Egypt’s Copts keep the faith in the fight against Isis
The black-clad Isis militants who massacred 29 Egyptian Christians travelling to a desert monastery in May, sprayed their bus with machine gun fire before boarding it to finish off any male passengers still alive.
Mariam Adel, an injured young mother whose husband was killed along with nine other close relatives, described how the jihadis ordered the women on the bus to convert to Islam by pronouncing the shahada, or Islamic creed. When they refused, the attackers demanded the “spoils” of war and robbed them of their gold jewellery and mobile phones.
“Renounce our faith? Of course not,” Ms Adel told a television interviewer from her hospital bed. “If we had, they might have let us off the bus and treated us well. But we only want Jesus and we are confident he will not leave us.”
In their 20 centuries of history since Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt, Coptic Christians have endured intermittent waves of persecution at the hands of Roman and Muslim rulers. But in modern times, there has been nothing like the scale of the threat posed by Isis, which declared the community in February to be its “primary target and favourite prey”.
The group also called on supporters to kill Copts wherever they found them, sending ripples of fear through the minority, which accounts for about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 93m people. The new danger comes on top of longstanding complaints of discrimination and the spread of intolerance and hate speech that successive Egyptian governments have failed to confront, leading to faultlines that Isis now seeks to exploit.
The bus ambush in the southern province of Minya was the latest episode in a bloody campaign claimed by Isis against Egypt’s Christians that has left more than 100 people dead since December. There were two attacks on packed churches in different cities on Palm Sunday in April, while a spate of assassinations of Copts in Arish, a port in the northern Sinai, spurred an exodus of Christian families from the city.
Christians in other places in the Middle East such as Syria, Iraq and Libya have also come under attack from the likes of Isis and al-Qaeda.
Emad Gad, a Christian member of the Egyptian parliament from a pro-government alliance, warns there is “a strong possibility” the attacks will continue. “Security measures [may help] but the community is anxious and feels there is nothing it can do to protect itself,” he says.
Egypt’s Christians are not just victims of the jihadis. They are also a casualty of the polarisation in the aftermath of a popularly backed military coup in 2013 that toppled Mohamed Morsi, the elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Fearful that entrenched discrimination against them would worsen under Islamist rule, the Copts were among the swath of Egyptians who cheered the removal of Mr Morsi and his replacement with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president and former defence minister.
Mr Sisi has presided over a fierce crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, including killing more than 1,000 of its supporters according to rights groups and imprisoning leaders and several thousand members. But as the Islamist group has lashed out against his regime on social media and on channels broadcasting from abroad, their commentators have portrayed the coup as a Christian plot and accused Mr Sisi of implementing a Coptic agenda.
“They have systematically incited against Christians and blamed them entirely for the coup and for the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Mokhtar Awad, research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “Isis has arrived at a point when there is sufficient hatred against Christians that it can try to translate it into action.”
The jihadis’ ultimate aim, Mr Awad says, goes beyond terrorising a religious minority. Instead as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq, Isis has set its sights on Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, where it wants to gain support by achieving “short-term wins”.
Egypt, which has a Sunni Muslim majority, does not have the Sunni/Shia divide that Isis has been able to exploit in Iraq and beyond, so the group wants to “weaponise sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims”, he says. “Isis believes that if it can cause a breakdown in the social fabric, that would allow its message to spread and to destabilise the country overall.”
In Egypt, Isis has operated through a jihadi affiliate based in the northeastern corner of Sinai adjacent to Gaza and Israel. The group is an evolution of a faction made up mainly of Sinai radicals who swore allegiance to Isis in 2014 and changed its name from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis to Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province.
They have killed more than 1,000 soldiers and policemen, mostly in the peninsula, including more than 20 soldiers in an attack on checkpoints south of the border town of Rafah last week. Little is known about the jihadi cells in mainland Egypt that carried out the attacks against the Christians. But Mr Awad notes that they seem to be better trained than the perpetrators of earlier Isis operations outside Sinai.
But even before the arrival of Isis, religious tensions in Egypt were never too far from the surface. There have been periodic outbreaks of violence in villages for decades, often triggered by suspicions that Christians were building a church or using a private dwelling for communal prayers. Occasionally the spark has been a love affair across the religious divide.
Copts have long complained of widespread discrimination and of official procedures that make it extremely difficult to legally build churches. Another sore point is the reliance by authorities on informal negotiations rather than the law to resolve religious conflicts so as not to risk the wrath of local Muslim populations. This means that aggression against Christians often goes unpunished.
Sometimes settlements imposed by powerful local families and religious leaders have required the expulsion of Coptic families from villages. A recent trend in some communities is to strike a deal that allows the construction of a church but with no crosses or other symbols on the building to identify it as a house of Christian worship.
Many Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, have been angered by hate speech on social media in the wake of the Isis attacks. Yet Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious affairs at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says he fears there is a receptive audience for the jihadi message against Christians. He argues that it is the result of the failure of the state to intervene to protect the legal rights of Copts.
“I don’t view Isis as just an organisation,” he says. “You could have people who have no contact with the group but share its sectarian views. In conservative environments where discrimination is accepted, there could emerge groups or individuals who carry out Isis-style attacks against Christians.”
Tensions in the village of Kom el-Loufi in Minya illustrate the practices that worry many Egyptians. Although there are no official figures, some 16,000 people live there including about 1,500 Copts, according to locals.
When Ibrahim Khalaf, a Coptic tailor and owner of a laundry business, and his three brothers started renovating their houses last summer to replace leaky wooden roofs with concrete, Muslim villagers suspected them of trying to convert their dwellings into a church. Despite the Khalafs’ insistence that there was no such plan, a mob arrived one night and set fire to the family’s homes.
Mr Khalaf and his brothers have refused pressures from neighbours and officials to reconcile with their attackers and withdraw their accusations made to the authorities. Around 20 of the aggressors were arrested, then released to return to the village, where they were greeted with celebrations, says Mr Khalaf. They are awaiting trial.
Police have remained in the village to protect the family and prevent further violence. But Mr Khalaf says he does not feel safe enough to work in the area and his two young daughters could not attend school because of hostility from other school children.
“I have to work outside the village. It is not safe to go alone to the fields,” he says. “The police hear the insults hurled at us but they do nothing.”
Three days before Easter, Christian residents of Kom el-Loufi obtained permission from the security services to invite a priest to lead prayers in a private home. Despite the presence of police, furious Muslim villagers pelted the worshippers with stones as they left causing several injuries. Prayers scheduled for Good Friday were cancelled.
Mr Khalaf says the village has a partially-built church that Christians tried to erect some years ago without official permission, but it has been shut down after locals attacked it. The authorities refuse to allow it to open.
“The solution is to open the church,” he says. “It is not possible that every time a Christian tries to build his house he gets accused of constructing a church.”
Minya, a poor province where Christians form up to a quarter of the population, has been the scene of repeated attacks. Last year, EIPR said it had documented 77 religious incidents since 2011. It called on the authorities to end the use of reconciliations that “create a conviction among some citizens that they own the right to decide if other citizens can practice their religion”.
Gamal al-Hilali is the Minya head of Construction and Development, an Islamist political party that emerged from the Islamic Group — a former militant organisation that renounced violence in 1997 after years of targeting police and Christians.
He told the Financial Times there should be no problem building churches if “there was a real need” for them. Muslims in villages, he argues, had the perception that Christians “enjoyed more rights” and that whereas “representatives of the Islamic [faith] were a target of repression by the state, this did not happen to Christians”.
Mr Sisi, the president, has called on Muslim clerics to forge a new religious discourse to combat extremism. He has delighted Christians by visiting Cairo Cathedral three years in a row during Christmas mass. But activists say the state has not shown the political will to tackle ingrained sectarianism and that serious steps are needed to punish discrimination and apply the law.
Mounir Megahed, the head of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, a civil society group, says the authorities have yet to signal that they are serious about addressing Christian grievances.
“We need reforms to education and the media,” he says. “Job appointments should depend only on merit, and religious discrimination should be vigorously confronted. The constitution calls for the establishment of an anti-discrimination watchdog. This should have happened last year, but there is still no sign of it.”
For Mr Khalaf, the demands are clear. “I want to have the same rights as anyone else in my village,” he says. “This is my country as much as it is theirs.”
Tortured history: Copts isolated by unwritten rules
The Copts of Egypt are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, estimated to number between 9m and 10m or a tenth of Egypt’s population — the state does not publish an official figure.
The Coptic Orthodox church, one of the oldest in the world, traces its history back to the middle of the first century, when Saint Mark is believed to have first arrived in Alexandria. By the fourth century, Christians are said to have constituted the majority of Egyptians. They spoke Coptic, which is rooted in languages spoken by the ancient Egyptians. Coptic flourished until the 13th century but was gradually supplanted by Arabic. It survives today only as a liturgical language.
The Coptic tradition developed monasticism, which is thought to have been born in Egypt in the third century after Christians began going into the desert to worship and live in seclusion. Some of them were escaping persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in what became known in the Coptic church as the “era of the martyrs”.
Egypt gradually became Islamised and Arabised after the Muslim conquest in 640AD. Under the new rulers, the Copts had to pay a special tax called the jizya in return for protection because they did not serve in the army. There were also periodic bouts of persecution under various rulers including the Fatimid al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in the late 10th century.
Over the centuries many Copts have converted to Islam, but the community has survived as a large ethno-religious minority. The nationalist movement in the 20th century included Christian political leaders. Egyptian cabinets usually include two or three Coptic ministers, but the community still complains of discrimination, with many senior positions barred to its members by unwritten rules.