Egyptian Copts Under Attack: The Frailty of a National Unity Discourse

By Bård Helge Kårtveit | Postdoctoral Fellow - University of Oslo | Jul 13, 2017
Egyptian Copts Under Attack: The Frailty of a National Unity Discourse
Coptic Pope Tawadros II / Pres. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi 1/6/15

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


 

On May 26, 2017, 30 Egyptian Coptic Christians were killed on a bus headed for St. Samuel’s Monastery near Minya.[1] This attack followed the Palm Sunday bombing of two Coptic Churches in Tanta and Alexandria. In less than six months, more than 110 Copts have been killed in attacks committed by Islamic State (ISIS). After being targeted in their churches, in their homes, in marked places, and on buses, Egyptian Copts have fled North Sinai, and feel unsafe in other parts of the country. Their faith in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is eroding, and more significantly, they are losing patience with the way Christian-Muslim relations are talked about by church leaders, by the government, and in the Egyptian press.

Sisi the Savior

Four years ago, things looked rather different. After ousting former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013, then Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was widely viewed as a national savior, especially among the nation’s Copts.

“He saved us from becoming Syria!” was a phrase repeated among Copts who supported his rise as Egypt’s new strongman. Backed by the Egyptian army, the entire political establishment, the national press, el-Azhar and the Coptic Church, Sisi was elected President in May 2014 with 97 percent of the vote.[2] After three turbulent years following the fall of Mubarak, Egyptian Copts were hoping for a new beginning under Sisi. Along with economic improvements and stability, they were hoping for an end to religious discrimination, for equal treatment within the Egyptian legal system, and for protection from sectarian violence. In each of these areas, they have been sorely disappointed.

A Discourse of Unity

Within a discourse of unity, Egyptian Copts are described as ‘an integral part of the Egyptian nation.’

The Copts, who constitute roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population, trace their history to the Pharaonic era.[3] Nonetheless, their place in today’s Egypt and within a modern nationalist project remains precarious.[4] Since the 1970s, Egypt has seen the growth of Islamist movements, a process of insulation among Copts, and growing sectarian tensions breaking into spasms of violence against Coptic communities. At the same time, their position in Egyptian society has been framed within a discourse of national unity.[5] Violent attacks against Copts are widely condemned, with religious leaders and government officials stressing that “we are all Egyptians.” Within a discourse of unity, Egyptian Copts are described as ‘an integral part of the Egyptian nation,’[6] united with their Muslim neighbors on the basis of a shared history and cultural heritage. The contributions of individual Copts to Egyptian history, along with proud moments of Christian-Muslim cooperation are highlighted, while examples of religious discrimination are played down and incidents of sectarian violence against Copts are reframed to represent a general problem of lawlessness or social unrest, rather than a set of distinct hardships affecting Egypt’s Christians in particular.[7]

In general, Coptic Church leaders, political figures, and intellectuals have adopted or played along with this discourse, and refrained from describing incidents of sectarian violence as illustrative of broader anti-Christian sentiments in Egyptian society.[8] A few dissenting voices have diverged from this tendency, describing their own situation as one of discrimination, persecution and everyday harassment. For the most part, however, prominent Copts have shied away from invoking a persecution discourse, fearing that this will only inflame divisions in a volatile political climate.[9] Today, many Copts are growing impatient with this line of thinking. They perceive a connection between a discourse that glosses over the injustices facing their own communities, and the authority’s failure to protect their communities against sectarian violence and other forms of abuse. They see this reflected in the government’s regulation of church construction, its handling of local conflicts between Copts and Muslims, and it’s handling of terrorist attacks against their own communities.  

Restrictions on Church Construction

In 2016, the new Church Law was introduced, replacing Ottoman-era regulations that had made it near impossible to get permission to build new churches. Referring authority to grant church permits to provincial governors, it will now be easier to legally build churches in some provinces, and utterly impossible in others, where local resistance will be strong. Egyptian Copts are divided in their view of the new Church Law, some seeing it as an improvement on earlier regulations, while others regard it as a capitulation to Islamist hardliners that will make it impossible even to repair old churches in some parts of the country. The government defended the new law with reference to local governance, arguing that this would allow provincial governors to make decisions in accordance with local needs. In emphasizing the virtue of local governance, they divert attention from sectarian hostilities that will no doubt stop the issuing of church permits in some parts of the country. To many Copts, the new Church Law was a bitter disappointment. However, an issue of far greater concern is the government’s handling of conflicts in which Muslims and Christians are pitted against each other. 

The Use of Customary Reconciliation

Due to widespread social tensions between Christians and Islamist hardliners, especially in Upper Egypt, small conflicts involving people of different faiths have a tendency to escalate: a small-scale business dispute; an argument over a parking-lot; a rumor that a private building is being used as a church in secret, and most seriously; suspicions of a romantic affair between a man and a woman of different faith. All such situations can trigger violent confrontations, often ending up with one or more persons — usually Copts — getting killed. 

In cases involving the use of customary reconciliation, Muslim perpetrators, almost without exception, are exculpated ...

As a general rule, Egyptian authorities refuse to refer such disputes to the court system, instead pressuring the parties to work out their differences through ‘customary reconciliation.’ In cases involving the use of customary reconciliation, Muslim perpetrators, almost without exception, are exculpated, while the Copts end up on the losing end, often forcibly evicted from their land as a way of “resolving” a conflict.[10] In many cases, entire family clans are evicted from their villages without compensation for the loss of land. In a well-known case from the village of Beni Suef, a Coptic family clan was forcibly evicted from their home village, losing their land and other material assets in the process. A teenage member of their family had posted anti-Islamic slogans on his Facebook wall, provoking other families in the village.[11]

This policy leaves Copts without any meaningful recourse within the Egyptian legal system, places them at risk of losing their properties without compensation, and creates impunity for any crimes committed against them. This policy is a leftover from the Hosni Mubarak era (1981-2011) — a policy that Copts had hoped would be eliminated. Instead, customary reconciliation is used more frequently and to deal with ever more serious crimes, allowing violent criminals to act with impunity. Critics see this as another area in which Egyptian authorities have sought to appease religious hardliners, rather than defend the rights of Egyptian Copts. The authorities, however, have defended this policy as a show of respect for cultural traditions that are part of an Egyptian heritage shared by Copts and Muslims alike, skewing the fact that customary reconciliation rulings invariably favor the Muslim part. 

Bishop Anba Makarios of El-Minya province has opposed the use of reconciliation sessions, and publicly condemned the government for forcing them through.[12] For the most part, however, the Coptic Orthodox Church has remained silent on this issue, as well as on other issues of concern to Egyptian Copts, reflecting the Church’s loyalty to Sisi, as well as its commitment to a discourse of unity.

Increasing Sectarian Violence

Faced with a disappointing Church Law, and the government’s reluctance to respond vigorously to local violence against Copts, people are losing faith in the President, and in the decision of church leaders to keep supporting him.  

Occasionally, these frustrations are brought to the surface. In September 2016, Pope Tawadros II joined the President on his trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York. On September 19, 2016, a list of prominent Copts in Egypt issued a joint statement criticizing Pope Tawadros II for his public praise of President Sisi throughout their trip. The statement warned that the Church’s support of the Egyptian state would harm Coptic communities in Upper Egypt, which suffer from sectarian violence and discrimination. One of the signatories, researcher Ishaq Ibrahim, argued that, “The Coptic Church’s support of Sisi will result in negative outcomes for Copts.” and that “Islamists will have the chance to target Copts and say that they support the regime.”[13]

The bombing of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Cairo prompted accusations by Copts of inadequate protection by state security forces.

The protesters’ point was that public support for President Sisi leaves Copts more vulnerable to attacks from extremist forces, without providing them with adequate protection from those same forces. The words of the protesters soon proved almost prophetic, as two months later, ISIS Egypt initiated a targeted campaign against Copt with the bombing of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Cairo.[14] This attack fueled widespread Coptic anger towards the government. The church bombing prompted accusations of inadequate protection by state security forces, who had allowed 12 kilograms of explosives to be smuggled into the Cathedral Compound, also the site of the Pope’s headquarter.[15] Swift efforts to hunt down and arrest the alleged men behind the attack did little to stem Coptic resentment.[16]

Since then, Egyptian Copts have been the targets of a wave of killings in the town of Arish, triggering a mass flight of Copts from North Sinai to other parts of Egypt.[17] In a video released in February 2017, a group referring to themselves as ‘ISIS Egypt’ claimed responsibility for the  Cairo Church attack in December and threatened to kill more Christians throughout Egypt, whom they refer to as “infidels” who “empower the West against Muslims.”[18]

Since then, the government has received harsh criticism for its failure to protect North Sinai Christians, and for its pitiful efforts in providing shelter elsewhere. While they claimed to have regained full control of North Sinai in April 2017, local Copts have placed little trust in government assurances that they can safely return home.

The Christian exodus from North Sinai was later followed by ISIS attacks against St. George’s Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria on Palm Sunday,[19] and the attack on a bus south of Minya in late May.[20] These attacks have demonstrated the government’s inability to stem the threat of ISIS on mainland Egypt as well as on the Sinai Peninsula.

Growing Discontent

Coptic discontent with the government is expressed in different ways. When visiting Alexandria a few weeks after the attack, Copts openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government. Standing outside St. Mark’s in April, a local Copt pointed to three heavily armed security guards at the gate, stating: “They always do this. Ramp up the security when something terrible has happened. When it’s too late. In a few weeks, they’ll downgrade the security again.”[21] Now, more than in the past, prominent Copts — whether civil society activists, scholars, or even clergymen — are willing to openly criticize the government. Furthermore, both lay Copts and public figures are growing more reluctant to accommodate a discourse of national unity, and to play along with public rituals of unity in the wake of sectarian attacks. Dana, a Coptic girl in her mid-20s, who works as a volunteer at St. Mark’s Cathedral put it this way: “Every time there is another attack with Copts getting killed, they get a priest and a Muslim sheikh together. They say “We are all Egyptians, we are all brothers and sisters. We are all suffering from terrorism” We are so sick of this! If we are all suffering, why is it always Copts who are getting killed?”[22]

As head of the Church, Pope Tawadros II dutifully takes part in these ritual displays of unity, sometimes accompanied by a senior cleric from Azhar, and other times alongside the President himself. At the local level, however, lay Copts as well as clerics are less enthusiastic about taking part in this public theater. In Alexandria and elsewhere, local priests have politely turned down requests to show up for public announcements of unity side by side with Muslim clerics.

These developments should not be read as a rejection of unity as an aspiration. Egyptian Copts very much crave the kind of unity that these gatherings are meant to invoke. To some extent, their future in Egypt depends on it. However, they no longer want to take part in empty rituals organized by state authorities, while the gravity of the problems they face are neither recognized nor dealt with. As pointed out by H.A. Hellyer, these attacks against Christians do not take place in a vacuum. While conducted by ISIS, they take place in a climate of pro-Islamist sectarianism, in a society where anti-Christian hostilities are neither marginal nor alien.[23] Until these sentiments are recognized, Egyptian authorities will remain ill-equipped to address Coptic grievances and experiences of vulnerability in any meaningful way. While not without its risk, many Copts want an honest conversation about Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. In the long run, this may be more sustainable than a public performance of unity in the wake of every new sectarian attack.




[1] Heba Farouk Mahfouz, “Coptic Christians describe the bus attack in Egypt: Even the little children were targets’ Washington Post, June 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/06/01/coptic-christians-describe-bus-attack-in-egypt-even-the-little-children-were-targets/?utm_term=.ae898a1a9fdb accessed June 7, 2017.

[2] Yasmine Selah and Stephen Kalin, “Sisi Won 96.91 Percent in Egypt’s Presidential Vote-Commission,” Reuters, June 3, 2014, accessed June 7, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-election-results-idUSKBN0EE1UO20....

[3] Jill Kamil, Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church (London and New York: Routledge, 2002) 2.

[4] Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age. A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) 1.

[5] Paul Sedra, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 10:2 (1999): 221-222.

[6] Charles D. Smith, “The Egyptian Copts: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Definition of Identity for a Religious Minority,” in Maya Shatzmiller, ed., Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005) 64.

[7] While several other church communities can be found in the country,  more than 95 percent of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

[8] Sedra, “Class Cleavages,” 228.

[9] Ibid. 223.

[10] “‘Whose Customs? The Role of Customary Reconciliation in Sectarian Disputes and State Responsibility’. Four years, four presidents, and 45 unjust customary reconciliations that violate the rights of Coptic citizens,” Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) press release, June 10, 2015, accessed June 7, 2017, https://eipr.org/en/press/2015/06/%E2%80%9Cwhose-customs-role-customary-reconciliation-sectarian-disputes-and-state.

[11] Al-Masry Al-Youn, “Church approves eviction of Coptic family following blasphemy feud,” Egypt Independent, June 4, 2015, accessed June 7, 2017, http://www.egyptindependent.com/church-approves-eviction-coptic-family-f....

[12] Johannes Makar, “How Egypts Copts fell out of love with President Sisi,” Foreign Policy, December 9, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/09/how-egypts-copts-fell-out-of-love-with-president-sisi/.

[13] “Coptic activists criticize church’s support of Sisi’s New York visit,” Mada Masr, September 19, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/09/19/news/u/coptic-activists-criticize-churchs-support-of-sisis-new-york-visit/.

[14] Susan Raghavan and Heba Mahfouz, “Blast at Egyptian Coptic cathedral kills at least 25,” Washington Post, December 11, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/explosion-at-cairo-church-kills-at-least-20-injures-35-officials-say/2016/12/11/fa01d7c2-7f2e-4a94-8612-fd6d5c7f4901_story.html?utm_term=.35fcd2bf60bb.

[15] “Outrage over security as Cairo church attack toll rises,” The New Arab, December 11, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/12/11/outrage-over-security-...

[16] Ruth Michaelson, “Cairo bombing: Sisi names suicide bomber as Coptic Christians Protest,” The Guardian, October 12, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/12/coptic-christians-criticise-security-failures-after-cairo-bombing.

[17] Heba Afify, “North Sinai Copts face death or displacement in absence of security and tribal protection,” Mada Mars, February 19, 2017, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.madamasr.com/en/2017/02/19/feature/politics/north-sinai-copt....

[18] See Ali Abdelaty, “Islamic State posts video of man it says was Egypt church bomber,” Reuters, February 19, 2017, accessed June 7, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-security-church-idUSKBN15Y0S7.

[19] Magdy Samaan and Declan Walsh, “Egypt Declares State of Emergency, as Attacks Undercut Promise of Security,” New York Times, April 9, 2017, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/09/world/middleeast/explosion-egypt-copt....

[20] Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef, “Gunmen in Egypt Force Coptic Christian Pilgrims From Buses and Kill 28,” New York Times, May 26, 2017, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/world/middleeast/egypt-coptic-christi....

[21] Interview, April 20, 2017.

[22] Interview, April 21, 2017.

[23] H.A. Hellyer, “Why do Coptic Christians keep getting attacked?” The Atlantic, May 26, 2017, accessed June 7, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/coptic-christians-egypt-attack/528330/.