The leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian church warned on Monday of increased attacks on Christians, saying national unity is being “defaced.”
In a meeting with lawmakers, Pope Tawadros II said that since 2013 there have been 37 sectarian attacks on Christians — nearly an incident a month. He describes the situation as “very painful.”
He told lawmakers that preserving national unity is “our responsibility in front of the world, future generations, history and in front of God.” His remarks were published on his personal website.
The Coptic Pope’s website also quoted lawmaker Saad el-Gammal as saying that parliament is currently drafting a new law to criminalise actions that undermine national unity, as well as a law that regulates the construction of churches, which is severely restricted.
Christians make up 10 per cent of Egypt’s population and say they face discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.
Egypt’s Orthodox Coptic Christians strongly supported Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s ouster of his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood group. Following Morsi’s toppling, many Islamists claimed that Christians had conspired with the military against them. Attacks on Christian homes, businesses and churches subsequently surged in the south.
A string of attacks have hit the southern province of Minya in recent weeks. The province is home to a large Christian community, making up around 35 per cent of the province’s population, the largest among Egypt’s 27 provinces. It is also home to a substantial concentration of extremist Islamic groups.
Last week, a Muslim mob stabbed a Christian to death over a personal feud. Days earlier, in two separate incidents, mobs attacked and torched houses of Christians over a rumour that they intended to convert buildings into churches. In May, a Muslim mob stripped an elderly Christian woman and paraded her on the street following a rumour that her son had an affair with a Muslim woman.
Speaking during a military graduation ceremony, Egypt’s el-Sissi vowed to hold wrongdoers accountable. However, security forces have routinely released assailants within days after “reconciliatory” sessions between church officials and village elders.
Rights groups such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have expressed concern over the “increasing frequency of sectarian violence in Minya” which it described as the main stage for assaults on Christians. The group documented 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya alone since January 25, 2011, including ten incidents since January 2016. Sectarian violence has also been reported in other Egyptian provinces.
Meanwhile, Bishop Angaelos,the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has also spoken out about the increase in attacks against Egypt’s Christian community.
“Egypt is undoubtedly going through a formative stage of its contemporary history. Having emerged from uprisings and changes in Government, dealing with resulting pressures on its economy and infrastructure, and with the loss of foreign investment and tourism, it has become more vulnerable to a disturbing wave of radicalism,” Bishop Angaelos said in a statement.
“One of the manifestations of this radicalisation is that despite a short period of apparent reprieve, it is regrettable that the time has come yet again to speak of heightened, targeted attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Tensions against Egypt’s indigenous Christian community have again escalated over the past few months, and will spiral even further if not immediately addressed.”
He said the rise in attacks on Christians “inflammatory false rumours and accusations regarding alleged extra-marital relationships between Christians and Muslims, incendiary rumours relating to the building of new churches, and a growing trend towards the direct targeting of priests and their families.”
Bishop Angaelos added that “while there is a rejection of these attacks on Christians by the vast majority of Egypt’s 85 per cent Muslim population, themselves often targeted by the same radical and intolerant elements, there is a need for a robust system of law and order that appropriately responds to crime, irrespective of who it is perpetrated by or against. If this does not happen, the concern is that hopes for a more cohesive nation will disappear, and that recent events will give way to a re-emerging religious divide.”
He continued: “In light of all this, it is of course difficult to have a sense of hope or promise in the current situation, but mine still remains rooted in the way Christians in Egypt and elsewhere have faced persecution for millennia. They continue to draw strength from their confidence and trust in an omnipotent God, and forgive through grace that only He can provide.
“In this, those suffering directly from this persecution provide a great example and inspiration for us not to be engulfed by anger or resentment but in calling for justice, remain forgiving, no matter how hard, and work towards a hopeful future, no matter how seemingly impossible.”
The bishop said that “the brutal and personal nature of many of the attacks against our brothers and sisters in Egypt warrants our prayers and support for them as they continue to endure heightened levels of persecution while refusing to lose their admirable and resilient spirit.”