Religious tensions are rising in Egypt following the November 2018 murder of seven Coptic Christians in Minya, a province south of Cairo. Several gunmen ambushed two buses of Christian pilgrims who were traveling to the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in Egypt’s west. Sixteen other Copts were injured. The Islamic State took credit for the attack through its news service, Amaq. In their statement, the extremist group claimed the attack was revenge for “the imprisonment of our chaste sisters,” but did not elaborate on what that meant.
Hundreds of mourners attended the funerals for the seven victims, sharing grief and support among the Coptic community. Two days later, the Egyptian government announced its forces had killed 19 militants connected to the attack. Although justice may have been meted, Copts are in despair, wondering what they have done to incur such hatred and violence.
This attack is the latest in a series of assaults on Egyptian Christians. Twenty-eight Copts were killed in May of 2017 when a gunman opened fire on a bus of pilgrims on the very same road to the Monastery of St. Samuel. A year earlier, an elderly Christian woman was stripped naked and beaten in the streets by a mob of villagers following rumors that her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman. Dozens of Copts have been killed at church, including 45 who were killed in the bombings of two Coptic churches in the Palm Sunday Church Bombings of 2017.
Who are the Coptic Christians?
Constituting 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 91 million, the Copts are Egypt’s largest minority. Their branch of Christianity can be traced back to 50 CE, when the apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt and introduced Christianity to Egyptians. Copts as a minority are closely tied to Egypt’s identity — the language of Coptic Christians is based on, and similar to, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The word “Copt” is derived from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian. The church is headed by the Pope of Alexandria, based in Cairo.
Copts have suffered violence and discrimination under Roman, Byzantine, and Arab Muslim rule in their nearly 2,000-year old existence in Egypt. In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, Coptic persecution fell under the broader umbrella of religious persecution against Christians. After a church schism at the Council of Chalcedon, the Byzantines persecuted Copts for disobeying Byzantine orthodoxy. The Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 600s CE was no reprieve. Around the year 1000 CE, the Islamic Caliph in power destroyed 3,000 Coptic churches and forced many Copts to renounce their faith. In the modern era, Copts’ churches have been burned, their homes destroyed, and their property looted. They often face physical violence, both at home and while worshipping. While there were once hundreds of monasteries in Egypt, only 20 remain across the country.
Copts in Egypt today
A major hurdle for Copts is their lack of representation in Egypt’s government. Out of 596 seats in Parliament, only 36 members are Christians — just 6 percent, four percentage points lower than their percentage of the general population. Out of those 36 members, 24 were elected to meet Egypt’s quota for religious representation in Parliament. While the 2014 Egyptian constitution declares absolute freedom of religion, it also decrees that Islam is the official state religion and conversion to any other religion is prohibited. While this theoretically guarantees Copts protection by law, it is often not the case in practice.
Part of the reason Copts are being targeted may be a result of their political support for the current administration. Copts widely supported President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s election in 2014. He has repeatedly vowed to protect Egyptian Christians and often preaches religious unity in his speeches. Sisi has even attended Christmas Eve Mass for the past few years; he is the first Egyptian president to do so. One of the reasons ISIS may be targeting Copts is as punishment for their support of Sisi. As Defense Minister, Sisi led the ousting of an Islamic president, deeply angering Islamic extremists.
While many Copts see a champion in Sisi, others remain frustrated by the lack of Egyptian government action. Some Christians blame the government for the most recent attacks, pointing out that there are no longer armed escorts for buses of Christian pilgrims as there once have been, despite recent repeated attacks. Though Sisi may make frequent statements about Egyptian unity, many feel those statements are hollow. Timothy Kaldas, an expert on Egypt, compared the call for “thoughts and prayers” in America after a tragedy to the call for “national unity” from Egyptian politicians. Both phrases are backed by little action and are almost entirely symbolic. In fact, emphasizing national unity ignores the fact that the nation is not united and ignores the real suffering of Copts.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the recent attacks is the realization that ISIS is mobilizing to inflame religious tensions in Egypt, as it did in Iraq and Syria. As an already unstable country with an authoritarian leader, a little provocation of existing religious fissures could reap violent results. There is a deeply entrenched disdain for Coptic Christians in Egypt and it would not be too difficult to create conflict between Muslims and Christians in the country. ISIS has been a combatant against the Egyptian military for years and, as its power in Iraq and Syria wanes, the terrorist organization may aim to expand operations in the region through its Egyptian branch.
The Egyptian military and government must improve their efforts to protect the Coptic Christians. Calls for unity will grow sour if they are not backed up by action. Egypt must protect its people from violence, protect the nation from sectarian conflict, and move towards creating real unity and equality.