A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 9, 2013

Copts Caught in the Crossfire: Sectarian Attacks by Islamists since July 3

In an unusual move, Coptic Pope Tawadros II has canceled his activities in Cairo this week, reportedly fearing attacks. Earlier, the Church had denied reports that the Pope had survived an assassination attempt. This rather unusual announcement does not occur in a vacuum.

Since the July 3 military intervention to remove President Muhammad Morsi, Egypt has been torn by continuing clashes that left 300 dead in a little over a month. The bulk of those killed died in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators or between pro-Morsi groups and the security forces. But there has been a troubling (if all too familiar) subset of violence in the form of Islamist groups attacking Coptic Christians individually or collectively (destroying Coptic homes or shops or, in several cases, churches). These attacks, which have occurred sporadically since the 1970s, were greatly stepped up during and after the 2011 revolution, but further accelerated in the wake of the deposition of Morsi.

One of the more disturbing elements has been in the form of charges by Islamists that the Coptic Church is somehow responsible for the coup that toppled Morsi, including slogans such as "the Military Republic of Tawadros" and suggesting that General Sisi (who just a few months ago the Muslim Brotherhood was hinting was one of its own) is somehow under the Church's thumb. Certainly the Church was not enthusiastic about Morsi or his Constitution, and Copts privately will mostly have welcomed his fall, but the Church played no active role in the coup, though the Pope did appear with other public figures, including the Sheikh al-Azhar, at the announcement of the road map for the future.

As attacks on Coptic targets have been stepped up, security forces have often been accused of inaction. This is not new, but a recurring issue, particularly in the countryside, where the police may have family or clan links with the Islamists.

Although the Western media is only just beginning to note the sectarian clashes (The Washington Post here, AP here), human rights groups have been on the case. Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, noted that "Since Morsy’s ouster on July 3, at least six attacks on Christians have taken place in governorates across Egypt, including Luxor, Marsa Matrouh, Minya, North Sinai, Port Said, and Qena." HRW not that several were killed in Luxor Governorate on July 5, and subsequently three were killed in Sinai, including a priest.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has also reported details of the July attacks. (Fuller report here.)

Some of the worst violence has been in familiar places, particularly in Upper Egypt. Cities such as Minya and Asyut have large Christian populations (Asyut is believed to have the largest percentage of Copts of any major Egyptian city) but also are hotbeds of Islamist radicalism (Asyut rose up at the time of the Sadat assassination in 1981 and was a focus of the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.)

Not all the signs are negative. In late July not only security forces but. reportedly, organized groups of Muslim youth helped defend two churches in Minya from attacks.

The Pope's cancellation of meetings may help focus more attention on the sectarian question; what is also clear enough from past experience is that if violence in Egypt continues to spread, the Copts will find themselves caught in the crossfire of radical Islamists and the secular state, as has too often been the case in recent decades.

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