At 12:20 AM on January 1, 2011, an explosion shook New Year’s eve mass celebrations at the Coptic Orthodox Two Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, killing 23 members of the congregation and injuring dozens of others. Unlike previous incidents of sectarian conflict, which had received short-lived public and media attention, across Egypt the Alexandria incident sparked unprecedented waves of protests by both Copts and Muslims against the attack, inspired solidarity stands and vigils, and triggered a wideranging security response from the Egyptian government.
The attack against the Two Saints Church, however, was not wholly unexpected. The Two Saints Church, as well as a number of other Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt, had recently been threatened with violence by the Iraqi Islamic State, a fundamentalist group affiliated with al Qaeda, that operates in Egypt and that claimed responsibility for the deadly November 2010 attack on a church in Iraq. The threats against Egypt’s Coptic churches stemmed from two main sources: allegations that a Coptic church had imprisoned two Christian women, who had allegedly converted to Islam, and claims made by Muslim clerics that Egypt’s churches were stockpiling weapons to support a future war instigated by foreign elements. As a result of these claims, concern grew for the safety of Egypt’s Christians, estimated by government figures to comprise between 13 and 15 per cent of the country’s population.
In the three days following the attack, mass protests and riots erupted across the country, particularly in Cairo. Surprisingly, relatively few protestors were arrested or injured, leading some to conclude that police and central security forces had received orders to act with restraint. Most importantly, outrage against the bombing crossed sectarian lines, with Muslims and Christians joining together to condemn the action and to criticize the government’s response. On Coptic Christmas eve, which took place on January 6, 2011, a few days after the Alexandria bombing, Muslims organized to form human shields at churches across Egypt, a measure welcomed by many Egyptians as an usually profound demonstration of cross-sectarian solidarity.
Sectarian violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians is however far from unusual. For decades, the combination of state-sanctioned policies and widespread prejudice in Egyptian society against Copts has been undeniable. Egypt’s Christians have long maintained that the well-documented violence and discrimination against them has resulted as much from state action as from intolerance and hatred amongst Egypt’s Muslim population. Beginning with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, during the 1950s and 60s, Copts have emigrated abroad in ever increasing numbers, believing there to be little hope for social justice or security in their country.
Rising Violence: Recent Sectarian Clashes Around the Country
Although there have been dozens of unreported attacks against Christians throughout the 1990s and 2000s, those tracking the incidence of religious conflict in Egypt have noted a rise in sectarian violence since 2005, when clashes between Muslims, Christians and police broke out in Alexandria in response to a play, which purportedly disparaged Islam, held at a local church. By and large, the state’s response to this and other sectarian incidents has been haphazard at best and oppressive at worst.
Prior to the Alexandria attack, the most notable incident came on January 6, 2010, when six C0ptic teenagers and a security official were killed in a drive-by shooting as they exited a Christmas eve mass in Naga Hammadi, near Luxor in Upper Egypt. The church had received threats of violence prior to the incident from Muslim extremists in respone to previous sectarian clashes in a nearby town. Days of rioting and burning by citizens of Naga Hammadi followed the shooting. On January 16, 2011 – more than a year after the event – one of the men involved in the shooting was sentenced to execution by an Emergency State Security Court, prompting commentators to speculate that this harsh sentence was another indicator of the state’s desperate, yet misguided efforts to appease the Copts, as well as international donors.
In November 2010, Copts and police clashed in Omraniya, Giza, when police attempted to halt the construction of a church that lacked valid building permits. Four Copts were killed, and many dozens were arrested on charges of police assault. In Egypt, the construction and renovation of churches has been a controversial issue for several decades, as Egyptian law contains a number of provisions that indirectly discourages church building, while promoting mosque construction. Nonetheless, the November incident remains unique, as violations of building codes have not typically resulted in police interference. This affair represents a troubling and rare example of sectarian-based violence involving state actors, fueling the widely held belief that the government, rather than radical Islamists, are responisible for the country’s on-going religious strife.
Only two weeks after the Alexandria bombing, yet another incident of violence against Coptic Christians took place. On January 10, 2011, an off-duty Muslim policeman shot and killed one Copt and injured five others as he boarded a train in Samalout, Upper Egypt. Attempting to diffuse the sectarian aspect of the crime, government and security officials described the shooter as suffering from a “mental disorder”, an excusation commonly used in these situations, and argued that the shooting was not religiously motivated, an allegation denied by eye-witnesses. In response, hundreds of Copts gathered in protest outside the Good Shepherd Hospital, where the wounded were being treated. Clashes with the police, who reportedly used live ammunition and tear gas, resulted.
The government’s inept handling of sectarian strife and failure to apprehend perpetrators and protect future victims have resulted in an increased level of anger in the Coptic community, leaving many to believe that the only option for self-preservation lies, as it has for decades, in emigration.
Responses and Debate
In the aftermath of the New Year’s attack, immediate blame for preventing the incident was placed by almost all observers on the Egyptian security apparatus, which has been an agent of state repression for decades and has utterly failed to protect citizens from dangers ranging from infrastructure collapse to terrorism. Even so significant and fatal an attack as the Alexandria bombing inspired little more than a disorganized, heavy handed and ineffectual response from security officials. Since then, Egyptian authorities have scrambled to issue varied and largely unsubstantiated explanations, but have thus far failed to conclusively determine either the method of the attack or the perpetrator(s), despite waves of arrests.
Immediately after the explosion, eyewitnesses described the bomb as originiating from a parked car, while government officials suggested that responsibility for the attack lay with a variety of possible sources, including an electrical explosion, Israeli Mossad, Al Qaeda, a lone suicide bomber, an anonymous “Asian-featured” man and an unemployed young man from the Delta, a digitally altered photograph of whom was inexplicably circulated to the media. Most recently, the government has suggested that the attack was perpetrated by 3-5 individuals with foreign support and using foreign materials.
The government’s statements reflect a long-held policy of shifting blame to foreign elements for the domestic problems confronting Egyptian society, particularly those relating to sectarian issues. Claiming that Egyptian Muslims and Christians have lived in harmony for millennia, government spokesmen, ministers and even President Hosny Mubarak, regularly claim that any discord between them must be rooted in foreign interference.
These attempts to deflect responsibility have, however, largely been brushed aside by angry Egyptians, both Christian and Muslim, who have witnessed the government fail time and time again to protect Egyptians from violence. In response to the threats from the Islamic Iraqi State, security around Egypt’s churches had been increased in the months leading up to the Alexandria attack, including the installation of metal detectors and deployment of additional police officers. Despite the heightened security environment, these efforts were ineffective, with searches and checks at Egypt’s churches being cursory at best. One news report suggested that the policeman posted at the Two Saints Church on the day of the Alexandria attack left his station once his superior had conducted his inspections for the night.
A few hours before Christmas eve services began on January 6, security forces blocked off all roads containing churches, attempting to create the appearance of increased security in the aftermath of the bombing. Government authorities also ordered that Christmas eve services be held two hours earlier than usual, in an apparent attempt to deflect any pre-planned terrorist plots. While no attacks took place on Christmas eve, these efforts did little more than increase traffic congestion during the busiest time of day, force Coptic Christians to celebrate mass several hours before breaking their traditional Christmas fast at midnight and diminish some of the empathy and goodwill Muslim citizens felt towards their Coptic brethren.
While the government response to the Alexandria bombing, as with other sectarian incidents, has been as futile and confused as ever, others have sought to take positive steps to address the discrimination against Copts. For example, a number of groups have advocated for approval of a bill, pending before the Egyptian parliament since 2004, that would create a unified code for construction of houses of worship. Recently, some members of the Egyptian parliament have suggested establishing a quota for Coptic parliamentarians, similar to the one in place for women. As has been the case with the quota for female parliamentarians, however, this move would likely do little more than foster resentment, without achieving any tangible political benefits.
Others are pushing for greater civic engagement amongst Copts, whose political voice has in large part been constrained by Church policy and general fear. In return for its endorsement of Mubarak’s regime, the Church receives government support and autonomy over its internal affairs. The Church oversees essential aspects of Coptic life, such as marriage and divorce amongst community members, while also serving as a buffer between Christians and their government. The current Patriarch of the Coptic Church has encouraged followers to refer political complaints and disputes to the Church, undermining opportunities for Coptic civic organization and political lobbying. Some hope that the Egyptian government’s failures in protecting its Coptic citizens will usher in a new era of increased Coptic political involvement.
Some have called on Copts to unite with other disenfranchised and persecuted groups in Egypt to hold the state responsible for its inaction and work for greater civil and human rights. Still others are counseling Muslims to take a hard look at their role in tolerating, and in some cases encouraging, extremism against Christians. It is this approach that has been most welcomed by Christians, recognizing as it does that violence against Copts is as much a result of state action as it is a function of increased radicalization amongst individual Egyptians. The state has long permitted and even fostered the increased Islamization of Egyptian society, from supporting radical preachers to driving an increasingly impoverished and oppressed population to scapegoat minorities. As a result, embittered and radicalized citizens of all ages and backgrounds have increasingly come to ressent the Coptic community’s seeming wealth and immunity from government interference on family law matters.
However repressive and violent the Egyptian state may be, it is composed of human beings who reflect the prejudicies of society at large. Though bigotry and intolerance are undoubtedly encouraged by the state, to lay exclusive blame for Egypt’s sectarian strife on the government ignores the underlying problems with Egyptian society in general. As such, to end this seemingly endless cycle of sectarian violence, requires developing and implementing programs that address both government and individual action. Without such a holistic approach, it is doubtful that Egypt’s Coptic Christian population will have much choice other than to leave the country they have called home for hundreds of years.