More than 20 people were killed and scores wounded after a bomb detonated in the St. Peter and St. Paul church on Sunday. The church is adjacent to the Abbasseya Coptic Orthodox Church, the main site of worship and leadership for Egypt’s largest religious minority. The identity of the perpetrators remains unknown, despite the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the attack, and a presidential announcement stating that a suicide bomber was the cause of the explosion.
The past five decades have seen churches continually targeted by sectarian violence. Across the country, attacks on churches and churchgoers have manifested in numerous ways, carried out by different actors for different causes, with varying levels of violence. Yet the targets remain the same.
We tracked four different sources of sectarian aggression against churches and Christians: communal violence, attacks by militant groups, the targeting of Christians as part of the military-Islamist conflict and state violence. All point to a sectarianism that is both socially and politically pronounced.
Two deadly incidents of sectarian strife around Copts’ right to worship took place in the 1970s and 1980s and were primarily community-driven, reflecting years of socially-embedded sectarianism.
In November 1972 a mob of Muslim citizens attacked the local Bible Society in Khanka, in the Delta governorate of Qalyubiya, torching the building and assaulting visitors. Coptic Christians in the town were using the Bible Society facilities as their local place of prayer, because there was no church in their vicinity. The prayer services angered some Muslims, who rallied outside the building and attacked it, on the grounds that it was not officially designated as a house of worship. The crisis escalated when some 400 Christian clerics flocked to Khanka to try to hold prayers outside the damaged building. Angry Muslims in turn began to burn Coptic-owned shops and residences in the town.
A bloodier incident took place in the Cairo neighborhood of Al-Zawya al-Hamra in 1981, when the Coptic community planned to build a church on an empty plot of land in the area, which some residents opposed. Sectarian scuffles followed and escalated into a local armed conflict which left dozens dead.
In both Khanka and Al-Zaywa al-Hamra the state and its institutions were blamed — particularly the Interior Ministry — for their slow response to the violence. President at the time Anwar al-Sadat was personally blamed for downplaying the severity of the violence, which he described as “exceptional incidents.”
Communal violence fueled by Christians performing their rituals is a typical manifestation of sectarianism in Egypt. A report titled Closed for reasons of security: Sectarian tensions and attacks due to the construction and renovation of churches, published by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in October 2015, cites 74 attacks on churches in the period from January 25, 2011 to August, 2016.
According to the report, most church attacks were carried out to prevent the construction, renovation or expansion of churches. The second highest number is associated with the completion of Christian service buildings. The third most common type of attack is linked to the prevention of prayers in a church already under construction.
The southern Egyptian governorate of Minya is the province which witnesses the most sectarian attacks linked to the practice of Christian rituals, according to the report. Other southern governorates followed, including Beni Suef, Sohag and Assiut.
According to the report, the most significant number of these sectarian attacks has taken place during Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency. The second highest number of church attacks occurred during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces immediately following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and subsequently under ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Community violence aside, churches and Christians have also been the target of organized attacks by militant groups, deploying varying levels of organized terror. The most recent attack on the St. Peter and St. Paul Church belongs to this category, although the exact identity of the group behind the explosion remains unknown. Another prominent example of this type of attack is the 2011 bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria.
Fewer than 20 minutes into 2011, a bomb exploded in front of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, killing 24 people and injuring nearly 100 others. Two weeks prior to the bombing the militant Iraq-based Al-Qaeda group demanded that Egyptian authorities release two female prisoners within 48 hours, threatening to target Egyptian churches if these demands were not met.
It was rumored that the two women, Wafaa Constantine and Camelia Shehata, were being held in captivity in the church following their alleged conversion to Islam.
On January 23, 2011, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly announced that a Gaza-based organization called the Army of Islam was responsible for the attack, however investigations into the case have fallen dormant and nobody has stood trial.
The bombing and resulting casualties provoked the anger of Coptic citizens, inciting thousands to protest in the Cairo neighborhoods of Imbaba and Shubra. Protesters expressed anger at the failure of security forces, especially as the incident came only one year after a church in the town of Nagaa Hammadi, in the southern Qena governorate, was targeted on January 7.
During the 2010 incident, worshipers were met with a drive-by shooting as they stepped out of the church following Orthodox Christmas Mass, killing seven and injuring dozens of others.
During the 18-day uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, a church in the northeastern border town of Rafah was subjected to an armed assault, arson attack and looting at the hands of armed men. One day previously protesters all over Egypt had stood against security forces on the Friday of Anger, January 28, forcing them to retreat and leaving the country in a security vacuum. As a resut, the perpetrators of the Rafah attack could not be identified.
Sectarianism was one of the stages upon which the military-Islamist conflict that unfolded in 2013 played out.
On July 4, the day following the military announcement of Morsi’s ouster, the southern city of Minya witnessed the burning of the Virgin Mary Church. The Anba Abrahm Monastery and the Islah Church in the Mawas Monastery in the Village of Delga were also set alight. The Church of Saint Mina in the Town of Abu Helal, Minya, and its services building and medical center were also torched, alongside a slew of other church attacks across the governorate.
The attacks worsened following the forced dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda sit-ins in August 2013, where protesters were calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. At least 1000 lives were lost during the dispersals.
During the sit-ins some accused Egypt’s Christians, specifically the Coptic Orthodox Church, of being the force behind the overthrow of the elected president.
Based on public reports, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy published an interactive map monitoring sectarian violence across the country following the bloody dispersal of the protest camps. The map recorded 88 cases of attacks on churches during the month of August 2013 alone.
Minya and Assiut were the sites of the majority of these sectarian attacks, followed by Suez, North Sinai, Sohag, Cairo and Giza.
In October 2013 attackers opened fire on a wedding in the Church of the Virgin in Warraq, Giza killing four citizens. The Interior Ministry accused 27 individuals of the crime, ultimately detaining nine culprits.
According to an article published on the Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya news site, the prosecutor’s investigations revealed that two policemen entrusted with guarding the church had not been issued firearms, and as such had been signing in and out of work at the Warraq police station without performing their duties for months.
Churches and Christians have not been spared from direct state violence either.
In October 2010, rumors spread that the government had objected to the transformation of the Omraniya Christian service building into a church, in violation of its municipal licensing and permits, and that the authorities sought to stop all construction work on the site.
In response, dozens of local Coptic residents swiftly converged in the church to protest the halting of construction works there, fearing the imminent demolition of the building.
Riot police were deployed to disperse the crowds, and ended up clashing with them. The clashes resulted in the death of one individual, dozens of injuries and 157 arrests, with some protestors remaining in police custody until January 2011.
Another instance of direct state violence occurred outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasseya on April 7, 2013. During a funeral processions for five victims of sectarian violence in the town of Khosous, Qalyubiya, stones were hurled at mourners, followed by Molotov cocktails and shotgun shells. Mourners responded by hurling stones. The clashes continued to spiral out of control. Upon their arrival, riot police sealed the mourners inside the cathedral while firing teargas canisters in their direction.
Translated by Jano Charbel