The bombing of the al-Qidiseen church (“Church of the Two Saints”) in Alexandria, Egypt, shortly after midnight on January 1 — in an attack that appears initially to be the work of al-Qaeda — is an ominous escalation in the ongoing attacks on Egypt’s Copts, one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities and the largest non-Muslim minority in the Middle East. The bombing also highlights the Egyptian government’s failure to protect its Christians, some 10 percent of the country’s population.
The explosion took place as worshipers were leaving a midnight service to celebrate the new year. Twenty-one Copts were killed and almost a hundred were injured, as were some Muslims in the area. Religion-related violent attacks on Copts are certainly not new — indeed, they are endemic. There are dozens each year, including by the security forces. For example, on November 24, 2010, security forces attacked Saint Mary’s Coptic Church in Giza, Cairo, to stop construction work on an extension to the church’s community center. Police surrounded the site at 3 a.m., while Coptic men were working on the roof and 200 people were keeping vigil inside the church. The security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition: Four Copts were killed and at least 50 wounded, many seriously. At least 200 Christians were arrested at the scene or nearby, and were denied access to lawyers. On January 6, 2010, in Nag Hamadi, churchgoers leaving a midnight mass on the eve of Coptic Christmas were sprayed with automatic rifle fire from passing cars. Seven people were killed and others were wounded, three seriously.
But several things make the latest attack distinctive. The death toll at al-Qidiseen is the highest since the massacre of Copts at the village of El-Kosheh on January 1, 2000. And the modus operandi was different from previous attacks. Most attacks on Copts are not precisely planned but rather carried out by local vigilantes or mobs enraged by inflammatory accusations broadcast by radical preachers. In contrast, the bombing in Alexandria, likely a suicide bombing, is reminiscent of al-Qaeda affiliates.
Also, al-Qaeda in Iraq had previously declared that its massacre of Christians at Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad was partly in retaliation for what it claimed was the Coptic Church’s imprisonment of two women who had converted to Islam. The terrorist group also threatened further action, especially in Egypt. Further, MEMRI reports that on December 17, the radical Islamist e-journal Sawt Al-Jihad focused on the Copts and the lead article, by Abu ’Abdallah Anis, described them as agents of “the global Crusade”: “The ultimate goal of the Copts — shared by Christians everywhere — is, says Anis, to steer the Muslims away from their religion; they also collaborate with Israel, and aim to establish an autonomous entity separate from Egypt.” At about the same time, an al-Qaeda-affiliated website published a “death list” naming 200 Coptic Christians, most of them living overseas, over half in Canada.
Another reason for the escalation of attacks on Copts is the failure of the Egyptian government to provide them adequate protection. It is extremely rare for anyone to be punished for sectarian violence against Egyptian Christians. Instead, the government usually tries to hush the matter up, strenuously deny any sectarian element, and focus on compulsory, pro forma “reconciliation” sessions between local religious leaders. The result is what the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have repeatedly described as “a climate of impunity” in attacking Copts.
Unless the U.S. and other governments follow up these words with actions, Egypt’s Christians could find themselves in a similar situation to their Iraqi brethren, and Islamist radicalism in Egypt will continue to grow.
— Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His Silenced: How Freedoms are Curtailed from Cairo to Copenhagen by New Restrictions on Apostasy and Blasphemy, authored with Nina Shea, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2011.