Egypt’s Coptic Christians have spoken of their sadness – and their fears for the future – a day after terrorists targeted two churches packed with parishioners celebrating Palm Sunday.
At least 49 people were killed in bombings at two churches in Tanta and Alexandria, the latest sectarian attacks one of the country’s most imperiled religious minorities.
“We feel more angry today than we ever did before, and we feel desperate,” says Coptic Egyptian rights activist Mina Thabet. “Nothing is changing. The Copts feel very vulnerable and that no one cares about them.”
Coptic Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s 91 million residents, but have little representation in the country’s government – the current parliament is made up of 596 members, just 36 of whom are Christian.
Copts in Egypt have faced persecution and discrimination that has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Dozens have been killed in sectarian violence that has seen homes and churches set alight and bombed.
David Saeed was in the church in Tanta when the bomb detonated, killing at least 27 people, including several friends. He says the Coptic community has grown familiar with such attacks, but that witnessing one firsthand nonetheless left him stunned.
“We were just singing and suddenly – in a blink of an eye – smoke, fire everywhere. I didn’t realize what’s happening,” he told CNN. “I saw blood, organs of friends scattered over the ground.”
“I’m shocked, I’m angry because we’re used to this (violence) here in Egypt,” he added. “Every church in Egypt is prepared, everyone knows sometimes you will get bombed, so we are prepared.”
Pleas for unity
Thabet says little has changed since previous attacks, despite previous pledges from politicians and religious leaders.
A bomb at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, attached to the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, in Cairo in December 2016 left at least 25 people dead.
Thabet says despite the condemnation that greeted that attack, Sunday’s bombings show terrorists are still able to operate in the same way; he says they are “still strong and becoming more experienced in conducting these attacks. This is very dangerous.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called for the country to come together in the wake of the latest bombings, but Thabet disputes whether that will make any real difference to the daily lives of Copts.
“Terror cannot be faced by calls for unity,” he said. “It is only something that looks like a good thing but eventually it is just talk. We need to realize that we have a problem and that problem isn’t going to be solved by kind words.”
Andrew Abdel Shaheed, an Egyptian Copt who lives in Brussels, says he’s too afraid to go home to Egypt after the attacks: “The calls for national unity are great, [but] how does it really help? How does it help me feel protected going into church?”
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on Coptic issues in Egypt says more needs to be done to combat the discrimination the country’s Copts face on a daily basis.
“We can’t understand what happened yesterday without understanding the atmosphere that has encouraged militancy in Egypt. There is constitutional discrimination against civilians,” he says, explaining that the country’s Christians “are treated as second-class citizens.”
“The state lacks democracy and freedom, [and] that affects people because it allows them to target minorities – this frustrated atmosphere helped create radical Islam in the country,” Ibrahim explains.
The Egyptian cabinet Monday approved Sisi’s declaration of a three-month state of emergency in the country, allowing police and the security forces “to execute those procedures necessary to combat the threats of terrorism … maintain security around the country and protect public and private property, as well as preserving the lives of citizens.”
But some are skeptical of whether such a move will make them any safer – and there are suggestions it could in fact create more problems.
“It may actually be used to stop freedom of expression and allow the authorities to abuse citizens’ rights,” says Ibrahim. “The normal law allows the government to deal with the situation, you just need to change some policies.”
“The state of emergency means absolutely nothing to me,” says Abdel Shaheed. “It means that people will get trailed for no reason and arrested with no warrants, but what does it do for the future of Egyptians? I personally do not feel safe to return to Egypt.”
CNN’s Ian Lee, Muhammad Darwish and Sarah Sirgany contributed to this report.