After church attack, Egypt’s Christians fear they are main target for militants
CAIRO // When a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Cairo church a week ago, it marked a bloody escalation by Egypt’s militants. For years they have largely fought their battles in the Sinai desert and targeted policemen, soldiers and officials. But after a suicide bomber killed 26 worshippers and wounded dozens more during Sunday mass, Egypt’s Christians fear they are now a main target in ISIL’s bid to spread chaos without killing fellow Muslims.
Last Sunday’s attack was the worst suffered by Christians since a suicide bomber killed 20 at a church in Alexandria in 2011..
But many Egyptian Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the country’s 90-million population, say they have always been marginalised by the state. As a boy growing up in Egypt, Mina remembers all too well the anti-Christian slurs he and other Copts would hear at school and on the street. One day a Muslim youth snatched the crucifix from around his neck during a game of football and stamped on it. “I won’t forget that day,” said Mina, now in his 30s.
Some say the roots of discrimination can be found in schools. Religious education is compulsory, with Christians leaving classrooms during Islamic lessons for separate tuition. In Arabic classes, Christians memorise Quranic verses — a primary reference for teaching the language — while Muslims are taught about Christianity from an Islamic perspective.
“They don’t learn anything about my religion,” said Peter, a Copt in his 30s. The bigotry eventually drove him to leave Egypt. “It made him feel like I’m not from this country, ” he said.
Coptic Church spokesman Boulos Halim Halim traces the roots of violence against his community to the 1970s, when then president Anwar Sadat empowered Islamists against his socialist opponents.
Attacks by Muslims on Christians, especially in rural areas, carried on after Sadat himself was assassinated by extremists in 1981 and succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. Copts came under attack and dozens died in sectarian clashes after Mubarak was overthrown in the 2011 uprising.
Under Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, fundamentalists regularly incited violence against Christians. When he in turn was overthrown in 2013, dozens of churches and Christian-owned properties were attacked as Muslims accused the Copts of having sided with the army.
When former military chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi was elected a year later, Copts hoped they had found an ally who understood the dangers of Islamist extremism. He cracked down on Morsi’s Mulsim Brotherhood, pledged to wipe out extremism and became the first Egyptian president to attend a Christmas mass. It made little difference. The violence increased, often ignited by rumours of a church being built. In February, authorities blocked the appointment of a Christian woman as a school principal after student protests in Minya province, south of Cairo. In May, Muslim villagers set fire to Christian homes and paraded an elderly Coptic woman naked in public because it was rumoured her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman.
But there are also pragmatic reasons why Egypt would want to crush all and any extremists. The country desperately needs to rebuild its wrecked economy and revive its vital tourism industry. The authorities said the church suicide bomber was a former Muslim Brotherhood supporter-turned-militant and they have arrested four others. ISIL claimed responsibility only later.
But the authorities must go much further and address the kind of prejudice running through Egyptian society, said Mr Halim.
“Police and military power have never been able to erase terrorism. It must be accompanied by the power of thought.”
* Agence France-Presse
* Associated Press