One year ago, Egypt witnessed an unprecedented number of sectarian attacks against Coptic institutions, properties, schools, orphanages, and churches nationwide. These attacks came after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and intensified following the violent dispersal in August 2013 of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins, which left hundreds dead.
Participants in these sit-ins openly accused Coptic Christians of engineering Morsi’s ouster and depicted the incident as a war against Islam led by the Coptic Church. In response, angry Islamist mobs attacked, looted and burned more than sixty churches throughout the country.
At the time, the Egyptian military vowed to restore the damaged churches. But, over a year later, these promises remain unfulfilled. It would seem, yet again, that the Egyptian state has used violence against Copts for its own cynical political purposes, and abandoned the community in its time of need.
The Plight of Egypt’s Coptic Community
According to ONA News Agency, only 10% of Coptic churches looted and damaged nationwide have been restored. “We’re still in the early stages,” said a rights group member.
In August 15, 2014 the priest of the Good Shepherded Church in Suez, which was built in 1830, spoke about the church’s circumstances since the 2013 attacks. “This is the condition of the church after one year in the rubbish. We heard that Sisi promised to restore and build the churches, [so] we presented all the papers needed to the authorities. Until now no practical steps were taken…not even an attempt to contact me” he adds.
In the southern city of Minya, which suffered the majority of sectarian attacks, a banner placed by the military in front of the church of Amir Tadros declared June 30, 2014 to be the end of the restoration, which began in August 2013. Two months later, the church remains unfinished. According to the privately owned newspaper Shorouk, no exact time frame has been set for the rebuilding process.
Besides churches, attackers targeted many other properties owned by Christians. Although the government promised to compensate those affected by the attacks, some have never received any compensation. Others have been given very little financial restitution compared to what they lost. Some Copts who fled their hometowns during the violence have remained hesitant to return until last May, fearing Islamist retaliation.
On August 7, 2014, Pope Tawadros and other church representatives met with President Sisi and urged him to continue rebuilding the churches. News reports did not provide exact details of the conversation. But, the meeting is an indication that the restoration process is proceeding slowly.
During last year’s attacks, the Egyptian military offered to fly foreign journalists in helicopters to watch and report on the attacks. While the sectarian attacks warranted extensive media attention and discussion, the army seemed more interested in publicizing these incidents to the world than stepping in and stopping them. For many, the state’s actions represented no more than an attempt to cover up and divert attention from the violent dispersals and detentions of Islamist protestors. During most of the reported attacks, security forces were reluctant to act. In Dalga, for example, security forces took more than two months to intervene and rescue Copts from extremists who overtook the town and persecuted its Coptic inhabitants.
Decades of Unequal Treatment
Exploiting the Coptic community’s pains is an old tradition that has been used widely by the Egyptian state. Last year’s attacks were merely the latest iteration. Since the 1952 revolution, not one Copt has been appointed prime minister, minister of defense, or minister of the interior, three of the most important and influential political positions. Copts have also faced discrimination from state bodies and universities.
In the 1970s, the Egyptian government did little to offset the Wahhabi strand of Islam, as it migrated from Gulf States, namely Saudi Arabia, via Egyptians working in the Gulf. At that time, it was very normal to hear imams in mosques spewing hatred at Copts during Friday sermons or in recorded speeches on compact cassettes.
Instead of confronting this hateful speech, the regime used this rhetoric to terrorize the Copts and ensure their continuous loyalty to the state, which presented itself as their only protector. Unsurprisingly violence and discrimination against Copts continued.
Last year’s attacks occurred on a smaller scale in the 1990s. In December 1999, sectarian clashes erupted in the Upper Egyptian town of AlKoshh, leaving nineteen Copts and one Muslim dead and dozens injured. Many homes and private businesses owned by Copts were looted and burnt. The security forces were also largely either absent or disinterested.
A criminal case was eventually brought. In 2000, most of the ninety-six defendants were acquitted while only four were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to ten years. The judge blamed three Coptic priests for instigating violence and asked late Pope Shenouda to punish them. As a result of this display of injustice and discrimination, the affair prompted outrage within the Coptic community.
In an interview conducted before the recent presidential elections, Sisi was asked about discrimination against Copts in the military. The presidential contender and former head of the army denied it was taking place. He also objected to any need for “cleansing” Egypt’s state institutions from decades-long corruption, arguing that this rhetoric was damaging to the government.
As these comments suggest, Egypt’s new president seems satisfied with the status quo and has little interest in bringing about meaningful political or social change in the country, including easing the suffering of Copts.
A Bleak Outlook
Even though the current Egyptian regime has received more than $20 billion in aid from Gulf States since July 2013, few of these funds have been allocated to restoring damaged Coptic institutions or compensating the victims of last year’s attacks. According to the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, the government will receive an additional $12 billion starting in October, all of which will be directed to various projects, and none of which include rebuilding Coptic institutions in the country.
Exploiting the suffering of Copts and ignoring their needs is part of the regime’s many violations over the last year. It also represents the continuation of historical discrimination against this minority group and the state’s on-going reluctance to protect the human rights of Copts in Egypt.