Coptic ordeals end
Displays of Coptic fears in Rafah this week touched on the otherwise unrelated issues of Egypt's Christian community and Sinai, reports Dina Ezzat
The ordeal of Coptic families who had fled their homes in Rafah under threats from militant Islamists has now been contained, with some families being offered assurances that convinced them to stay in their homes and others being repatriated following an easing of the scare that started with an attack on Mamdouh Nassif, a Coptic grocer who lives in Rafah.
"Some families have come back, but others are still too afraid to return. We are praying for peace and justice to prevail, but for this to happen the law has to be applied to all without discrimination," said Father Mikhail of the Rafah Church.
The attack on Nassif had "really scared people, especially since there is no police station in Rafah for citizens to go to when they feel threatened," Mikhail said. He had visited the repatriated families and commented that there was "a firm need for a police station in this part of the [north Sinai] governorate, especially with the threats that the militants are making."
According to government officials responsible for security in Rafah, the threats made by the Islamists in Sinai in general and in Rafah in particular are not just directed at the Coptic families who live there.
"There is an attempt, still being made despite military efforts to comb Sinai for terrorists, to declare Sinai an area of influence for these militants, whose aim is to establish a militant Islamist 'launch-pad' there. While this scheme has been seriously undermined due to recent military efforts, ending it will still take some time, perhaps a few more months," said one official.
Last August, the Armed Forces started an extensive anti-militant operation in Sinai following the shocking slaying of army soldiers and an officer in Sinai during Ramadan as a result of a militant Islamist attack. Since then, informed sources say that dozens of militants have been killed or arrested.
Government officials in Cairo say that it is "to be expected" that such militants, ready to attack the state's presence in Sinai, would also attack Copts, whom they consider to be "infidels". The government intends to do its utmost to restore order in the peninsula, the officials say.
In independent press statements made as the news of the forced displacement of Coptic families from Rafah came through, both Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that the state would act to defend the rights of Coptic families "as Egyptian citizens" who have the right to live in peace.
According to Ali, President Mohamed Mursi has been personally following the matter with the North Sinai governor.
Youssef Sidhom, editor of Watani, a Coptic weekly, agreed that the state had acted to provide support for the threatened Coptic families, adding that this had sometimes been lacking in previous anti-Coptic attacks over the past two years.
The history of anti-Coptic attacks has been reduced in the narrative of some to the end of the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after three decades during which he managed to convince the Coptic Church, to which the vast majority of Egyptian Christians belong, that his regime was their only safeguard against the rule of the Islamists.
The current series of anti-Coptic attacks, which have included the forced eviction of families, began in Giza in the winter of 2010 following a fight between the police and Coptic demonstrators protesting against the demolition of a church that was being demolished due to the lack of the necessary paperwork.
The second major attack, one of the harshest yet, took place fewer than five weeks after the Giza crisis when an unidentified assailant carried out what was suspected to be the suicide bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, killing over 20 worshippers who were exiting the church after New Year Mass.
Several other attacks followed, the last of which took place last summer in Dahshour in Giza, when a fight among Muslim and Coptic citizens developed into a direct show of anti-Coptic sentiment following the killing of a Muslim man.
This led frightened Coptic families to flee their village, only to come back a few weeks later to find their houses had been attacked or looted.
"It is true that there has been a series of anti-Coptic attacks in Egypt, but it is also true that in Rafah, unlike in all the other cases up until the Dahshour attack, the state acted promptly and the security presence was felt in a way that encouraged some families to stay in their houses and others to return," Sidhom said.
Activists and rights groups on fact-finding missions to Sinai agree that there is now a strong presence of the military and military police around the Coptic area in Rafah.
Mikhail agreed that this visible security presence was acting as a deterrent for the time being, but he said that "a more sustainable security arrangement is desperately required", not just to encourage the rest of the families to return to their homes, but also to discourage future attacks.
This week's attack on Coptic families in Rafah comes almost a year after the Rafah Church was attacked and partially destroyed. It also comes after Coptic families in Rafah sustained waves of threats from militants.
"It is not the people of Rafah, the Muslim people of Rafah, who are hostile to the Copts. It is the militants, and something must be done about them, not just in Rafah but also in general. Fair laws should protect all citizens, and these laws should be applied on an equal basis," Mikhail said.
However, laws treating Copts and Muslims alike and making them equal citizens could be hard to gain, according to many Coptic activists.
"Look at what is going on around us. It is a year since the 9 October attack in which Coptic citizens and activists were killed by army soldiers trying to dispel a Coptic demonstration. What happened to those responsible for this crime? What happened to those responsible for other crimes, including the burning of the Bible during demonstrations against an anti-Muslim YouTube film last month," asked Rami Youssef, a Coptic activist.
According to Youssef, the "impunity" enjoyed by those responsible has not only been a problem for threats to Copts. Those responsible for the deaths of protesters during the 25 January Revolution are still at large, he said, and the killers of Mina Daniel, a Coptic activist and 25 January Revolution icon killed on 9 October, have not been brought to justice any more than have those who killed Emad Effat, a cleric at Al-Azhar and activist who was killed last December during a demonstration.
According to Youssef and other Coptic activists, fears of the loss of legal rights among Copts are being aggravated as a result of the overwhelming Islamist control of the committee responsible for drafting the country's new constitution, which has been using "confusing language" regarding the equal rights of all citizens.
"We have problems that we need to address having to do with the perception of Copts not just by the state, but also by society at large. While the security component is crucial, it is not sufficient in and of itself to resolve the problem," said Mikhail.
Activists in Sinai say that the situation across the peninsula begs for something that goes beyond the limited security approach of arresting the militants. What is urgently needed, they say, is the execution of an ambitious development project in the Sinai and the better integration of the peninsula, occupied by Israel from 1967 until its liberation in 1981, into the rest of Egypt.
Strategist Kadri Said said that the introduction of a sectarian element into the already complex Sinai issue is making it even more volatile.
According to Said, the key issue in Sinai is the strong presence of Islamist militants whose ultimate target is to turn the peninsula into an Islamist zone. This is something that could encourage anti-Israeli attacks, which "could open the door, maybe later rather than sooner, to Israeli intervention in Sinai."
As a result of the attacks on Copts, Israel could build a case for intervention in Sinai, Said said, and "this is something we should be very concerned about."