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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Sectarian killings are an affront to Egypt's diverse heritage

The recent murders of seven Christian worshippers highlight a disturbing trend of religious violence

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Coptic Christians who were killed in the Friday attack. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Coptic Christians who were killed in the Friday attack. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

To understand the plight of Egypt’s Christians, who number 10 million and complain of widespread social discrimination, one need look no further than the governorate of Minya. The region is home to more Coptic Christians than any other and has been the setting for two grim tragedies in as many years. In 2017, a horrific bus attack left 29 Coptic worshfipers dead. And on Friday, a duplicate assault on three buses carrying pilgrims to a remote desert monastery killed seven people and wounded at least 19. Among the dead were a 15-year-old boy and a girl of just 12.

The murder of blameless people for nothing more than peacefully practicing their faith is an abomination and has rightly drawn condemnation from the UAE, Germany, Jordan and others. The attack, which has been claimed by ISIS, might have targeted Christians, but it can also be seen as another attack on a centuries-old heritage of interfaith coexistence that began to be eroded in the mid-20th century and has steadily worsened to this day.

Condemning the murders on Twitter, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said they were designed to harm the “nation’s solid fabric”. But the rising death toll of such incidents is increasingly putting any idea of cohesion to the test.

ISIS has repeatedly vowed to target Egyptian Christians, who sought to improve their safety by supporting Mr Al Sisi after he toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. But attacks since 2016 in Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta, in the Nile Delta, killing at least 100 Christians, underline their perennial vulnerability in a country whose Muslim majority has grown increasingly conservative.

The attacks echo a strategy well-honed by ISIS and other extremist groups: exploit tensions between different faiths to foster insecurity and make the ground more fertile for their own survival. Attacks of this kind are not unique to Egypt; they occur in societies across the world where multiple faiths live side by side.

It falls to Egypt’s government, religious leaders and the community at large to ensure these extremists do not achieve their bloodthirsty aims.

Since toppling Mr Morsi five years ago, Mr Al Sisi’s administration has sought to counter the worst excesses of radical Islam and foster stability. The government has taken steps to control preaching and has established outlets to counter militant ideologies. Its military is currently battling extremists in the Sinai Peninsula and Nile Delta. And in early October, the infamous Egyptian Al Qaeda commander Hisham Ashmawi – who reportedly orchestrated the 2017 Minya bus attack – was captured in the extremist Libyan stronghold of Derna. But the deaths of these innocent worshippers on Friday show just how much work remains to be done.