On April 9, which was Palm Sunday and the start of the Holy Week, two Egyptian Coptic churches became a target for terrorists. At least 27 people were killed in the explosion at St. George’s Coptic church in Tanta and 17 people lost their lives in St Mark’s Coptic church in Alexandria. Over a hundred people were injured in both attacks. A few hours after the attacks, Daesh claimed responsibility for the unleashed terror. The attacks in Egypt add to the legacy of international terror that is at an increase in the recent months. It also adds to the legacy of the terrorist attacks specifically targeting Christian communities.
Such acts and persecution of Christians, in general, is not a news story. Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. Research published in August 2011 by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that Christians were harassed in 130 countries (between mid-2006 and mid-2009). In 104 countries, the harassment was conducted by governments and organisations, and in 100 countries, by social groups and individuals. The harassment of Christians was the highest in the Middle East and North Africa (90 percent of countries). However, Christians were also harassed in more than two-thirds of European countries (69 percent), 37 percent of American countries, 71 percent of Asian countries and 68 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa. The situation has not improved over the recent years. To the contrary, over the years, a number of other research centres and international institutions have confirmed this conclusion.
Men mourn over the coffin of one of the victims of the blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark's church in Alexandria. (Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
Attacks on Christians during their religious celebrations are also not a novelty. Christmas and Easter, the two most important Christian celebrations that attract large numbers of Christians to churches and other places of worship, become the primary targets. Churches and places of Christian worship become the primary target during those celebrations as it is clear that an attack during these celebrations will result in a large number of causalities. Some of the recent attacks utilising this tactic include the Lahore Easter attack and the Mindanao Christmas attack. During Easter Sunday on March 27, 2016, at least 75 people were killed in Lahore, Pakistan when a suicide bomber blew himself in a park during the Christian celebration. At least 16 people were wounded in a grenade explosion outside of a Catholic church in Mindanao, Philippines. The list goes on.
And the list goes on because the persecution of Christians is not being taken seriously or seriously enough. This is because Christianity is perceived as the majority religion and hence it is difficult to see Christians as victims. Christianity is indeed a majority religion in Western countries. However, Christians constitute a minority group in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East, places where Christianity is on a verge of disappearance.
The response to the persecution of Christians (including terror attacks) is predominately reactive and not preventive. The steps undertaken respond to the single attack, rather than learning from the reoccurring incidents of violence to prevent further attacks. This is also the approach taken in Egypt. In response to the Palm Sunday attacks, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi introduced a state of emergency for the next three months and deployed the military to secure the infrastructure. The government announced three days of mourning. The government will also establish a new body to counter extremism and terrorism. The response of the Egyptian government is a positive one. However, it may be too little too late.
Mourners carry a large cross and the coffin of one of the victims of the blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark's church in Alexandria. (Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
The Palm Sunday attacks were not the first time that Christians, especially Coptic Christians, were targeted in Egypt. This persecution of Christians and attacks on Christians were extremely high in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood led a campaign to annihilate Christianity from Egypt. The ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood was meant to help Christian minorities in Egypt. However, the change of the government was not enough to help the Christian minorities.
The 2017 report of Open Doors, ‘World Watch List 2017’ indicates that the level of persecution of Christians in Egypt is ‘very high’ and has been high for many years. The main source of the persecution, as indicated in the World Watch List, is Islamic extremism. Before the Palm Sunday attack, the most recent attack of comparable force occurred on December 11, 2016. An explosion outside of St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Abbassi reportedly killed at least 25 people and over 50 people were injured. In February 2017, Daesh called upon its supporters to target Coptic churches in Egypt. While Daesh claimed responsibility for the Palm Sunday attacks, the connection between the perpetrators and Daesh is yet to be confirmed.
Mourners pray next to coffins of victims of the blast at the Coptic Christian Saint Mark's church in Alexandria. (Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
The Palm Sunday attacks are one of the biggest attacks of such force in the last decade and will lead to more civil unrests in Egypt. The response of the Egyptian government is a positive response to the attacks themselves. However, it is not an adequate response to the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt. The response to the Palm Sunday attack must be one that recognises a recurrence of similar attacks specifically targeting Christians in Egypt. The response must include tackling the problem of Daesh establishing its more and more prominent presence in Egypt and in the region generally. This is crucial because towards the end of 2016, Daesh had been losing its territories in Syria and Iraq, whereas reports of Daesh taking over new regions in North Africa and West Asia continue to circulate. As Daesh is making its way through North Africa and West Asia, Christian communities in the region continue to face grave risks.
The needed response must also address other forms of discrimination and persecution of Christians in Egypt. Daesh is not the only group targeting Christians in Egypt. This issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency. During this Holy Week and beyond.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.”
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