Egypt’s Thwarted Church Attack Speaks to Deeper Challenges

By Claire Evans

08/20/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The attempted suicide attack on August 11 against the Church of the Virgin Mary in Lower Egypt, while thwarted, is part of an alarming trend. It left many Christians feeling both frustrated at its “normalness” and grateful that the attack was miraculously interrupted.

A terrorist cell chose to target the church both as a way to mark the beginning of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha and to terrorize Christians during their celebration of the religious feast of the Assumption of Mary.

As security forces investigate the motive behind the attack, two disturbing details have come forth, according to regional media outlets. First, the terrorists received special training on how to include toxic nails as part of the explosive material. These were intended to kill Christians outside of the immediate vicinity of the explosion. Second, these terrorists were connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

These details confirm what Egypt’s Christians already know: homegrown extremism is increasingly threatening Christians. This has led to all too familiar feelings of frustration among the Church. Mina, a 22-year-old engineer, said, “Currently, I am no longer very interested in incidents, and all the talks are nothing, I look for chances to leave this state… I don’t belong here.”

For many, leaving is impossible. Sadly, guarantees of security are viewed as impossible as well. Saturday’s church attack was thwarted because security forces, due to the major Christian holiday, had set up a barrier approximately 30 meters outside of and around the church. They were watchful, and they acted upon the knowledge of a threat. However, this is not the norm. Sometimes, security forces are watchful, but lack the ability to adequately respond to a threat. Other times, security forces are able to intervene but choose not to. Either way, Christians suffer.

Two recent events highlight both scenarios.

The 2017 displacement of Christians from el-Arish left 355 families homeless. ISIS essentially took over the region, and the security forces were overwhelmed. When seven Christians were targeted in a span of three weeks, it was clear that the security forces lacked the ability to help. “We hope that the state look[s] at us; we are Egyptian people. We need a solution to our problem,” one of the families told ICC at the time.

“Currently, I am no longer very interested in incidents, and all the talks are nothing, I look for chances to leave this state… I don't belong here.”

Earlier this year, a Christian was shot by ISIS after he returned to el-Arish. He could not reestablish his life elsewhere, and decided to attempt returning home even though others who had tried before him were killed.There is a state of terror and panic after this incident,” a priest shared with ICC. “Those militants… want to remove Christians from el-Arish. Killing Bassem was a threatening message from them to intimidate Christians… and to say to anyone from the displaced families who are thinking of returning back to el-Arish [that] ‘your fate will be the fate of Bassem when you return.’”

For the last year, security forces have been embroiled in counterterrorism efforts in el-Arish, but the wide breadth of extremism has, at times, overwhelmed their capabilities.

Other times, and much more commonly, security forces have the ability to protect Christians, but simply look away. Last month, a mob formed multiple times against local Christians in Sultan village. The mob was angry because Christians were celebrating religious rites in a different church building. During the first two attacks, police were present, but did nothing. When they finally intervened during the third attack, they sided with the mob by saying that no church would be allowed in the village.

“We are saddened by official appeasement of and acquiescence to demands by some who possess no right to such demands [the demands to have no church in the village], to the detriment of Coptic rights,” said a statement by the Archbishop.

It is because of this kind of historic trend that many Christians felt frustrated after Saturday’s thwarted attack on the Church of the Virgin Mary. A local teacher said, “We are accustomed to this; that became the normal behavior at every feast or celebration, one terrorist trying to blow up a church or conduct violence like as an Eid gift.”

It is a challenge to attend church, knowing that at any moment a terrorist attack could occur. Even though many are frustrated because of a lack of protection, many are very grateful that this attack was stopped. Father Gerom, a local priest, said, “The bomber was split into two from the explosion. He tried to target the church, but he could not and turned back and it is a miracle!” He added, “If the bomber succeeded, it will be like Tanta Church and many will be killed.”

Many share his belief that something miraculous occurred to save the church from the same fate of other attacks. It is because of this that, despite the broader frustration with their lack of security, many of Egypt’s Christians are grateful. “In spite of the attempted bombing, the number of Christians are increasing in attending the church mass,” marveled Sami, who is from a different village.

Another believer, Ahmed, added, “Everything that happens increases the love of visiting churches in times of celebrations by Christian people.”

We must continue to pray that, as Egypt’s Christians celebrate this miracle by attending church more frequently, no further attacks will occur. We must also pray that, if any further attempts are made, the authorities will have both the capability and will to intervene.

For interviews with Claire Evans, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org

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