By Peter Burns and Avalon McKinney
The State Department recently released its major, annual International Religious Freedom report documenting the status of religious freedom in nations around the world. The chapter on Egypt is particularly grim, stating “Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region.” The report also cited a terrorist attack in Minya, Upper Egypt that killed seven and left nineteen wounded as well as an incident in which seven Christians were injured while defending their church from an attack by Muslim villagers. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has spoken well about the place Copts have within Egyptian society, yet Christians in Egypt and abroad have been disappointed to see his rhetoric fall flat with little real change in attitudes towards the Coptic community.
The Coptic Church in Egypt has been a target of radical Islamic terrorism for over six hundred years. Radical groups like ISIS have perpetrated horrific acts of violence against Copts in recent years. Sadly, Copts are not only the victims of radically motivated attacks but are also persecuted by their own neighbors.
El-Sisi has regularly spoken out against Islamic terrorism and attacks targeting the Christian community, claiming that these actions are a misrepresentation of Islam. He has called upon his Muslim brothers and sisters to act peacefully towards their Christian neighbors, even telling them to wish the Christians peace and happiness during their religious feasts and holidays. In 2017, el-Sisi commissioned the building of the Middle East’s largest church. He made an appearance at the church’s inauguration during Christmas mass on January 7th, 2019, even shaking the hand of the Egyptian Pope Tawadros. His rhetoric has emphasized Egyptian nationality as a unifying factor for all Egyptians, regardless of religion. When a church was bombed in 2016, el-Sisi issued a three day mourning period for all of Egypt saying, “I’m not just giving my condolences to the Christians, our brothers, or the Pope and the priests. I am giving my condolences to all Egyptians.”
Yet the reality on the ground is that Christians still suffer under terrorist attacks, church bombings, stabbings, and shootings. The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report provides evidence of the excessive violence that the church is facing. For example, on February 22, the corpses of two local Christians, Saad Hanna and his son Medhat, were found on the roadside in al-Arish. Saad’s body showed gunshot wounds and Medhat’s showed signs of having been burned alive. On a similar occasion, veterinarian Bahgat William was shot in the head, neck, and stomach leaving his clinic. All three of these men were killed simply for professing faith in Jesus and practicing Christianity. Yet, the oppression of Christians is deeply rooted in the Egyptian government, society, and administrations. On July 19th, Josef Reda Helmy, a Coptic Christian, was tortured and murdered at Mubarak Training Camp. Nearly fours hours after arriving to serve his country, he was killed because of his Christian heritage. This is not an isolated occurrence for the Egyptian military. In 2016, Michael Gamel Mansour was shot and killed by his comrades and in 2015 Bishoy Nataay Boushra was found strangled to death in his barracks.
The military is not the only place that Copts face persecution. According to the State Department report, churches are indiscriminately shut down due to unfair building regulations and strict licensing laws that are only enforced on churches. The report states, “Local authorities also closed churches on the grounds that they were unlicensed, despite provisions in the law guaranteeing Christians the right to use the buildings for worship pending licensure.” Up to 70 towns were reported to be without churches even though they had applied for building licenses. Given that the church is the center of the Coptic community, much of their daily activities have been stifled. Weddings, funerals, mass, and other communal practices are either delayed or forced to take place in private homes. Although the Egyptian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, the law is not enforced. As terrorist attacks continue to ravage the Coptic Church, the government encourages “customary reconciliation.” Essentially, ignoring the law and hoping that Christians will simply drop charges and move on. There is little justice for the Copts who are victims of Islamic terrorism and religious persecution. As President el-Sisi reassures the world that he is positively changing the Coptic situation in Egypt, the reality paints a very grim picture.
Peter Burns is government relations and policy director at In Defense of Christians. Avalon McKinney is a summer research assistant for In Defense of Christians
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates