Copts of Egypt: from survivors of sectarian violence to targets of terrorism

Funeral of victims of Tanta city church bombing. PA Images. All Rights Reserved.

It is customary for Copts – Egypt’s roughly 9 million strong Christian population – to celebrate Palm Sunday at church, waving palm fronds and singing joyful chants that go back to ancient times to commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, days before his crucifixion. They did not expect the service to be interrupted by bodies being ripped apart.

On 9 April 2017, in the second largest church in the city of Tanta, a suicide bomber approached the alter and blew himself up. At least 29 people were killed and 71 injured, some gravely. Three hours later, a suicide bomber tried to enter St Mark’s Church in Alexandria where Pope Tawadros, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was presiding over a service. The man was stopped by police, and detonated his bomb outside. At least 18 people died, with 35 wounded.

The Copts comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt's population and are enraged over the state’s failure to ensure churches are safe places for worship. The recent attacks also recall another inside a church in Cairo on 11 December 2016, which killed 26 people, mostly women, and injured 49.

These are not the first church bombings targeting Copts in Egypt: on 1 December 2011, a bomb was planted in the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria where many congregate to mark the New Year in prayer. It killed more than 20 people and injured more than 70. But the bombings in Cairo, Tanta and Alexandria are different from previous attacks in significant ways – and they were each preceded by threats from ISIS.

In 2015, ISIS beheaded 21 Copts in Libya and warned that it would target the “crusaders” – Christians – and the Coptic Church. It then struck in December 2016 in Cairo; ISIS claimed responsibility for this bombing and vowed to “continue war against the apostates.” In February 2017, ISIS murdered seven Christians in Sinai and described Copts as its favourite “prey,” calling for further killings. Then, the Palm Sunday bombings occurred. (Again, ISIS claimed responsibility).

Headlines report on April bombings. PA/Richard B Levine. All Rights Reserved.

Details of the attacks over the last year also suggest careful orchestration. They share similar tactics: the use of explosive belts by prepared suicide bombers. And they were each timed to occur when churches were packed with worshippers – to maximise civilian suffering and break morale.

The Copts have long endured ebbs and flows of persecution and integration and are a strong, resilient and fairly cohesive community. Over the past four decades, the rise of political movements with aspirations of instating an Islamic State, governed by their interpretations of Sharia, has posed the greatest threat to their equal citizenship – and have threatened social cohesion more broadly.

Under Mubarak, state security services were complicit in failing to prevent assaults on the Copts – intervening too late when sectarian assaults occurred and enforcing informal “reconciliation meetings” which denied Coptic victims of assault access to justice in courts.

Assaults on Copts increased markedly after the 2011 revolution. The political rise of Islamists, and a general state of lawlessness, has increased Copts’ vulnerability. Petty everyday disputes assumed a sectarian character. There were mobilisations against the construction and repair of churches, or for the closure of existing ones. New kinds of targeting emerged such as the kidnapping of Copts in return for ransom and the imposition by criminal groups and individuals of “special levies” on Copt businesses.

In June 2013, Copts received public and private warnings that they would incur the wrath of Islamists should they dare protest against Muslim Brotherhood affiliated President Morsi’s regime – but they joined demonstrations regardless, and paid a heavy price for doing so. In August 2013, pro-Morsi factions looted and torched dozens of Christian places of worship, assaulting Copts and their property.

Again the December 2016 and April 2017 bombings of churches mark a new shift in the religious targeting of Copts that is qualitatively different. The actors, ways of striking and intended outcomes of attacks have all expanded. ISIS has vowed to pursue a campaign of annihilating the Copts and with every bloody terrorist attack they believe they are progressing towards that goal.

We are no longer dealing with local Salafi groups obstructing Copts from praying in a local church or fanatical mobs burning Christian homes and property or even a state that resorts to divide and rule policies to detract attention from its governance failures. ISIS is not a national entity – it is a global actor, well-networked and resourced with a wide array of splinter cells across borders.

The attacks by Islamists in Egypt over the past half century were undertaken by individuals and groups who wanted to either contain the Copts or put them in their place – subservient to Muslims. Those involved rarely went so far as to put their own lives at risk. The recent suicide bombings are different: these attackers will do anything to inflict as much harm as possible.

Previous incidents of sectarian violence – with the exception of the pro-Morsi assault on Copts, their property and places of worship in August 2013 – have been largely local acts. ISIS strategy in targeting Copts is on a much grander scale. Copts have moved from being survivors of erratic incidents of local sectarian violence to targets of a global terrorist network.

The targeting of the Copts by ISIS should be seen as part of a broader geostrategic plan to eliminate religious pluralism – and the Christian element of it – in the region. International human rights organizations should recognize that what the Copts are facing are acts of terrorism not just “sectarian violence.” This is a significant distinction, which has been overlooked by some.

In response to the bombings this week, Amnesty International issued a press release proposing “Addressing sectarian violence requires genuine political will to end impunity and provide protection.” The latter is an appropriate measure for addressing every day forms of sec