By Magdi Khalil –
Violence against Copts in Egypt is a serious phenomenon expressed through an extended series of barbaric attacks on a peaceful minority. The beginning of this phenomenon in modern times dates back to the seventies of last century, when al-Khanka Church in Cairo was burned down on November 6, 1972. Since then, there have been hundreds of incidents of mass violence against peaceful Copts in Egypt, yet some of those were of particular significance, and can be seen as landmarks on that brutal road. The following incidents qualify as such: al-Zawiya al-Hamraa incident in June 1981, where 81 Copts in Cairo lost their lives and hundreds were injured under the watchful eyes of the Egyptian Intelligence Service itself; al-Kosheh massacre on December 31, 1999 (the millennium massacre) that was partially instigated by the Egyptian State Security and resulted in the death of 21 Copts; the terrorist bombing of the Church of the two Saints (al-Quedissine) in Alexandria on December 31, 2010, resulting in the death of 23 Copts; The Christmas Eve attack on January 6, 2010 on a church in Nagaa Hamady in upper Egypt, which killed 6 Copts; the Army’s attack on peaceful Coptic demonstrators on October 9, 2011 (known as the Maspero Massacre) where 27 Copts lost their lives, crushed under the wheels of armored personnel carriers; and the widespread terrible bombings of Coptic churches following the dispersion of the sit-in at Rabaa in August 2013, after the June 30, 2013 revolution. The brutality of the Maspero Massacre and the official involvement of the Egyptian Military in that attack prompted Coptic Solidarity to hold an annual Remembrance Day of Modern Coptic Martyrs in October.
On the whole, there are ten defining aspects of the violence exhibited against Copts:
- It is religiously based:
The religious nature of the violence against Copts is the first defining characteristic, as Copts are basically attacked because of their Christian faith. Collective attacks are launched for no reason other than religion. Thus, in many cases, the violence has been directed at Christian religious symbols such as churches or crosses. It has also manifested in verbal violence against Christian doctrine and beliefs. This verbal violence in itself is an integral part of physical violence. The symbolic violence directed at Copts was the focus of a study by late researcher Mohammed al-Sayyed Saied who surmised that it was one of the worst types of violence. “What we call sectarian strife,” he observed, “represents some of the worst aspects of this violence. In virtually all cases, the aggression is directed at churches, as well as the primary symbol of Christian Egyptians, the Crucifix, which is subject to particular abuse by Muslim fanatics.”Religion is at the basis of this violence, as it derives its momentum and justifications for the most part from Islamic religious texts. In view of that, it is not really surprising that a great number of violent incidents take place immediately after Friday prayers. In the course of my research, I noticed that dozens of the attacks against Copts over the last three decades had occurred after Friday prayers.
- It is one-sided:
The violence consistently flows in one direction: from Muslims towards Copts, as there has never been a collective attack by Copts on Muslims.
- Bullying proclivities:
There is a marked proclivity in Islamic societies for collective thinking and herd mentality. The Islamic State does not tolerate individualism, which is usually trounced by collectivism and religion. This Islamist approach left its mark on these societies, in the form of excess hatred, and a violent terroristic streak constantly looking for any justification or flimsy excuses to unleash such violence on convenient targets. In the absence of a powerful state and strict legal deterrence, this violent streak may intensify and turn into chaos.
- The state is part of the problem:
Following the events of al-Khanka in 1972, a report issued by the late Gamal Al-Otaifi, then Minister of Information, noted, in six different sections, the deficiencies detected in the Security Service’s handling of the incident. In the following years, inadequate containment turned into a far worse problem. Former Interior Minister, General Hassan Abu Basha, blamed his predecessor Mr. Nabawi Ismail for the incident which took place in al-Zawiya al-Hamraa, Cairo, in June 1981, who refused to involve Security forces claiming that the police did not intervene at first due to political reasons. According to General Abu Basha, the actual number of Copts who were killed during that attack was 81, and not 9 as stated by Ismail. Years later, the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahali reported in issue No. 261 that the al-Kosheh incident was entirely orchestrated by the Security Service, and that the governor of Sohag was personally involved in this incident. I can list a number of reports that clearly illustrate the role played by the State’s various institutions in the violence directed against Copts. The Maspero Massacre, on October 9, 2011, is clear example of such involvement. Both the Egyptian Military and the State TV had no qualms about victimizing Copts openly, the first by crushing peaceful protestors under the wheels of armored vehicles, and the second through state-owed media inciting Egyptians to violence against the peaceful demonstrators by asking them to “protect Egyptian security personnel from the Copts” while security forces were butchering defenseless Coptic protestors.
- It is a locally manufactured:
Violence against Copts is a homegrown, locally manufactured phenomenon. Egyptian government officials and media frequently cite conspiracy theories laying the blame with foreigners which is absolutely ludicrous.The first line to remedy the current culture of violence is to confront the bitter truth that Egyptian Muslims are entirely responsible for the violence directed against their compatriots. There has been no evidence in the course of hundreds of attacks committed against Copts that an outside party is implicated in the slightest. If such outside factors or players had existed, the Egyptian State and its Intelligence apparatus would not have hesitated to reveal them, at least as a way to absolve the state from the numerous charges leveled against it in that regard.
- It is escalating:
The violence committed against Copts since 1972 surpasses by far the violence they have experienced since Muhammad Ali established the modern Egyptian state in 1805. And the pace of violence is increasing alarmingly. The above- mentioned report by al-Otaifi listed 10 sectarian incidents that occurred between August 1971 and November 1972, most of which pale when compared to those that took place in subsequent years particularly since 1990 and to date. The year 2009 alone saw more than a hundred incidents, including 20 major incidents identified by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in its annual 2009 report. Furthermore, if cases of discrimination against Copts were monitored, they would number in the thousands annually.Prof. Saad el-Din Ibrahim, head of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, pointed out that the era of former President Mubarak alone witnessed 1,500 cases of collective attacks by Muslims against Copts. Since the Revolution of January 25, 2011, more than 500 acts of aggression have been perpetrated against Copts.
- It is directed at areas with dense Coptic populations and Coptic influence:
It is noted that most incidents of violence against Copts are directed at areas that have a traditionally high Coptic population density, especially in Upper Egypt or certain areas with visible Coptic presence in major cities. They aim to intimidate Coptic communities and force them to move out of those areas.
- It is constantly looking for justification and pretexts:
It seems that there is an endless quest, throughout the history of Islamic violence, to find justification for the crimes committed, and to make up excuses for their perpetrators. There have been hundreds of widespread false rumors that typically preceded incidents of violence against Copts and were intended to mobilize Muslims as well as to justify the aggression.
Impunity is a prevalent trait in the history of violent acts and crimes committed against Copts. While the Egyptian state is quick to arrest perpetrators of crimes committed against the army, police or tourism sector, prosecute them promptly, and inflict maximum punishment, the same cannot be said when Copts are the victims of similar crimes, as the perpetrators typically escape punishment. In many cases, the state arbitrarily arrests a number of suspects, and later releases them, or arrests a group of Muslims and Copts together, makes a bargain with Copts to give up their rights to sue their attacker in court in return for their release. Once they do, the state releases both culprits and victims. In other instances, the state refuses to prosecute the accused in court, and instead pushes for customary reconciliation sessions, where the chance of achieving justice is almost nonexistent.
- Discouraging Prospects:
Finally, there are indications that this violence may very well intensify in the future. There is more than one reason for this sad prediction, namely; the lack of a genuine resolve to eliminate the violence; its coincidence with tyrannical interests; the fact that Copts are not doing enough to reduce it, while the state is using coercion and manipulation to make the Church do its bidding and absorb Coptic anger, and the Coptic Diaspora’s efforts in that respect are in need of effective reorganization; and finally, because the Egyptian culture’s willingness and ability to accept the “other” is unfortunately declining quickly among the majority.
Photo Credit: Relatives carried coffins and crucifixes during a mass funeral at a monastery in Alexandria. (Reuters: Amr Abdallah Dalsh)