More than 20 people lost their lives in the Palm Sunday attack on the Coptic St. George Cathedral in Tanta, Egypt, in April (World Watch Monitor)

An Egyptian bishop says that by killing hundreds of Christians across the Middle East the Islamic State group has in fact strengthened the Church and been “the greatest preacher for Christianity in the world”.

Bishop Stephen of Beba and Fashn, speaking during a memorial service for the murdered Coptic priest Samaan Sheheda, said “martyrdom has always given power and strength to the Coptic Church and Christianity through the ages”, reports Copts United.

Shehada, 45, was hacked to death with a cleaver on 12 October by 19-year-old Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati. The criminal court found Sonbati guilty of premeditated murder as he “had decided to kill any Coptic priest … and lay in wait for one to pass by, in a street leading to the local church”.

Samir Abdo, a Coptic Christian and grandfather, lost his granddaughter, Maggie, in the attack on the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo in December last year, when between 25-30 people were killed – mostly women and children – and Maggie’s mother was also badly injured.

But Abdo said he forgave the perpetrators because of his Christian faith and is now attending church several times a week instead of just once. “After the attack we are stronger”, Abdo said in a recent interview with the BBC’s Today Programme.

Wave of violence

Egypt’s Copts have suffered a wave of deadly violence in the last year. In February, IS vowed to “wipe them out” and earlier this month an IS-affiliated media outlet issued a new threat, saying Copts, who make up around 10 per cent of the population, must be attacked as “infidel fighters” and their churches blown up.

Hundreds of Copts fled Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in February after eight Copts were murdered and Islamists posted videos and leaflets telling Copts to leave the area or be killed.

In April, twin bombings of Coptic churches killed 49 during packed Palm Sunday worship services, then in May 28 Copts were slaughtered on a bus in Minya.

In July, after three more Copts were murdered in eight days, a priest in Cairo said “Copts are facing the most aggressive campaign against them in the history of modern Egypt. The government must be held accountable for its failure to protect them. It also needs to fight relentlessly against sectarianism and discrimination, which produce an inexhaustible supply of these awful crimes”.

Church closures

Copts have also seen many of their churches closed or set on fire, especially in the governorate of Minya. According to journalist Girgis Bishry, more than 64 Minya churches were set on fire following the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government by current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.

“This means that Minya is a hotbed of extremists and there is a possibility that the governorate itself is infiltrated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters who intentionally turn a blind eye to such violations,” he said, as reported by Al Arabiya. “If this is not stopped, we might wake up one day to find Minya an Islamic state.”

Copts have also faced fierce opposition to their churches from Muslim neighbours in several villages. Last month, in one weekend alone, four Coptic churches were closed by local authorities in Upper Egypt seeking to ease tensions between Muslim and Christian villagers.

As World Watch Monitor reported last year, it is almost impossible for Coptic Christians to obtain a license to build a church in Egypt. But last year Egypt’s parliament approved a law relating to the building and renovating of churches and in October a cabinet committee met to start work on the legalisation of unlicensed churches.

According to Al Arabiya the head of the Egyptian Center for Developmental Studies and Human Rights, Joseph Malak, sent an official warning to Egypt’s prime minister, ministers of interior and other government representatives last week, calling on them to bring an end to the closure of churches and to re-open those that are closed.