By Coptic Solidarity
Egypt’s indigenous Christians, the Copts, are under attack in a myriad of ways—from institutional and daily systematic discrimination to sporadic terrorization. While spectacular aspects of the latter, such as church bombings that cause large casualties, receive media attention, the slow motion bleeding of the Copts via unspectacular, even mundane ways receives virtually no media attention or condemnation. In reality, this entrenched system of discrimination is no less heinous in breaking Copts down into a state of submission, hopelessness, and marginalization, and helps explain the dramatic rise of Coptic immigrants to the West. Yet migrating—and losing their possessions, positions, friends and family—is no great solution; it further robs Egypt of its diversity and the cultural and social contributions of the country’s largest minority.
Coptic Solidarity’s mission is to lead active efforts to achieve equal citizenship for the Copts in Egypt. To this end, Coptic Solidarity provides a brief history below of the rise in persecution of Copts resulting in hundreds of modern Coptic Martyrs. Coptic Solidarity is building a Chronology of attacks against Copts. Moreover, a list of concrete policy recommendations on how best to deal with the Egyptian government appears at the end of this report. If followed, the Copts’ situation stands to improve.
Rise of Islamism in Egypt – Background
The modern wave of violence against the Copts is not a byproduct of the modern day phenomenon of Islamic terrorism; rather, it started over four decades ago. Attacks on Copts—their persons, property and their churches—began with the Islamization process under President Anwar Sadat, curiously a Noble Peace laureate, who nonetheless allied with and unleashed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. He then initiated what, in hindsight, is best termed “the Islamic Transformation” of Egypt—long before Iran’s Khomeini embarked on his Islamic revolution. Sadat’s new Constitution stipulated that the principles of Shari’a (“Islamic Law”) were “the main source” of legislation, thereby making Shari’a the primary source of reference for the entire constitution; all other articles were to be interpreted according to it. Moreover, Sadat did not hesitate to call himself a “Muslim president of a Muslim nation.” intentionally excluding the rest of the, mostly Coptic Christian, Egyptian minorities. Finally, he opened the door for Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi Islamic extremist ideology, allowing Salafists to plant roots.
It was at this time that state-sponsored media started broadcasting hate speech by Muslim sheiks attacking and denigrating Christians and their beliefs while declaring their monopoly on what they believed constitutes the “True Faith.” (As an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood ideology, Al-Qaeda was eventually established, mostly by Brotherhood members, such as its current leader, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri).
Decades-long efforts to modernize and secularize Egypt, to emancipate women and Copts and plant roots of democracy, came to a halt, and society began going back in time.
The “Islamic agenda” remained intact under President Mubarak (1981-2010). Following on the heels of the Brotherhood, the now-entrenched Salafists also expanded, with their competing extremist ideology that breeds hatred of the “other,” and justifies violence, making it a religious duty even against moderate Muslims, not just against people of other faiths. All this took place under the watchful eyes of the regime, which would cynically present itself to the outside world as the only alternative capable of taming and confronting the Islamist ideology and terrorism (that it otherwise nurtures behind the scenes).
Needless to say, the prevalence of extremist Islamist teachings in Egypt resulted in a drastic decline in education, and in the culture as a whole. Such intolerant ideologies also dominate the Islamic institution of al-Azhar and are imbedded in the educational curricula of general schools and universities. As a result, a culture of hate and bigotry was created that now thoroughly pervades the Egyptian society.
This brief history supports our conviction that the hate-driven persecution of the Copts is an endogenous homegrown phenomenon, which antedated the current wave of worldwide Islamic terrorism. Indeed, the latter is a byproduct and reflection of just how widespread hate-filled ideologies have become throughout the Muslim world.
Modern Coptic Martyrs
Violent attacks against Copts rose in direct proportion to the spread of extremist culture in Egypt that began with Sadat and continued under Mubarak. One of the most violent church bombings occurred on January 1, 2011 at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria resulting in the murder of 21 Copts and injury of over 70. (It’s worth highlighting that, until now, this particular attack remains shrouded in mystery as the authorities evade all demands to investigate it, leading many people to suspect that one of Egypt’s multiple, and competing, security apparatuses might have been the real culprit.).
Coptic Solidarity has been documenting these attacks on Copts, the churches, and their properties and confirmed what others have observed, namely that since El-Sisi came to power over three years ago, these attacks have exceeded in number those that occurred during Mubarak’s era—and even under the Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year rule.
To properly understand the significance of these events, one has to keep in mind the historical context of this rise in violent attacks against Copts, as indicated above, and recall the numerous recent attacks and threats made specifically against the Coptic community which have been ignored and met with impunity by the Egyptian government.
Some milestones follow:
From Maspero to the Copts’ Kristallnacht
After the “Arab Spring” uprising in Egypt in January 2011, extremist Islamists, with the complicity of the ruling Military Council, unleashed their violence against Copts, and occasionally Shia Muslims or Bahai’s. For their part, Copts, optimistic about the prospects of the new “revolutionary” atmosphere, became more vocal about their grievances. They ventured to go on peaceful demonstrations and in May even held a long sit-in at Maspero, in front of the building that houses the state-run television station, seeking more visibility.
In September 2011, a Coptic Orthodox church in Marinab, Aswan, in Upper Egypt, was attacked. The crosses on the church were demolished by local Islamist Salafists. To avoid escalation of the conflict, the governor of Aswan, Mustafa Kamel el-Sayyed, organized a meeting between Salafist and Coptic leaders in an effort to reach an agreement. When mediation efforts failed, Salafists demolished the church while the governor denied the existence of the church. (He later took back those claims but asserted that it did not have a proper construction permit and thus was deemed to be illegal).
On October 9th, 2011 thousands of peaceful demonstrators, the majority of whom were Copts, marched from northern Cairo to the Maspero area again. As the demonstrators approached their destination, they were attacked by thuggish mobs that laid waiting (with the full complicity of the State Security apparatus) and hurled stones at them from the top of traffic bridges. Egyptian Army forces intercepted the demonstrators who then found themselves caught between the Army and the Islamists mobs in a deadly ambush. The Egyptian Army then attacked the protestors using riot gear, batons, and live ammunition. Armored personnel vehicles drove through the demonstrators brutally and intentionally murdering them by running them over, setting up an example for terrorists to emulate later in multiple attacks around the world in Nice, Berlin, and London.
The Egyptian Army’s brutal confrontation with the crowd left 28 demonstrators—27 of whom were Copts—dead and 327 injured; 14 of the slain were run over by armored vehicles. Until now, the Egyptian army and government refuse to admit to any wrongdoing, complete the investigation, or compensate the victims’ families in anyway. To date, only two low-ranking soldiers have been found guilty of a misdemeanor of “involuntary killing.” Both remained free and continued to serve in their army unit during their short and nominal “prison” terms.
When millions of Egyptians protested against President Morsi’s efforts to consolidate and retain power in Egypt, General El-Sisi came to power amidst a hopeful gesture of placing the Coptic Pope Tawadros and Sheik el-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, on stage with him. Copts were hopeful that a new era of equality and inclusion as full Egyptian citizens had arrived.
The “Coptic Kristallnacht”, in which over 90 Christian churches and institutions were destroyed on August 14-15, 2013 by livid Muslim Brotherhood members who blamed the downfall of Morsi on Coptic support of General El-Sisi, was the first indication that a peaceful era was a foregone conclusion. It was not until the end of 2016 that the Egyptian government finally completed repairs on some of the Coptic churches destroyed during the pogroms. (Coptic communities repaired some churches and institutions.) Perpetrators of the church attacks were not brought to trial or punished except, to our knowledge, in one case in Imbaba, where the attackers simultaneously targeted the near-by police station.
Threats – Devastating Attacks
Copts had high hopes that they would face less violence under Sisi’s rule. But thanks to the perpetuation of the culture of impunity, attacks have actually worsened as demonstrated in the pattern of attacks which have become increasingly devastating and terror-laden, and terrorists have grown to be more audacious and confident. In earlier cases, attacks used to occur outside the churches. But in recent bombings, attacks have occurred inside churches indicating major security weaknesses, calling into question the role of security forces assigned to guard churches. One wonders if those assigned to guard churches are well qualified, trained, or merely tokens of a security presence meant for show.
On February 14, 2015, ISIS released a video explaining their targeting of Coptic Christians and stated, “Finally, it is important for Muslims everywhere to know that there is no doubt in the great reward to be found on Judgment Day for those who spill the blood of these Coptic crusaders wherever they may be found,” calling Copts its “favorite prey.” The next day, twenty Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian were beheaded on a beach in Libya. Copts appreciated el-Sisi’s swift military response to this tragedy, but were stunned by what followed. Thirteen of those martyred came from the village of al-Our, and a church was approved for construction to commemorate them. Yet Muslim fanatics demonstrated and the church had to be built on the outskirts of the town. It was also firebombed during construction and one of the martyr’s family homes was attacked.
Coptic Solidarity has reported on the growing number of attacks on Copts, their homes, businesses, and churches since el-Sisi came to power in Egypt. Rarely has anyone been held accountable for these atrocities, including ones in which there were eyewitness accounts or video footage of the perpetrators. In one particularly heinous attack, Adel Soliman was seen on security camera footage slitting the throat of Coptic liquor store owner, Youssef Lamei, and yelling “Allahu Akbar” while committing the crime. He was given the death penalty, but this judgment was referred to an appeals court. (It’s important to note that according to Sharia, a death penalty must be approved by the al-Azhar’s Grand Mufti, and Muslims do not receive the death penalty for killing someone of another faith. Additionally, although criminal laws in Egypt do not explicitly refer to Sharia, most judges usually observe its critical implications).
A flagrant example of combined terrorists’ violence and government incompetence is what Copts in Arish, Sinai, faced. After a spate of attacks, the area was virtually emptied of Christians last year because the Egyptian government failed to provide protection. Furthermore, churches and individuals bore the brunt of providing for these 355 displaced Coptic families, most of whom have lost nearly all their earthly possessions, due to the inaction of the Egyptian government.
On December 11, 2016 the church of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Cairo was bombed, resulting in the murder of 28 Copts and dozens more injured. The “Islamic State in Egypt” claimed responsibility for the bombing. The Egyptian government repaired this church in time for Christmas celebrations and apprehended four suspects in connection with the bombing, but little is known about the outcome of the investigation. A video released on February 19, 2017, which has the suicide statement of jihadi Abu-Abdullah al-Masri, also known as Mahmoud Shafiq, 22, suspected in the December bombing, said the attack was only the first. “There will be more operations in the near future, if Allah wills it, as you are our first target and our preferred target in our war,” he said. “You followers of the Cross, you traitors of all ties – know that warriors of the Islamic State are watching you, and our blessed invasion won’t be our last on you. Because what’s coming is worse and hotter than boiling oil, so wait and see, we will be victorious.”
On April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday bombings targeting the Alexandria Cathedral and a Tanta church came on the heels of a demonstrable public relations campaign against Copts by Islamic State in Egypt and a rise in violent attacks against Copts. The Egyptian state completely failed to provide protection, particularly after the blatant threats mentioned in these videos. An explosive package was found in the St. George Church in Tanta ten days before the successful bombing, and yet the state still did not take the matter seriously.
On May 26, 2017, ten armed gunmen attacked a three-vehicle convoy of pilgrims traveling to the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in Egypt’s western desert near Minya. Twenty-nine individuals, including ten children joined a rapidly increasing number of modern Coptic martyrs. According to survivors, victims were shot dead after refusing to recite the Islamic confession of faith, shahada, and amid cries of “Allah Akbar.” President el-Sisi quickly held “external terrorists” responsible for the attack and conducted airstrikes on camps inside Libya, despite lack of any evidence that these groups or targets were the actual culprits. The perpetrators—who spoke a local Egyptian dialect and were familiar with a relatively unknown desert route to the monastery—were clearly native Egyptians. Two Coptic clergymen overseeing security at the St. Samuel Monastery later described the notable lack of protection available at the time. Rather than take adequate protection measures, State Security services responded by banning all church visits to monasteries in yet another precedent that punishes victims instead of their persecutors.
In short, President Sisi’s modus operandi consists of portraying what is otherwise homegrown terrorist attacks on the Copts as originating either from foreign terrorists or the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby exonerating his government.
Islamic State-Egypt, which has been threatening and conducting heinous attacks on Copts, is in fact a homegrown terror network that flourishes on Islamist theology of hatred that permeates every aspect of Egyptian society.
Sisi wins accolades among American politicians by demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood —with whom his struggle is entirely political not ideological —while giving the even more radical Salafis free reign in Egypt. Their partnership is such that, the visibly pious Salafists confer Islamic legitimacy on him, and in exchange he allows their Islamist ideology, which are more hateful and intolerant towards Christians than the Brotherhood’s to infiltrate every level of society including media, public schools and, of course, mosques.
Hatred for Christians is instilled in Children from an early age and taught daily at mosques. School curricula teach things like “Christians are infidels destined for Hell.” In the recent words of a Coptic woman living in Egypt: “The problem starts at school where children are treated differently. In school some refused to speak to me because I was a Christian.” Similarly, government-funded mosques regularly incite hatred and violence against Christians over their loudspeakers. If that is how government-run institutions behave, it should come as no surprise that at least 3,000 fatwas inciting for the destruction of churches have been circulated throughout Egypt.
There is also reason to believe that Egypt’s various security and intelligence services, which represents the backbone of the regime, are strongly influenced by Islamist ideology.
War of Attrition
In the above sections, we have highlighted some examples of the escalating violence that targets Copts. But horrific as it is, this represents only the tip of the iceberg of what Copts endure on a daily basis. Besides the increasingly suffocating societal extremism that has virtually closed the public space to anything non-Islamic, the state applies systemic and systematic discrimination against Copts—one rooted to the old Islamic precepts of dhimma, whereby non-Muslim minorities should submit to a host of debilitating and even humiliating conditions in exchange for a measure of tolerance, but never equality. Based on Sisi’s encouraging words and promises, the Copts, who paid a high price for supporting him, had high hopes for positive change. However, the opposite has taken place and matters are now actually worse:
- Copts are grossly underrepresented in all government and public institutions. The numbers of Copts accepted to military and police academies, judiciary posts, diplomatic corps, and university teaching posts are limited to a one to two percent quota. There are strictly no Copts in “sensitive” sectors, such as state security and intelligence organs, leading army command posts or the presidency. The entire local governance system is practically free of Copts; not a single governor or even deputy governor is a Copt. Copts are relegated to very few Cabinet positions – —currently only one junior position. No Copt occupies a public university or faculty dean post.
- It is obligatory to declare one’s religious affiliation (among a very short list of “recognized” religions) in all official formalities, including the national identity card. Such measures naturally facilitate discriminatory practices. Other times, but for equally nefarious reasons, the Civil Status Department’s “computer system” lists Christians as Muslims. Considering how Islam is severe when it comes to apostasy, attempts to correct such errors are extremely difficult, with severe ramifications for those concerned.
- Organized, and well-dissimulated, groups target young Coptic girls and women to convert them to Islam. Al-Azhar in collusion with various Departments, the police and the security apparatus facilitate such conversion procedures, even if those concerned are minors in the eyes of the law. In the case of a Christian father converting to Islam, his minor children are forced to follow suit: The mother’s custody rights are ignored in this case, as children are supposed to follow the “more noble” of the two religions. On the other hand, a Muslim choosing to convert to Christianity faces despicable treatment by the authorities and often ends up having to live incognito or to flee the country altogether, if possible.
- Mandatory school curricula, established by the Ministry of Education, ignore the Coptic era, some six centuries’ worth of Egypt’s history. Islamic texts permeate various courses, especially Arabic language, and non-Muslims are compelled to rehearse, recite and uphold them, including Koran citations (some of which openly disparage core Christian concepts, such as the Trinity). Arabic class lessons promote the idea that leadership positions should be held by believers only, and that believers should take a firm position against those who “do not submit to the orders of Allah and His Prophet.” Precepts of democracy, citizenship, the constitution, courts, or equality before the law receive scant mention here.
- The passage of a new church construction law that does not place churches on equal footing with mosques and maintains all the old problematic loopholes that have always prevented the construction—sometimes even the repair—of churches. Scores of churches remain closed by the Security Apparatus for no other reason but to pander to fundamentalists; In villages where church building permits have been pending for years, Copts get arrested for “praying without permit” if they dare assemble in a house. President Sisi’s brief visits to the Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eves are appreciated, but they do little to help preserve the worship rights of Copts.
- There is an unprecedented rise in the application of “derision of religion”—colloquially known as “blasphemy”— laws. Originally, the laws were passed to protect all three monotheistic religions from unfair attacks. In reality, they are designed to shield Islam from criticism and unfairly target and convict Copts and Muslim reformers. In the meantime, Al-Azhar University regularly spews anti-Christian statements and fatwas that denounce Christians as heretics and infidels. Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution has even distributed a free book in June 2015 describing Christianity as a “failed religion” and suggesting that the Bible contains “seeds of weakness.”In short, Copts are facing a multifaceted war of attrition, the “optional” outcomes of which are: convert to Islam; live as a barely tolerated infidels and endure recurring bouts of persecution; or leave the country. Thus, not only has the Egyptian state failed to protect its Coptic citizens, but it has continued to treat them as second-class citizens through a policy of systemic discrimination.
Coptic Solidarity Policy Recommendations
President el-Sisi often speaks about renewing religious discourse and his dreams for a “glorious” Egypt. This is certainly commendable, but only if accompanied by commensurate policies and actions, and not just words.Coptic Solidarity offers the following constructive policy recommendations to the Egyptian government to help establish and promote a modern state in Egypt and achieve equality for Copts:
1. Civil Society:
a) Rescind the recently enacted NGO law.
b) Foster a free independent press.
c) Facilitate the establishment of national and foreign NGO’s to monitor the activities of various state institutions and report on them.
d) Foster and facilitate the establishment of secular, non-religious parties that represent constituents from various sections of the society.
e) Foster the independence of various syndicates and professional organizations.
f) Foster non-religious organizations that provide social services and make up for deficient governmental service.
g) Enact measures that would guarantee universities and other educational institutions independence to establish a basis for solid liberal independent education.
a) Enact Constitutional Articles that establish the equality of all Egyptian citizens before the law.
b) Expeditiously integrate Copts in all Egypt’s state institutions; Ensure at least 10% of all legislative, executive, judicial, military, educational (universities), diplomatic corps and police positions be filled by Copts, commensurate with their percentage of the general population, and break away from the current “ceiling” of 1-2%. Apply “Affirmative Action” measures where needed.
c) Establish an anti-discrimination body to vigorously monitor the general situation and address specific cases.
3. Hate Culture:
a) Enact laws to criminalize Islamist hate speech directed towards non-Muslims.
b) Purge schools and education curricula of topics and texts that instill hatred of people of other faiths, entice violence and foster a sense of “Islamic supremacy.”
c) Foster voices of moderation that promote civil society and secularism to express their opinions in all media outlets.
4. Blasphemy Laws:
Rescind “blasphemy laws,” (or “Derision of religions,” as they are known in Egypt).
5. Ensure Protection and Eliminate the Current Culture of Impunity:
a) End the collusion of police and local authorities in violence targeting Copts, to end the impunity that attackers enjoy and that impels them to continue attacking.
b) Criminalize forced collective expulsion of Coptic families from their villages where their ancestors have lived for centuries.
c) Abolish the arbitrary “Reconciliation Sessions” together with the so-called “House of the Family” institution, which acts as an umbrella to legitimize these sessions. “Reconciliation Sessions” deprive Coptic victims of violence from pursuing their rights to sue their attackers in court and have resulted in fostering a culture of impunity.
d) Enact laws that would render churches the same degree of protection as military installations.
6. Freedom of Religion and Worship:
a) Remove the category of religious affiliation from Identity cards and all official documents.
b) End the bias of state authorities towards Islam. Criminalize the harassment of individuals who convert from Islam.
c) Given that the new church construction law is fraught with ambiguities and red tape, and the continued dearth of churches all over the country, there should be a clear benchmark, such as the approval of construction of certain number of churches annually, if the total number of approved applications for church permits falls short.
7. The Kidnapping, Luring and Forced Conversion of Coptic Girls:
a) Immediately refer anyone who holds an underage Christian girl to the criminal court for kidnapping, and ensure the immediate return of the kidnapped to their families. Collusion of local authorities must end.
b) The formation of a neutral committee of Muslims and Christians to investigate and allow girls above 18 and women who freely wish to return to their families and their Christian faith to do so. Those who wish to convert to Islam by their own free will are permitted to do so after having been reviewed by said committee.
c) Re-instating the “Advisement and Guidance Sessions” (Galsaat al-Nooss’h wal Irshaad) under the auspices of the National Council for Rights to review cases of religious conversion and ascertain that such conversions were free and un-coerced.
Photo Credit: Women cry during the funeral for those killed in a Palm Sunday church attack in Alexandria Egypt, at the Mar Amina church, April 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Samer Abdallah)