Attacks on Christians in Egypt have intensified in brutality because of an influx of arms and foreign jihadis, lax border security and increased local hostility to non-Muslims, according to a leading UK academic.
Dr Mariz Tadros of Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies said that the suicide attack on a Cairo church last December showed that jihadis are prepared to engage in suicide bombings “to maximise horror”. Attacks by Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood members, which have resulted in less damage, have not involved the death of the perpetrator, she added.
Many Egyptian Muslims had shown themselves willing to put their lives in danger to help their Coptic neighbours, she stressed.
Speaking at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies on 8 July, Dr Tadros said she believed the Egyptian security services shared some responsibility for the attacks against Copts, on account of “massive” security failings and “a total disdain for any warnings that Copts report about the kind of threats they get”.
Poor security has enabled foreign fighters to enter Egypt from Yemen, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, and arms and funding to be smuggled into the country.
Dr Tadros also suggested that attacks on Coptic churches could take place in the UK, Europe or the US because Islamists are “broadening the circle of how you target and why you target”.
However attacks on individual Copts in their homes or workplaces, such as were carried out in El-Arish earlier this year, suggested local collusion with IS fighters, because identifying where Copts lived and worked would not have been possible without tip-offs from neighbours, said Tadros, author of ‘Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenges of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt’.
She added that it was “offensive” to suggest Copts had brought their suffering on themselves by backing President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the 2013 ousting of his Islamist-linked predecessor Mohamed Morsi. Copts she had interviewed told her they chose the option they believed would cause them “the least horror”.
Morsi’s election a year earlier had been followed by a deep increase in social divisions, Dr Tadros said, giving the example of a Christian being barred from using the bus or trading at the market. The Morsi regime “encroached on the rights” of Baha’is, Shia and women – not just Copts – she said, adding: “This is not substantive democracy”.
And although Copts and Muslims protested together during the 2011 Arab Spring, she said Copts’ vulnerability increased dramatically afterwards.
“The rhetoric against Christians increased dramatically… There was an ascendancy of Islamists – groups that wish to implement a system of governance that is in compliance with their interpretation of Sharia. I would include the Muslim Brotherhood in that group. [They were saying:] ‘These people should leave the country; we want an all-Muslim country’.”
In addition, Salafis began “occupying churches and [saying] ‘this should be converted into a mosque’,” and some Christians who owned land or property were forced to pay a levy or have their land occupied, especially in Upper Egypt, she said.
Before the Arab Spring, attacks on Copts tended to be triggered by identifiable patterns such as disputes over business deals, opposition to romantic relationships between Copts and Muslims, and rumours of illegal church building, Dr Tadros said. However, after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak amid the Arab Spring protests, “un-triggered assaults” followed – incidents that had not been sparked by the usual sources of tension.