COPTS FEAR NEXT ATTACK PLANNED FOR CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS
Egypt’s Christian minority is braced for more violence after nine were killed in assault on Cairo church
Egypt’s Christian minority say they fear for their safety ahead of the Coptic celebration of Christmas this week after nine people were killed in Friday’s attack on a church near Cairo.
The shooting at the Mar Mina church in Helwan came at the end of a year of unprecedented violence in Egypt, much of it targeted at the 10-million strong Coptic Christian community.
“These desperate terrorist attempts will not undermine the resolve and the entrenched national unity of the Egyptian people,” said Bassam Rady, spokesman for president Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
“They only increase our determination to continue on the path to eliminate terrorism and extremism.”
Mr El Sisi has pledged to advance Muslim-Christian coexistence and will inaugurate a cathedral in Egypt’s new administrative capital during the Coptic Christmas celebration on January 7.
Late yesterday, Egypt’s interior ministry announced the arrest of 14 men from different governerates who have been charged with plotting to violently disrupt Christmas celebrations in a conspiracy directed by an armed wing of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
ISIL claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, saying “soldiers of the Caliphate attacked Christian worshippers” and that one attacker was killed.
Last Christmas, ISIL released a video message boasting about the December 11 bombing at the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo, which killed 30 people, declaring that Christians in Egypt were their new “favourite prey”.
Egyptian security sources said the attacker in Helwan was a known terrorist identified as Ismail Ismail Mustafa, 33, metalworker and former resident of the area. They said he was wounded by one of three policemen guarding the church.
Some accounts suggest Mustafa had two assistants.
The grand imam of Al Azhar, the chief Sunni centre of Islamic law and theology, con- demned Friday’s church attack.
Ahmed Al Tayyeb called on Muslims to join Copts in the Christmas celebrations but the Christian community is less confident in security and unsure if the leadership’s vision of coexistence can be realised in a region witnessing a surge in inter-religious violence.
“The incident was a rehearsal to attack us on Christmas,” said Sayed Riad, 48, a car salesman in Helwan.
“We do not know what will happen in the holiday or at the administrative capital. We know that the government has told us that they have increased security.”
Egypt’s interior ministry has said it was sending 230,000 security personnel to protect the country’s 2,626 churches.
“But it doesn’t feel like that when you live next door to a church that has been attacked,” Mr Riad said.
Hassan Mohammed, 23, a rickshaw driver in Helwan, said Muslims in the area were as frightened as their Christian neighbours, and that many came to the aid of the victims of the church shooting.
“I saw a little girl whose mother was on the ground and shot,” Mr Mohammed said. “I put the mum and other injured in the first car we could find to take them to the hospital.”
But Ishaak Ibrahim, a Copt and chief religious minorities researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said anti-Christian sentiment had penetrated sectors of society that do not consider themselves extremists.
He recited a litany of attacks on Christians this year, including the fatal stabbing of a priest in October, the killing of 28 pil-
grims travelling to a monastery near the city of Minya in May, the Palm Sunday bombings at two churches in Alexandria and Tanta that killed 43 people in April, and the murders of seven Christians in El Arish by ISIL’s Sinai-based Egyptian affiliate.
“There is a connection between the attack in Atfieh and this bloody assault,” Mr Ibrahim said. “We witnessed increasing attacks on Coptic Christians in 2017 and this is just the latest in the chain.”
Mourners during the funeral for victims of the attack on the Mar Mina church near Cairo on Friday