Egypt has the largest Christian community in the Arab world. But as we were sadly reminded last week, that does not make the country a model of peaceful integration. On Sunday February 19, ISIS released a video calling for increased violence against Egyptian Christians. In recent weeks, Coptic Christians in the Sinai Peninsula have been shot dead or burnt alive. Hundreds have fled the area.
Although Sinai has an especially bad terrorist problem, further inland is not always safe. On December 11 last year, 29 people were killed by a bomb attack on Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox cathedral complex. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said that anti-Christian terrorists do not belong in Egypt.
But as Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain, recently told Christian Today, those assurances don’t “help those who are being killed in the streets”.
Christians’ difficulties in Egypt go back a long way. By the mid-19th century, the country was among the most liberal in the Arab world. Partly for that reason, says the historian Gerard Russell, “and because of painful encounters with its European neighbours, it was the birthplace of the anti-Christian Muslim Brotherhood movement back in the 1920s. Their strategy was in part to sow distrust of Christians in order to win sectarian support. They have been very successful.”
In 2012, the Brotherhood provided Egypt’s first elected president following the “Arab Spring”, Mohamed Morsi. When he was ousted in a military coup the following year, the Brotherhood turned to its old tactics, whipping up suspicion of the Christian population. Christians were attacked, abducted and raped, and dozens of churches were vandalised. Hundreds of thousands of Copts left the country.
The Brotherhood has been partially suppressed, but relations remain tense even without them. Local populations are often roused to violent anger by rumours or accusations – reminiscent of the saga of Asia Bibi’s condemnation and trial in Pakistan. Word spreads that the Christians are about to build a church, or that a Christian has committed some offence. Before anyone has a chance to clear their name, the faithful are being attacked and churches burnt to the ground.
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