By Mona Eltahawy
December 22, 2016
The Dec. 11 bombing of a church in the Cairo cathedral complex — the seat of the Coptic pope — has been claimed by the Islamic State, although the Egyptian government has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. Whoever planted the bomb that killed 27 people, including a 10-year-old girl, when it ripped through a church full of Sunday worshipers understood well how endemic bigotry in Egypt has left Christian lives at the whim of a regime that pays lip service to protecting them, armed Islamists who actively seek them harm, and a public that largely does not care.
To gauge the enormity of what happened at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, imagine a bombing in a church within the Vatican complex. Egyptian churches have been bombed before, but this was the first time a bomb had been taken inside a church to directly target worshipers; and it was the first time that Islamic State affiliates in Egypt targeted civilians after months of attacking the police and, in the Sinai province, the military.
Coptic Christians are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people. The cruel reality for Egyptian Christians is that only the Egyptian military has killed more Christians in recent times than did the Dec. 11 bombing. In October 2011, 28 Christians were killed in clashes with the military outside the Maspero television building in Cairo. They were protesting against an attack on a church.
At the time, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the head of military intelligence and a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down following the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution. Mr. Sisi has portrayed himself as the savior and protector of Egyptian Christians because it was he who ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and has led the effort against the Islamist insurgency in Sinai. In 2013, Mr. Sisi became the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas Mass, and this month he attended the funeral of those killed in the Dec. 11 bombing. But Christians remain vulnerable to both the regime and its armed militant opponents.
Following Mr. Morsi’s overthrow by the military in 2013, Muslim mobs attacked dozens of churches and Christian properties, accusing the Copts of taking the army’s side. Today, Christians are still at the mercy of a regime that has consistently let them down. The Coptic Church itself preaches patience, discouraging protests in the hope that such docility will protect the community from more violence.
It has not. The anger at that realization was clear when protesters outside the bombed church turned away TV anchors known for their pro-regime views.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has documented at least 77 cases of sectarian attacks on Copts between 2011 and 2016 in the province of Minya alone. In that state, south of Cairo, Christians are estimated to make up about one-third of the population. Pope Tawadros, the head of the Coptic Church, has said that attacks against Christians have occurred on average about once a month over the past three years.
In May, hundreds of Muslims set fire to homes of Christians in Minya. The unrest began after rumours that a Christian man had had an affair with a Muslim woman. The man fled with his wife and children, while his parents, fearing for their lives, went to the police. The police did nothing. The next day, around 300 Muslim men looted and burned the parents’ house and stripped the mother naked in the street. They also ransacked and set fire to six other houses, witnesses told Reuters.
In July, again in Minya, Muslims burned Christian homes because of a rumor that a Christian intended to turn a kindergarten into a church. Such attacks are not limited to Minya. In June, a video aired on YouTube showing dozens of people in the streets of a village near Alexandria, chanting, “We don’t want a church.” The mob assaulted Copts and attacked a building they identified as Christian.
The Egyptian Parliament recently ratified such bigotry when it passed a long-awaited law imposing restrictions on the construction and renovation of churches. No such restrictions apply to Muslims and mosques. There are 2,869 churches in Egypt, compared with 108,395 mosques.
No one has stood trial for any of these attacks. In too many instances, the police don’t care to investigate. They round up a few suspects, but then release them without charges. On some occasions, Christians are even pressed into “reconciliation” sessions with the Muslim neighbors who attacked them. In other cases, Christians have had to leave their homes, villages or towns.
In contrast, the Egyptian criminal justice system has been swift and harsh on Christians. In February, a court in Minya sentenced three Coptic teenagers to five years in prison after they appeared in a video apparently mocking Muslim prayers. They claimed the video was mocking the beheading videos of the Islamic State, but they were convicted of insulting Islam. A fourth defendant was sent to a juvenile detention center by the court.
Not one of us, Muslim or Christian, is free in Egypt, but that is no excuse for the authorities’ indifference to the violence and discrimination Christians here face. There has never been a Christian president, and it’s been decades since there was a Christian prime minister. Copts can count no mayors, no public university presidents or deans, and only a handful of government ministers and members of Parliament. Only a small minority of the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces are Christians.
When the subject of discrimination against Christians comes up, it is often dismissed with the facile “some of my best friends are Christian” argument. Too many Egyptians refuse to acknowledge the way such denial endangers Christian lives.
One glimmer of hope came recently from the president of Cairo University, Gaber Nasser. In October, he ruled that university documents should no longer specify the religion of any student or staff member. This move came after a graduate student complained that he was denied enrolment because he was Christian.
In the United States, Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently called a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes a “stain on our nation’s very soul.” I agree — and the same must be said about anti-Christian hate crimes in Egypt. But a bomb in a church is worse than a stain.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution,” and a contributing opinion writer.