EGYPT’S COPTIC CHRISTIANS TARGETED AGAIN BY TERRORISTS
By Donnelly McCleland
Egyptian security forces killed 19 Islamist militants from a cell believed to be responsible for an attack on Christians in Minya province in central Egypt in which seven people died, the interior ministry said on Sunday [4 November]. Security forces killed the suspects in a firefight after a chase in a mountainous area of the desert west of Minya governorate, the ministry said in a statement. It did not say when the gun battle took place, nor did it mention any casualties among security forces. Islamic State claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack [2 November] in Minya when gunmen targeted two buses near the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, 260 km south of Cairo. The dead included six members of the same family. Islamic State did not provide any evidence to back up its claim of responsibility, one of several in recent years as Egypt’s Christian minority has been repeatedly targeted. (Reuters)
History of persecution
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, known as Copts, are the largest ethno-religious minority in the country, comprising roughly 10 percent of the country’s 97 million people. Many Copts today may identify themselves as Arabs, but historically, Copts believe themselves to be the remaining descendants of the civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians, with Pharaonic origins. The word “Coptic” is derived from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian.
In Muslim-majority Egypt, Coptic Christians have a long history of being victims of persecution and repeated attacks on their churches. They have regularly been marginalised and used as scapegoats by the state. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the military drove tanks over and murdered about 28 Coptic protestors and injured hundreds in what became known as the Maspero Massacre. The level of disregard that Copts often face in Egypt was clearly demonstrated when the state media blamed the Coptic protestors for attacking the military, and the massacre was generally ignored by the public who believed the state narrative of violent Copts trying to destroy the country. Copts frequently face opposition — for example, getting permission to build churches is made nearly impossible, and the predominantly Muslim government is subsequently criticised for turning a blind eye to their plight. Current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to protect Egypt’s Copts, and the lull in attacks throughout 2018 was seen as tremendous progress, but many still believe such promises have failed to fully materialise.
Government’s anti-terror operations
In November 2017, militants killed 305 people in a Sufi mosque in the northern part of the Sinai region. Egypt’s army responded by launching a major offensive in February 2018 against the Islamic State (IS) in the Sinai Peninsula, where the group has waged a deadly insurgency since the fall of Mohammed Morsi in 2013, killing hundreds of soldiers and policemen. The military offensive — dubbed “Sinai 2018” — has killed more than 450 terrorists, according to an army estimate, with around 30 soldiers killed.
Nine months after the military offensive began, the jihadist insurgency in the Sinai remains alive. Friday’s attack in Minya province showed that IS can still hit hard outside the peninsula, despite retaining only a few hundred or so increasingly squeezed fighters in Egypt, according to experts. Mr Sisi, who has made the economy and security his top priorities since taking office in 2014, wrote on his Twitter account that Friday’s attack was designed to harm the “nation’s solid fabric” and pledged to continue fighting terrorism. He later offered his condolences when he spoke by telephone with Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and a close ally of Mr Sisi.
In a sombre message of his own, Tawadros said in a video clip released by the Church that the latest attack would only make the Christians stronger: “We also pray for the assailants. They are misled because all the grief, pain and frustration they cause will achieve absolutely nothing.”
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
In the aftermath of the Palm Sunday bombings in 2017, Amr Adeeb, a prominent Muslim Egyptian talk show host, observed that “the Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel.” This was in response to their spoken forgiveness of the perpetrators and persecutors – time and again. “How great is this forgiveness you have!” he marvelled. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Forgiveness was the “key that unlocked a door”, as one pastor put it. It brought about revival in the Church in Egypt and it spilled over into the larger Egyptian society. But, more than a year on, when the pain and outrage of Friday’s attack is still fresh, is forgiveness still the response?
Some mourners expressed grief and anger as they left Prince Tadros Church in the city of Minya, where the bodies of six of the seven victims lay in white coffins. On Saturday, people displayed their anger and frustration: according to news agency AFP, the coffins were carried away from the church accompanied by cries of “with our souls, with our blood, we will defend the cross!” while security members – sent to guard the congregation – were booed.
It appears that anger and fear is more acute among the younger generation. “What do these terrorists want? Do they want us to hate Muslims?” said 23-year-old Michel, who lost a neighbour in the attack. “Should I carry a gun with me when I go to pray or when I’m at home? Because I could die if I go to church,” he said.
Others, however, continued to maintain a more conciliatory tone. According to Reuters, Rad Noseer Mitri, priest of Mar Girgis Church, told mourners: “We would like to tell them [the attackers] that we still love them despite what happened. We have a question though – why are you doing this to us? We do not commit malice towards anyone. We serve our church and nation in complete honesty. We play no role in terrorism or hate. We only play a role in serving our church and country like any other people all around the world.”
The challenge for Egyptian Christians is maintaining the ability to live out their convictions – clinging to the example of Christ’s sacrificial life, permeated with love and forgiveness, not giving in to fear and hate – often in the face of fierce opposition. Will the persistent opposition, like water, wear down Christians’ resolve, or make it stronger? Will the very real demonstration of Christ-like forgiveness, time and again, melt the hardest of hearts, and transform communities? Could the constant onslaught lead to a pent-up anger and resentment, which just waits for an outlet? Or will it result in a fresh wave of migrants, looking for safer shores, as many have done before them? Time will tell.
- For the Egyptian government to respond effectively to the pleas of Coptic Christians
- For the younger generation to discover the power of forgiveness as they wrestle with how to respond
- For Egyptian believers to continue to be salt and light in their communities