northern Sinai, Coptic families who fled their homes there described the Egyptian security forces as “apathetic,” the HRW report said.
Egyptian troops also did nothing when ISIS established checkpoints to hunt down Christians, according to a Daily Beast report. In one instance, ISIS fighters demanded to see a Christian man’s ID card in order to check his religion, and tried to see if he had a wrist tattoo common among Coptic Christians.
“Convert, infidel, and we will spare your life,” the ISIS fighters said as they dragged him out of his vehicle. He refused. They shot him 14 times.
Christians in the Minya governorate, about three hours south of Cairo, face intimidation from terrorists, the public and the government alike, according to numerous news reports. Christians account for one-third of the 5 million people living in the governorate, and have faced at least 77 sectarian attacks since the 2011 revolution that toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Radical Muslims known as Salafists also burned several Christian homes in Minya on July 16, 2016. The police arrested several suspects, but the courts declined to prosecute them. Instead, the men were let go after reconciling with their victims. HRW notes that such enforced reconciliations deprive the Christians of their rights, and allow their attackers to evade justice.
And while President Sisi has promised to build Egypt’s largest church, he ratified a church construction law in September giving governors latitude to deny church building permits without the chance for appeal. HRW slammed the law, partly because it contains security provisions that could subject permit decisions to the whims of violent mobs.
In June and July 2016, Muslim mobs destroyed four Coptic homes and six buildings, including a nursery in the village of Koum al-Loufi, near Minya, after Muslim neighbors claimed that the Christians intended to use the buildings as churches, HRW notes.
In March 2016, an Egyptian court convicted four Christian teenagers and their teacher of contempt for making a video mocking ISIS, which also appeared to mimic Muslim prayers. Three were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years, while the fourth was sent to a juvenile detention facility.
And there’s more.
In January, an Egyptian court dropped charges against Muslim men accused of beating 70-year-old Christian grandmother, Soad Thabet, and ripping her clothes off during a sectarian riot. Instead, the court prosecuted her son, Ashraf Abdo Attia, for adultery for an alleged affair with a Muslim neighbor’s wife.
A Muslim mob also burned and looted at least 80 Christian-owned buildings in Al-Beida, south of Cairo, last June. A rumor that a building under construction might become a church sparked the rampage. Al-Beida police were unwilling or unable to stop the violence.
Following Morsi’s forced removal as Egypt’s president in 2013, Muslim Brotherhood supporters conducted a reign of terror against the Coptic community, burning at least 58 churches. In August 2013, a mob of 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters set fire to two churches in Minya after Egyptian security forces cleared Cairo’s Rabia Square. Muslim Brotherhood members also torched the main Coptic church in the southern Egyptian city of Sohag; Islamists had previously raised an Al-Qaeda flag over the church.
Sunday’s attacks mark the continuation of a violent spree targeting Egypt’s minority Copts. President Sisi needs to bring the full power of the Egyptian state to bear in the cause of reforming society, and stopping the persecution of the Copts.