Egypt’s Coptic Christian community is reeling in the wake of the deadly New Year’s Eve terrorist attack on the Church of St. Peter and St. Mark in Alexandria, which killed 21 people and injured scores of others. For a community that has long voiced fears of being targeted and discriminated against, emotions are running high.
Prominent members of the Coptic community believe the situation has reached a boiling point, largely the result of years of subjugation and neglect. “I believe that Coptic anger has reached the point where the Coptic servility that everyone has grown used to will cease to exist,” said Yousef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic weekly Al-Watany.
Copts feel that the government’s tendency to blame “foreign elements” for the crime is another way of ignoring the deep-seated issues marring Christian-Muslim relations and the legal discrimination against their community.
“Even if there were foreign elements involved, how can they ignore the fact that Egypt has long provided soldiers for these elements, who are more than willing to carry out such acts,” Sidhom said.
2010 was an especially trying year for “national unity,” beginning with the Naga Hammadi murders and ending with the church bombing in Alexandria. Last year also witnessed the deadly Omraniya church riots.
“The era of Copts being the front line of the government is over,” Mina Rezkallah, a lawyer for the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, said. “The Coptic community feels the government has ignored our problems for too long.”
A longtime ally of the government, the Coptic Church is now in an awkward position, between a community demanding answers–and action–and a government known for sweeping its problems under the rug. The wider Coptic community, meanwhile, is torn between feelings of fear and defiance.
“The Coptic community is now experiencing all these feelings,” said Samer Soliman, political science professor at the American University in Cairo and founding member of the Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination movement. “Only in the long run will we be able to gage the real effect that the bombing will have on the community.”
“But it’s still too soon to tell, since there are many variables that will come into play,” Soliman added.
Others point out that feelings of fear and isolation among Copts have been ongoing for the last 20 years at least, with the Coptic community feeling increasingly disenfranchised by the current regime. Such feelings have been exacerbated by one-sided laws governing construction of churches and mosques, and the exclusion of Copts from high government offices.
“We don’t feel safe in Egypt; many want to leave in order to feel safe and freely express themselves and their religion elsewhere,” Rizkallah said. “The church bombing, of course, will only fuel this sentiment.”
With Coptic Pope Shenouda III cancelling Christmas celebrations, the short-term effects of the attack will be all too visible. Coptic Christmas, which falls on 7 January, will now serve as a somber reminder of the 21 lives lost.
“We all wanted to go to church on Christmas,” said Menes Menes, a 28-year-old art curator from Nasr City. Menes, along with many others, has received numerous calls from Muslim friends offering to show their support by accompanying him to Christmas mass.
“We were always taught that there would be times when ignorance would prevail and we would be targeted, but that we have to fight through it,” said Menes. “This idea has been implanted in our collective psyche.”