TSG IntelBrief: The Continued Targeting of Egypt’s Coptic Christians
April 10, 2017

The Continued Targeting of Egypt’s Coptic Christians

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The April 9 attacks at two Coptic churches in Egypt marked the deadliest attacks against the beleaguered Christian minority group in decades.

• The Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the attacks in Alexandria and Tanta that killed at least 49 and wounded more than 100.

• Pope Tawadros II, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, was at the Alexandria church just before the bombing but was unharmed.

• The Islamic State has been relentless in its targeting of Copts, and Egyptian President al-Sisi announced a three-month state of emergency in the aftermath of the April 9 attacks.

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Palm Sunday was transformed into scenes of senseless murder at two Coptic churches in Egypt in dual suicide attacks that occurred within hours of each other. The bombings marked the latest and deadliest recent attacks against the Christian minority, which has been targeted by violent extremists for decades. The so-called Islamic State claimed credit for the attacks, which started with a suicide bombing in Tanta, Egypt, in which a bomb was detonated near the altar inside a church packed with worshipers on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. Nearly 30 people were killed in the attack. Several hours later, another Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a security checkpoint outside the St. Marx Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, where Pope Tawadros II, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, was in attendance; he was unharmed in the attack. At least 17 people were killed in the Alexandria attack, with dozens more wounded. 

Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which makes up approximately ten percent of the population, has long been one of the Islamic State’s favorite targets. In December 2016, the terror group murdered 25 worshipers in a Cairo church when another suicide bomber detonated his vest during prayers. Following that attack, the group released a propaganda video in February 2017 calling for further violence against Copts. The Islamic State and its predecessor groups have long targeted Coptic Christians and other religious minorities that do not fall in line with its barbaric ideology.

Unlike the Shi’a in Iraq—who have long been the favorite targets of the Islamic State, but who also represent the majority within the Iraqi population and are quite powerful overall—Egypt’s Coptic Christians have very little power and even less protection. Hardline and extremist commentators in Egypt have periodically espoused negative views about Copts and debated the legitimacy of targeting churches. Sectarianism is not an uncommon sentiment within the Egyptian population, and therefore weakens societal resilience towards the constant targeting of minority communities. The extensive targeting of Copts is likely designed to drive a wedge between the government and one of the al-Sisi regime’s main political constituencies. After years of suffering particularly brutal sectarian violence in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, Egypt’s Copts have emerged as a reliably consistent block of support for President al-Sisi, who has vowed to rid the country of extremist groups. Attacks like these serve to undermine the regime’s narrative that it is able to secure a pluralist Egypt in which minority rights are respected, diminishing the regime’s legitimacy among the people of Egypt.

In response to the Palm Sunday attacks, Egyptian President Abd Fatah al-Sisi announced a three-month countrywide state of emergency. The response was reflective of a familiar problem for Egypt: finding a way to strike a balance between the imperative of combating the real terror threat facing the country while not slipping into a counterproductive semi-permanent state of emergency that erodes many liberties. The ‘temporary’ state of emergency that President Hosni Mubarak imposed after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, lasted for 31 years, only ending with Mubarak’s ouster. This problem is not exclusive to Egypt; many countries that face persistent extremist challenges have taken steps to confront the threat of terrorism that—whether explicitly or implicitly—have resulted in changes to the very nature of society and government. Not coincidentally, such an outcome is a precise aim of nearly all terror groups. 

Though the al-Sisi government has faced criticism over its failure to protect the Coptic population—particularly in the aftermath of the December 2016 attack—every modern Egyptian president has faced a unique challenge in protecting the country’s minorities from the effects of sectarianism. The pressure facing Egypt’s security services will only increase with the April 28-29 visit by Pope Francis, who is seeking to encourage progress in mending the religious and sectarian divisions that have caused so much destruction throughout the region.

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