Wednesday,23 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1341, (20 - 26 April 2017)
Wednesday,23 May, 2018
Issue 1341, (20 - 26 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The passion of Egypt’s Christians

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on two churches in Egypt earlier this month, laws hindering the full equality of all Egyptians must be decisively weeded out

Patriotism is a term abhorred by globalists and abused by those who carry fascist agendas such as the Islamists and their ilk. Yet, it is a notion that enables people to display their finest and noblest values towards their country while defending it with their most prized possessions, including their own lives. Few can boast of such a noble trait while displaying humility, dedication and endurance in the way that Egypt’s Christians have done throughout their history and particularly over recent decades.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have been a target of terrorists for decades. Being among the most pacific people in Egyptian society, the Christians have mostly endured these attacks in silence. Short of a few limited demonstrations over the years, the Christians have demanded nothing but full equality. On paper and constitutionally, the Coptic population of Egypt possesses the same rights and obligations as Muslims. Nevertheless, there have always been hurdles that some Christians have had to cope with, especially in rural areas where family feuds and tribalism may ensure.

Without proper legal protection some Christians have endured discrimination over the years that while mostly subtle has nevertheless existed in many forms. The latest wave of terrorist attacks on Christian churches in Egypt brings the Christian issue once again into the limelight, requiring the government to take action in resolving it. The attacks took place in Holy Week, when according to Christian theology Jesus had to endure a week of torment and pain until his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

It is apparent that the deeply pious Egyptian Christian population has had to go through not dissimilar pains for many years. Islamist Salafis and other radicals target them on social media, and terrorists attempt to attack their places of worship. While some may argue that the number of attacks has been limited compared to the large population of Egypt’s Christians, estimated at between 12 and 15 million, the attacks have nevertheless escalated over the years and become something that the government cannot ignore or trifle with because every Egyptian life counts.  

Two heinous terrorist bombings, of the Church of St George in Tanta and of the St Mark’s Church in Alexandria, took place simultaneously during the annual celebration of Holy Week, called in Arabic the “Week of Pain”. Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and continues through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The attacks were meant to be a hideous message of terror directed at Egyptian Christians, indicating that they would be targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot and Islamic State (IS) group affiliate Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis during their holiest days.

The attacks were also meant to discourage Egyptian Copts from supporting the elected president of Egypt, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, whose government is in open war with the aforementioned terrorist groups. They have evidently failed in that aim, as Egypt’s Christians, along with the majority of the population, are solidly behind Al-Sisi for having secured the nation against terrorism.

The April attacks may not have been the first attacks on churches in recent years, but they were nevertheless devastating. They rub salt into an open wound resulting from other attacks orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies. The attacks in Tanta and Alexandria left a combined death toll of 45 behind them and dozens of people injured. The victims of the attacks were mostly Christians, but they also included eight police officers who were Muslims.

These officers heroically managed to decrease the number of deaths resulting from the bombing at St Mark’s Church. For the first time, there were policewomen among the victims. Coptic Pope Tawadros II was inside the church at the time of the bombing. Fortunately, he was unharmed.

SECURITY BREACHES: There have been extraordinary efforts exerted by the Ministry of Interior and the police, and these have led to a huge reduction in the number of terrorist attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates since June 2013.

Nevertheless, the fact that two major churches were attacked simultaneously during a religious celebration such as Palm Sunday reveals that there are security gaps that must be closed by the police.

Suicide bombings are almost impossible to stop, but these suicide bombers managed to approach the church closely enough to cause major damage. If it had not been for the heroism of the fallen police officers, the casualties could have been in their hundreds. Accordingly, in order to secure everyone’s lives, including those of the police, more modern approaches to security need to be implemented, especially during holidays and religious celebrations.  

Furthermore, during the present war on terrorism no expense can be spared in acquiring the cutting-edge technology required by the security forces to implement further measures that could save lives. Pre-emptive strikes on terrorist cells could also be used as a key deterrent to prevent such acts of madness.

Following an attack on a church or Christians, a standard chain of events often takes place. First, Al-Azhar denounces the attack and reaffirms the unity of the nation’s Muslim and Christian citizens. It states that any such barbaric attacks neither represent the Islamic faith nor the majority of Muslims. Then, similar condemnations are followed by a few days of mourning announced by all media outlets. The media plays either national songs of solidarity or reproduces the comments of Christian and Muslim personalities who stress the importance of unity on television talk shows.

The Ministry of Interior then declares that it has either captured some of the suspects or is hunting down the suspected terrorists. A media loop of this sort has been repeated for at least three decades and hardly changes except in minor details. Unfortunately, this sequence of the monotonous bureaucratic handling of every crisis has exacerbated matters as the government has avoided tackling the real issues faced by Christians for decades.

During the period in office of former president Hosni Mubarak, the security services usually labelled the attackers of churches “lone wolves” displaying psychotic behaviour. They hardly acknowledged that they were organised terrorist attacks. Following the 25 January Revolution, the pattern of attacks proved that they were too organised to be the work of lone wolves alone and the fingerprints of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist groups were apparent on these heinous crimes.

For years, Egypt’s Christian population has endured a plight that pollutes its harmonious coexistence with its Muslim brethren. This plight must be addressed in the most rapid way and true reparation made to restore the Coptic population’s faith in the country and its government. These reparations should start by effectively applying the 2014 constitution and the articles in it that protect the rights of all individuals regardless of their creed, race or gender. The Copts have never requested any special treatment or any form of reparations for past grievances against them, however.  

For decades, they have endured hardships silently as sectors of the population have grown more bigoted towards them since the 1960s. Over the years, there have even been government officials who have discriminated intentionally against Christians. Though these cases have been rare, they have occurred, and they should never be repeated in the future.

CHANGES FROM THE PAST: At the beginning of his presidential term, it became clear that President Al-Sisi was adamant about solving the Christian problems with the state that had accumulated for several decades. These problems include church-building permits and the lack of equal opportunities in acquiring official positions. The president has his work cut for him, as he is attempting to fix decades of failed policies towards Christians.

Over the past three years, Al-Sisi has managed to gain the Christian population’s trust by rebuilding and restoring over 60 churches that were burned by the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2013 and afterwards. He avenged the 21 Coptic workers in Libya who were butchered on air by IS by ordering air strikes that destroyed major targets and the area where the killers were located. He has also been the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas Mass, setting a tradition for other presidents to follow. All of these things have rendered any attempts to drive a wedge between the Christians and the president doomed to failure.

Through its vibrant Christian population, Egypt’s diversity has been a model for other nations to follow over the centuries. Accordingly, the country should not permit this diversity to be broken to serve the Wahhabi assault on the fabric of the nation. Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam, and its local version Salafism, have been acting as a societal virus that has damaged Egyptian diversity for many decades. It is a virus that must be contained and eliminated for the nation to peacefully survive. The Salafist movement has adopted a rhetoric of intolerance, bigotry and terrorism. Not all Salafis are adopters of hate and violence, as there are many who practise their beliefs peacefully, but there are some extremists who are prone to act at any given moment as the events of past years have demonstrated.

These people’s various teachings and leaders have for years loathed Egyptian identity. They have done this while also desecrating the very basis of the Islamic religion that Egyptians have practised for 1,400 years. All of this renders Salafism a clear and present danger to the very fabric of Egyptian society.

For decades, the security services watched silently as the Salafis gained ground in Egypt and became a force to be reckoned with. They believed that the Salafis could be their allies in the nation’s struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the days that followed the 25 January Revolution debunked that theory as the Salafis were the first to ally themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood and share power against the rest of the nation. A large number of the arrested hooligans and terrorists who committed all sorts of violence after the 30 June Revolution also belonged to the Salafist factions who found that the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood of establishing a caliphate matched their long-term goals and ambitions.

It is unfathomable that Salafi preachers such as Yasser Borhami and Mohamed Hassan still manage to elude the law. They do this through issuing fatwas (religious edicts) and divisive rhetoric that incite hatred against Christians and even other Muslims who refuse to follow their twisted rhetoric. Despite countless police reports and court cases filed against the aforementioned Salafi leaders, they seem to remain untouchable, creating a false sense that the government approves such rhetoric and protects its adopters.

Following the attack on the two churches, Al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency across Egypt and issued an executive order to establish a higher council for countering terrorism and extremism. This should in theory have the mandate and authority to counter terrorist activities and monitor extremist activities in Egypt, though the actual authority and powers of the new council are still unclear. However, if the council does not focus on repealing discriminatory laws, fighting extremist rhetoric and designing long-term strategies for counter-terrorism and social harmony, then it will be just another ceremonial political organisation to join the many others before it.

An example of such a ceremonial establishment is the “Egyptian Family” initiative set up in 2011 between the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the late Pope Shenouda III to help unify Egyptian Muslims and Christians while solving recurring problems in the state. Despite the great aspirations and noble cause of this initiative, it fell short of attaining tangible results on the ground and turned into a ceremonial institution that issued press releases after each terrorist attack but did not do much to stop the next one occurring. The council for countering terrorism and extremism should aim to be different from that.  

CONCLUSIONS: It is imperative that every patriotic Egyptian, especially Muslim Egyptians, now press the government to weed out laws that hinder the full equality of Egyptian Christians or any other minority.

The time for sugar-coated words, emotional speeches and lacklustre efforts is over. These things must be replaced by decisive actions that transform the nation into a model to be followed not just for the troubled Middle Eastern region but also for the whole world.

As a man of action who has stood steadfastly against Muslim Brotherhood terrorism and is about to deliver the group a historic defeat in Egypt, President Al-Sisi’s greatest achievement will not be a physical mega-project regardless of its magnitude and importance. His greatest achievement should be attainting full equality between all Egyptians, along with pressing for more concrete efforts for Islamic religious reform and for the re-establishment of the social harmony that has been battered for decades due to Islamist infiltration of society.

It is time to heighten the secular values of tolerance and coexistence among all the members of the nation and to include these things in the constitution and educational curriculum. The president possesses the power and the overwhelming support necessary to do this. He is urged to expose those who are opposing his social and religious reform plans because at the end of the day it is his legacy as president that will carry the glory of success or the burden of failure. The déjà-vu reactions which the nation witnesses after every terrorist attack on Christians hardly suffice, and they are becoming unbearable for patriotic Egyptians to endure.

The Roman Catholic Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt on 28 April signifies the immense international support for the Egyptian people and all Egypt’s Christian denominations, including the Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican sects. Despite the majority of Egypt’s Christians following the Coptic Orthodox Church, the visit signifies the importance of Egypt to the Christian faith in general, being the country that embraced Christianity in its very earliest days.

Indeed, the history of Christianity in Egypt can be traced back to the trip of the Holy Family to Egypt over 2,000 years ago, which was followed by the establishment of the first ever Christian monastery in the world, St Anthony’s Monastery in Suez. The Catholic pontiff’s visit to Egypt will be an ideal occasion for Egyptians to display their unity with the rest of the world.  

The passion of Egyptian Christians is manifested in remarkable examples of patience, patriotism and solidarity against the odds. For decades, Muslim Brotherhood terrorists and Salafi extremists have managed to escape the hand of the law, while patriotic Christians have paid the price. It is time to reverse older policies and protect all patriotic citizens, while prosecuting the treacherous for their ill deeds which strike deep in the hearts of all Egyptian patriots.

Experience has shown that while no country can ever fully protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, many democratic countries have been able to provide equal opportunities for all citizens without exceptions. The war on terrorism will only be won when Egypt as a great nation becomes the opposite of what the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorists have dreamed it to be. Only then will the proud Egyptian nation be able to claim a truly decisive victory over terrorism.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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