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

The National - News - - NEWS - JA­COB WIRTSCHAFTER Mina Nader con­trib­uted to this re­port from Hel­wan

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.”

EPA

Mourn­ers dur­ing the fu­neral for vic­tims of the at­tack on the Mar Mina church near Cairo on Fri­day

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