Recent bombings mark a new era in the religious targeting of Copts – one which is qualitatively different from previous patterns of sectarian violence.
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).
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 sectarian violence against Copts, but the idea of impunity to a suicide bomber who has torn himself to pieces is redundant.
It is to be expected that ISIS will strike again, targeting Copts not only in Egypt but also in neighbouring countries (as they did in Libya) and in the diaspora in Europe, the US and Australia. It is not so much that the situation is that “Egypt’s security situation has rapidly deteriorated” but that threats are now of a scale and intensity that is dramatically greater than at any other time before.
Three police officers heroically gave their lives blocking the suicide bomber from entering the church in Alexandria this month, but there were – and continues to be – major flaws in the security system’s protection of churches. The security service needs to be held accountable for its performance. But if future targeting of Copts are to be mitigated, international cooperation is also needed.
We further owe it to those who have been killed, injured, and lost loved ones to stand together against the politics of omission.
Prominent commentator Fahmy Howeidy has asserted: “I am against the idea that the targeting of churches – as awful as it is – amounts to a targeting of Copts and their persecution.” His rationale is that ISIS do not generally target society but focus on those in authority. The evidence Howeidy offers is that “we have never heard of terrorist operations targeting coffee shops or residential areas or shops or malls.”
The reason why ISIS did not strike at the public venues mentioned by Howeidy is that they are likely to be populated by Muslims and Christians alike, unlike the churches. Howeidy’s narrative feeds the politics of denial by implicitly negating that Copts are part of Egyptian society.
When Howeidy claims that ISIS assaults are ultimately politically-motivated – not religiously-driven – acts, he is contributing to the politics of omission by denying that this violence is tied to ISIS viewing Copts as infidels and idolaters. It is bad enough to experience terrorism, it is worse when you are denied the recognition that the only reason you are a target is because you happen to be, in the eyes of the perpetrators, following the wrong religion.