Fear stalks Egypt’s churches over Coptic Christmas


Egypt tightened security around churches on the eve of Coptic Christmas after a New Year’s Day bombing killed up to 23 and sparked angry protests by Christians demanding more protection from Muslim militants.

Officials suspect an al Qaeda-inspired bomber was behind the blast outside a church in the port city of Alexandria. Islamist websites had carried repeated threats to attack churches and have vowed to strike again. The blast ripped through a crowd, scattering body parts, destroying cars and shattering windows. “I no longer want to stay in this country,” said Emad Atef, 25, a Christian who is a carpenter. “I am getting the paperwork to leave. I don’t feel safe and neither do those around me.”

Extra police were deployed outside main churches, streets nearby were cleared of cars and some roads were blocked by security measures. Egypt’s Muslims and Christians have co-existed for centuries, with occasional clashes often the result of family or business disputes or cross-faith relationships, not ideology. Christians, who form one tenth of the population, complain of discrimination in the job market and a lack of representation in government, the army and business. A perception of growing intolerance is leading some to shun their Muslim compatriots.

The church bombed at New Year was previously targeted in 2006 when a man assaulted worshippers at two churches during Mass, killing one person and wounding five. A year later, Christian shops in the area were attacked during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday after rumours spread of a love affair between a Muslim woman and Christian man. One year ago, six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church after midnight Mass. rthodox Copts celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Copts voiced fury last year when Muslim radicals chanted slogans against Christians and insulted Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda at demonstrations as police stood by.

The Alexandria attack was the worst in decades against Christians and drew attention to the state’s handling of sectarian riots. Rights groups say Egyptian police have been too slow to punish violence motivated by religion, sending a message that it is acceptable. Copts said the government should prosecute the rioters instead of urging victims to accept reconciliation. “It’s a recipe for a recurrence of these violent attacks,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Some pointed to a deeper problem — a gradual Islamisation of education promoting a single, Islamic version of Egypt’s identity that belies a diverse cultural history.
“Our school books are preaching Islamisation,” said Youssef Sidhom, the Christian editor of weekly newspaper Watani. “Coptic history of Egypt is to a vast extent withdrawn… The syllabus is using Islam as the source of all traditions and norms.” Some young Copts, usually fiercely loyal to their church leaders, have begun to criticise them for keeping too low a profile and allowing political Islam to influence state policy. “Many within the Coptic community are now feeling a threat
to their very survival, their very presence,” said Bahgat. Two Christians died as result of a riot in a Cairo suburb in November, when about 3,000 Copts hurled stones at police after the authorities blocked building of a church. Muslims lobbed rocks at the Christians from behind police lines. “We are being attacked, one attack after another, and are about to explode,” said 33-year-old aluminium worker Medhat Malak, who was constructing the church.

President Hosni Mubarak called in a speech for unity after the Alexandria attack, saying the bomber targeted all Egyptians. State television has featured Christian-themed programming in the run up to Orthodox Christmas and some Egyptian Muslims rushed to express solidarity after the Alexandria attack. One Muslim made a page on Facebook entitled “Being together in Christmas Eve … Either we LIVE together or DIE together”. “By God’s will I shall go to church tonight,” said Ishac Helmy, who sells plastic slippers. “It’s true that I’m afraid, but Jesus told us, ‘Fear not for I am with you all the days,’ and that gives me courage.”