Editor’s Note: Monique El-Faizy is a freelance journalist living in Paris. She has written extensively on the Coptic community. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Once again, a holy day in the Coptic Christian calendar will be remembered as a day of bloodshed.
As Egypt’s Orthodox Christians celebrated Palm Sunday and children joyfully brandished palm fronds, re-creating Jesus’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion, bombs exploded in two churches, killing scores and leaving the fiercely nationalistic Coptic community feeling unprotected by the government it had relied upon for deliverance from the regime of Mohamed Morsi.
One of the explosions took place in Saint George’s Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, the same church in which a bomb had been found and removed earlier in the week.
The other explosion occurred when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandra, where the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros, had been celebrating the liturgy moments earlier.
Sunday’s attacks, apparently coordinated and alarmingly close to the most important living Christian figure in the Middle East, mark yet another failure of Egypt’s security forces to protect its Christian minority, which makes up about 10 percent of the population. They left the Coptic community feeling that, once again, the government it relies upon for protection has let them down.
During the years that the Morsi regime was in power, Copts were terrified, not only because of spates of sectarian violence, but also out of fear of a creeping Islamist takeover of the Egyptian state. When then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to depose Morsi, arguably no community supported him more strongly than the Copts.
Pope Tawadros sat by Sisi’s side as it was announced that Egypt’s first democratically elected president had been removed from office, while Christians celebrated in the streets.
The jubilance quickly dissipated, as outraged Islamists set upon churches throughout the country with a vengeance, burning dozens of them to the ground and damaging many others.
Christian businesses and organizations came under attack as well. But rather than blame the government for not protecting them – a plausible accusation at the time – Copts rallied behind the black, red and white of the Egyptian flag in a show of nationalist fervor that hadn’t been seen since 1919, when Egyptians rallied to overthrow the British.
With hindsight, one could say that their loyalty was misplaced. Sporadic attacks on Copts continued, largely unpunished. High-profile incidents, such as that of an elderly Coptic woman being dragged through the streets of Minya last May, garnered media attention and government promises, but once the spotlight turned elsewhere, little changed.
What has changed, though, is the bloodthirstiness of radical Islamists in Egypt with the growth of ISIS in the country. Last December, 25 people died in an ISIS-claimed bomb attack at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church in Cairo, which sits next to the seat of the Coptic Pope. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Sisi celebrated Coptic Christmas with the Pope in a show of solidarity, leaving Christians feeling that Sisi had their backs.
Since then, the plight of Christians has only deteriorated. In February, ISIS issued a video featuring video footage of Pope Tawadros that declared Copts the group’s “favorite prey.” In that same month, the murders of several Copts in Sinai prompted hundreds of Christian families to flee their homes. Again, Sisi said the words Copts needed to hear, convening a meeting of his top security personnel and pledging to relocate the displaced families.
But with Sunday’s bombings, Copts find themselves in a sadly familiar place.
“I made the same comments after the bombing of Saint Peter’s church,” Mina Thabet, a program director with the Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms said, speaking from inside Saint George’s Church. “We have to review our strategy for fighting terrorism.”
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Copts are reacting with weariness, but also with outrage. “You can’t get any reaction from the people now, other than anger,” Thabet said.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Oh, again, again,’” said Noaman Sideek, a Copt who lives in Cairo. “We need more security… Of course we are targeted, and of course the government knows we are targeted, so why don’t they protect us? We are feeling hurt and let down by the government.”
How this anger will play out remains to be seen. Like his predecessor – Pope Shenouda – Pope Tawadros is not prone to public reprimands of the government, but Copts are increasingly willing to criticize both Sisi and church leadership. That could mean more dissent among Christians on the ground, but it’s unlikely to lead to a more vocal approach by Church officials.
And the Egyptian government may not be able to do much better. It has failed to protect its own security forces from repeated ISIS assaults in Sinai and throughout the country, so there is little reason to believe it can provide sufficient safeguards for churches.
President Sisi has declared a three-month state of emergency, but having acted with seeming impunity against his foes since he took office, it’s far from evident that will make much of a difference. For the meantime, the safety of Copts lies in the hands of a government that has paid lip service to their needs but put little muscle behind its promises.