The targeting of Egyptian Christians by terrorist and takfiri groups is not a new phenomenon, like their targeting of Egyptian Muslims who refuse to subscribe to their oppressive and pernicious ideas. However, Christians have recently come under the focus of the terrorist storm more intensely and brutally than ever. Those groups began to set their sights on Christians in the 1970s. They began by inciting strife in the areas of Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra in Cairo and Al-Khanka in Qalioubiya (in the Delta). Before long, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya in Upper Egypt sanctioned the “confiscation” of Christian property and money on the grounds that this was “spoils of war” or jizya — the poll tax levied on non-Muslim communities in Islamic societies in mediaeval times. The criminals caught were naturally tried under laws governing the crimes of theft, plunder and armed robbery.
Following the ebbing of the fourth wave of terrorism, Al-Gamaa launched its initiative for “ideological revision and the renunciation of violence”, enabling the conclusion of a tactical reconciliation with the state, Christians were left with the usual problems and harassments that sometimes occur in the course of daily interaction. In all events, Egyptian society had always been able to overcome these problems and transient incidents of sectarian strife that had been primarily restricted to Upper Egypt.
When the terrorist attack against the Two Saints Church in Alexandria occurred in December 2010, Christians as well as Muslims poured out in large and angry demonstrations to protest the laxness of the authorities at the time in protecting Egyptian churches. A month later, this development would merge with the outpouring of millions of Egyptians in the 25 January 2011 Revolution and give rise to the magnificent scene of Muslims and Egyptian Christians together in Tahrir Square, ready to protect one another, especially during their respective times of prayer, inspiring one of the memorable revolutionary chants that rang out from Tahrir: “Muslims and Christians stand hand in hand.”
Then everything began to change with the rise of the political and social power of the Muslim Brotherhood and its extremist jihadist and takfiri allies. Once again, Egypt saw a resurgence in anti-Christian incitement and, moreover, attempts to deprive them of their equal citizenship rights. Salafis and their allied groups launched a campaign in opposition to the appointment of a Christian as governor of Qena. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces capitulated to the pressure. There followed the destruction of a church in Sol village, 30 kilometres south of Cairo, and the attempt to build a mosque in its place. Another church was burned down in Imbaba, Giza. After the break-up of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in Rabaa Al-Adaweya, members of that organisation and its supporters set fire to more than 70 churches in Upper Egypt. Pope Tawadros II famously said that day, “Everyone will sacrifice themselves for Egypt,” and “We can live as a nation without churches, but we cannot live in churches without a nation.”
The attacks against churches have returned again, today, but in a different way. Terrorists are targeting them with bombs planted inside or with suicide belts, as occurred with the St Peter and St Paul Church in Downtown Cairo in December and the attacks, last Sunday, against the St George Church in Tanta and the St Mark’s Church in Alexandria.
I believe there are three main motives behind the recent events. One is to exact revenge against Christians on the grounds that they are somehow chiefly responsible for the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule, even though the overwhelming majority of people who rose up against that group and poured through the streets and squares in their amazing millions were Muslims. The second is to portray the current government as unable to protect Christians. The purpose of this is to turn Christians against the government and/or to pave the way for a call for foreign intervention to protect them. The third is to undermine Egyptian national unity and sow social and political turmoil for which terrorist and takfiri groups have been thirsting with mounting impatience so they can unleash their bloody designs in the manner we see playing out in Syria. The terrorists who are fighting the Egyptian army in Sinai cannot harm our army as long as social conditions are stable and society stands behind it and together with it. But under conditions of turmoil and anarchy they will be free to assault the Egyptian army, as well as the police, everywhere in the country. This is their dream and they believe that attacking churches and the innocent civilians inside is the shortest route towards their ends.
Egypt is equipped with long-established and solid defences against all this. They are to be found in the factors that have always worked to preserve social cohesion in general and the cohesion between Muslims and Christians in particular. One is the gift of demographics. Christians are distributed across all towns, cities and villages; they are not confined to a particular geographical area or urban quarters as is often the case with minorities in other countries. Other factors are ethnic homogeneity, common folk heritage and market interests. In addition, we have the influence of wise and rational people among both Muslims and Christians, the struggle of the civil movement for the promotion of the principle of citizenship, and the efforts of both Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church to promote social harmony. These are the keys that will enable Egyptians to close the windows of opportunity to terrorists so Egypt can ultimately prevail over them, just as it prevailed over the four previous waves of terrorism that swept the country.
The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.