Every time I begin writing this blog entry, something else happens to the Copts in Egypt. Earlier this week, an off-duty police officer opened fire on a train in the Minya governorate, killing one Coptic Christian and wounding five others. On New Year's Eve, as Coptic Orthodox Christian worshippers celebrated the New Year in Alexandria, Egypt, a bomb detonated, killing at least 23 and injuring over 100 others.
Back in November, Al Qaeda in Iraq issued a statement threatening the Copts of Egypt after Al Qaeda's massacre of a central Baghdad church. In response, the Egyptian government renounced such threats and vowed to protect Copts from Al Qaeda. Apparently that vow did not protect the Copts from their own government, from their fellow Egyptians, or from any external threats.
Egyptian state security forces were quick to act against their own citizens when Coptic Christians in Giza, Cairo, attempted to finish the construction of a church on November 24, 2010. On that day, the Copts, defending themselves with bricks and stones, were met with tear gas, "rubber" bullets, and possibly live ammunition. Two Copts were killed, dozens were injured and at least 156 arrested at the hands of state "security" forces.
So where was Egyptian state security on New Year's Eve?
The Egyptian government has freely allowed country-wide protests over the last 4 months against the Copts, with protesters shouting false accusations and attacks against Pope Shenouda, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. These protests involved rock throwing, barricading roads leading to churches, and unsubstantiated accusations that churches and monasteries were storing weapons and kidnapping Muslim women to force their conversion. There were little if any security forces or policemen at these events.
Attackers of Coptic Christians in Egypt attack them with impunity. The shooter of six Copts and one Muslim guard on January 7, 2010 following the Christmas service at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Naga Hammadi was sentenced yesterday after a yearlong delay of the trial. No one has been punished for the burning down of 20 Christian homes and shops in the Qena Province of Egypt by an angry Muslim mob this past November.
Copts in Egypt continuously face ongoing discrimination and outright persecution, either by the Egyptian government or through its tacit approval, as recognized by the recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports and press releases.
Shows of support by some Egyptian Muslims to their fellow Christian citizens on January 7, 2011 by holding vigil in front of some churches during Christmas mass were greatly appreciated. However, this kind of support needs to spread way beyond a few affluent pockets of Egypt. Change must take place among the majority of Egyptians, who are struggling with unemployment, rising food prices, and low quality education, among other difficult challenges. Increased tolerance and understanding must occur between Muslims and Christians throughout Egypt. This will not happen unless Coptic Christians feel equal protection under the law.
Surface measures, such as forced "peace and reconciliation commissions" and the renaming of El-Kosheh to "Medinet el Salam" (the City of Peace), the site of sectarian violence that left 21 Coptic Christians dead in 2000, do not suffice.
Fundamental changes need to be made to the Egyptian government and within Egyptian society, and they need to be made now. Recent history in Rwanda and Yugoslavia has taught us that these kinds of social tensions can erupt into extensive violence very quickly. Let's not wait for this to happen in Egypt. The first step towards change for the Egyptian government is to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians - including the perpetrators in its own state security and police ranks.