Cop­tic Chris­tians ques­tion promised pro­tec­tion

Grisly ter­ror­ist at­tacks con­tinue

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­COB WIRTSCHAFTER AND MINA NADER

CAIRO | Pope Fran­cis is long gone from Egypt, but his April trip in­ten­si­fied a grow­ing un­ease among Cop­tic Chris­tians about Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi’s em­brace of their 10 mil­lion-strong com­mu­nity.

Dur­ing the pon­tiff’s visit, Mr. el-Sissi told Fran­cis that the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment “is com­mit­ted to treat­ing all na­tion­als equally on grounds of cit­i­zen­ship and con­sti­tu­tional and le­gal rights.”

But the Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist groups within Egypt have not been so even-minded. Grisly sui­cide bomb­ings at churches, shoot­ings and other vi­o­lence have claimed 70 Copt lives since Christ­mas and put new fear into a Chris­tian mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity that traces its ori­gins back to the decade af­ter Je­sus died.

“A se­cu­rity team of caliphate sol­diers set up an am­bush for dozens of Chris­tians as they headed to the church of St. Sa­muel,” the Is­lamic State claimed late last month af­ter one in­ci­dent in which 29 Copts were killed and an­other 25 wounded when their bus was am­bushed on a trip to

vol­un­teer at a monastery near the city of Minya.

The sit­u­a­tion is un­ten­able, say Cop­tic lead­ers. “We are in dire need of pre­ven­tive mea­sures,” said Bishop Makar­ios of Minya, a town about 150 miles south of the cap­i­tal. “Each month we suf­fer an at­tack that is no less hor­ri­fy­ing than the event that pre­ceded it.”

Af­ter a pe­riod of ris­ing of­fi­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion under the pre­vi­ous Is­lamist gov­ern­ment, Mr. el-Sissi has reached out to the Copts, the largest Chris­tian com­mu­nity in the Arab world, al­low­ing them to build more churches and pur­su­ing other mea­sures to boost equal­ity for the com­mu­nity in ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment.

But his moves have also ran­kled some Is­lamic groups. One time, he granted equal stand­ing for Chris­tians to take paid leave for a pil­grim­age to Jerusalem — giv­ing that re­li­gious jour­ney the same le­gal pro­tec­tions as Mus­lims to make the hajj to Mecca.

“The cru­saders are now in con­trol be­cause of this coup made by el-Sissi,” de­clared Sheikh Wagdy Ghoneim, us­ing a pe­jo­ra­tive for Chris­tians, on the Mekameleen chan­nel, a pro-Mus­lim Brother­hood satel­lite sta­tion that Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties claim has re­ceived fund­ing from Qatar, which now faces diplo­matic os­tracism from Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia and other Arab states. “Now Mus­lims have be­come al­most a mi­nor­ity in Egypt.”

Sheikh Ghoneim is an ex­trem­ist. But even many mod­er­ate Mus­lims fear Mr. el-Sissi is stok­ing re­li­gious ten­sions by tout­ing the Cop­tic com­mu­nity as a core el­e­ment of his po­lit­i­cal power base.

“I had no prob­lem with Pope Fran­cis’ visit here,” said Ahmed El Wakil, a fourthyear the­ol­ogy stu­dent at Al Azhar Univer­sity, where the pope de­liv­ered an ad­dress dur­ing his visit. “But the sit­u­a­tion be­tween the Chris­tians and Mus­lims has wors­ened be­cause of the regime’s use of the Copts to strengthen its po­si­tion and sup­port.”

The Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, has re­peat­edly af­firmed un­equiv­o­cal loy­alty to the pres­i­dent. That al­liance has led some Copts to fear that their coun­try­men might as­sume they sup­port Mr. el-Sissi’s gov­ern­ment, which has strug­gled to re­vive the Egyp­tian econ­omy and faces sharp crit­i­cism from in­ter­na­tional groups over its record on hu­man rights and po­lit­i­cal free­doms.

Be­fore the bus as­sault last month, Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties de­tained more than 40 ac­tivists from three sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal par­ties who had be­gun or­ga­niz­ing a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign next year for Khaled Ali, a left­ist lawyer aim­ing to chal­lenge Mr. el-Sissi.

“The lead­er­ship is stran­gling and sup­press­ing the demo­cratic cli­mate, and the re­sult is that po­lit­i­cal Is­lam has be­come more at­trac­tive, more fa­natic and more pow­er­ful,” said Mavie Ma­her, a 31-yearold Cop­tic movie di­rec­tor.

Failed crack­down

Oth­ers noted that the plight of Chris­tians under at­tack il­lus­trates how Mr. el-Sissi’s crack­down on rad­i­cal Is­lamic groups has failed to make any­one safer.

“The arse­nal of laws estab­lished under the pre­text of com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism, in­clud­ing the re­cently de­clared state of emer­gency, did noth­ing to stop in­cite­ment against Chris­tians or pre­vent these at­tacks,” said Mounir Me­ga­hed, a Mus­lim leader of Egyp­tians Against Re­li­gious Dis­crim­i­na­tion, a group work­ing for sep­a­ra­tion be­tween mosque and state.

Mr. Me­ga­hed, the for­mer head of Egypt’s nu­clear en­ergy author­ity and a key fig­ure in oust­ing Hosni Mubarak from the pres­i­dency, ques­tions the util­ity of throw­ing sec­u­lar ac­tivists, writ­ers and politi­cians be­hind bars while Salafi Is­lamists preach hell­fire and damna­tion for Chris­tians.

“Cler­ics who threaten Chris­tians who don’t con­vert to the Mus­lim faith re­ceive gov­ern­ment salaries and have ac­cess to me­dia plat­forms,” said Mr. Me­ga­hed. “Mean­while the state fol­lows a se­cu­rity pol­icy based on ex­clud­ing so­cial ac­tors from civil or­ga­ni­za­tions, po­lit­i­cal par­ties and young peo­ple and demo­crat­i­cally or­ga­niz­ing.”

Sur­vivors of the bloody Is­lamic State as­sault on the monastery vis­i­tors in Minya said their as­sailants told women to swear they would fast on Ra­madan and ac­cept the Mus­lim faith even af­ter killing their male rel­a­tives.

“Af­ter spray­ing us with gun­fire and tak­ing our jew­elry, they told the women

and chil­dren to re­cite Ko­ran verses,” said Hanan Adel, a 28-year-old sur­vivor of the at­tack.

Ms. Adel and oth­ers in Egypt’s be­lea­guered Chris­tian com­mu­nity say they are los­ing con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment’s ca­pac­ity to shield them from the Is­lamic State.

When Egyp­tian Prime Min­is­ter Sherif Is­mail and So­cial Wel­fare Min­is­ter Ghada Wali vis­ited the Minya vic­tims in the hos­pi­tal, ou­traged fam­ily mem­bers con­fronted them.

“We are dy­ing be­cause of your poli­cies. Your pathway is bring­ing ter­ror­ism,” Michael Ibrahim shouted as the prime min­is­ter en­tered the re­cov­ery ward where Mr. Ibrahim’s 17-year-old cousin, Ma­rina Ayad, was be­ing treated for gun­shot wounds. “What is the point of you com­ing here to see my fam­ily mem­bers who have been shot?”

Mr. el-Sissi ap­pears mind­ful of the crit­i­cism. He has vowed to step up an ef­fort to strike at Is­lamic State bases in the

North Si­nai near the Ha­mas-con­trolled Gaza Strip and in neigh­bor­ing Libya, where ji­hadi groups have threat­ened and killed Cop­tic Egyp­tian mi­grant la­bor­ers.

The Egyp­tian air force said in a state­ment Tues­day that 12 “ex­tremely dan­ger­ous” mil­i­tants had been killed in a North Si­nai ter­ror­ist strong­hold of the lo­cal Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate, formerly known as An­sar Beit al-Maqdis. The mil­i­tary claims to kill hun­dreds of mil­i­tants in the area each year, al­though it rarely of­fers proof, and jour­nal­ists and non­res­i­dents are banned from the area. Hun­dreds of se­cu­rity forces have been killed.

“Ex­trem­ist at­tacks aim to raise the chaos in the coun­try,” the pres­i­dent told a re­cent con­fer­ence in Cairo. “What I am say­ing stems from my de­sire to pro­tect my own re­li­gion [Is­lam] that has be­come smeared by these sec­tar­ian at­tacks. This vi­o­lence is play­ing a ma­jor role in break­ing its im­age be­fore the en­tire world.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NEW WAVE OF FEAR: Cop­tic Chris­tians in Egypt lamented what they called an un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion af­ter an am­bush on a bus killed 29 last month.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A sui­cide bomber killed 24 Chris­tians dur­ing Sun­day Mass in De­cem­ber at a Cairo chapel. Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi says the gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to treat­ing all na­tion­als equally, but ter­ror­ist groups haven’t been so even-minded.

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