Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) still had the support of the Egyptian Coptic Church when he spoke during Christmas celebrations on 6 January, 2017, at the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, as Pope Tawadros II looked on.

The Coptic Orthodox Church held a memorial service on Monday (3 July), commemorating 40 days since the bus attack in Minya that killed 29 Copts on Ascension Day. Egypt’s Copts, who make up around 10 per cent of the population, have suffered countless deadly attacks this year and say they are tired of being “martyrs” for their homeland.

As World Watch Monitor reported earlier today (7 July), another three Coptic men were found dead in the space of eight days from the last week of June to the first week of July.

Though no-one has yet claimed responsibility for those latest murders, the attack on the bus, which was on its way to a monastery, was one of several claimed by the Islamic State group. Egyptian authorities responded by launching air strikes on supposed militant-affiliated camps in Libya, which they said had been involved in planning and executing attacks on Copts. Meanwhile, Minya’s security director, Feisal Dowidar, was removed.

Yet Copts are still struggling to believe their government can protect them. As World Watch Monitor reported last month, the US embassy in Cairo warned of a possible terrorist attack two days before the bus attack, leading Copts to query the absence of increased security measures and to wonder why the emergency response was so slow.

Sisi the saviour?

The Coptic Church supported Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he came to power during the revolution of 2013. Fearing the increasing Islamist influence of former President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Copts backed the mass protest that ultimately gave power to the then-Field Marshall Sisi.

Sisi’s supporters – including Copts – saw the new president as their ‘saviour’, as they expected that under his rule Egypt would turn into a secular state with little interference from political Islam.

But it was not to be. Under President Sisi’s rule, repression has been “consolidated”, according to Human Rights Watch, and Copts have found out that they are not immune. Sisi’s government has also failed to control the extremist forces that threaten the country’s stability, while sectarianism divides the nation.

‘Sacrifice willingly offered’

“The official position of the Church in support of the regime has remained unchanged since June 30, 2013,” writes Karoline Kamel for the Egyptian website Madamasr.

She reports that in the aftermath of the riots in 2013, in which pro-Morsi supporters attacked and burned churches, the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, said “a homeland without churches is better than churches without a homeland” and that it was a “sacrifice willingly offered by Copts for the sake of the nation’s freedom”.

Miriam, a member of a Coptic Church in Minya, absorbs the destruction caused by pro-Morsi mobs in August 2013. (Photo: Open Doors International)

As Al-Monitor reports, one Coptic leader, Bishop Pola, acknowledged the Church had “mobilised” its members to vote for Sisi but added: “We should forget about what happened in the past for the sake of the nation… We’re not playing politics, we’re playing a patriotic role.”

His words echoed Pope Tawadros II’s statement following the exodus of Christians from the Sinai (after several Copts were targeted and killed at the beginning of 2017), when he said the killings wouldn’t “undermine national unity”.

Such responses from Coptic leaders have upset some church members, like Mary from El-Arish, Sinai’s largest city, according to Karoline Kamel.

Mary and others “rejected the Church’s position and the Pope’s statements supporting the state”, Kamel writes. “‘Where is the Sisi who we elected and supported?’ says Mary, a member of one of the families displaced to Ismailia. ‘What is he doing about our lives and safety and security as he spoke about?’ Another calls it ‘a shame for the Pope to be speaking of national unity’.”

In May, refugees from El-Arish issued a statement regarding their situation, saying 28 families remained in camps and were “suffering” because Egyptian officials would not “listen to us”, despite the government’s initial expression of concern for the their wellbeing.

During the funeral service for the victims of the Minya bus attack, there were verbal clashes between one bishop and the victims’ relatives. Kamel describes how the father of two brothers who were killed, in response to Bishop Agathon bidding “farewell to martyrs of the homeland”, said: “They are not martyrs of the homeland, they are martyrs of the Church, Father!”

Egypt’s Copts are tired of sacrificing their lives and losing loved ones ‘for the homeland’.

Another man, Mina Lamei, told Kamel: “OK, they burn churches, which we can restore. At the end of the day, these are stones. But to talk about human beings in the same way, this is not acceptable.

“Martyrdom does not mean to be killed in cold blood. Where is the choice here? Maybe I do not want to be martyred. The role of the state is to protect citizens, not congratulate them on their martyrdom. Should only the Christians sacrifice so that the homeland can live? Or rather so that the regime may live.”

No alternative

While Christians in Egypt lament the lack of security, there are also concerns over the economy and the government’s recent decision to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

But Kamel says that, while some Copts may question the Church’s support of the government, “like many others who support Sisi they are struggling to see an alternative to the current regime”.