Palm Sunday church attacks: Egypt’s ‘worst day of violence’

Egypt’s security situation five years after ISIL-claimed church blasts killed 48 people in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

Saturday marks five years since what has been described as 'the worst day of violence' targeting Christians in Egypt’s modern history' [File: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Beshoy Abd el-Malak, an Alexandria-based plumber, spent the night before Palm Sunday in 2017 weaving palm fronds into crosses and hearts at home with his family.

This is part of the Coptic Christian tradition to celebrate Easter, one of the most important events for those who mark it. On Palm Sunday, these creations are blessed by a priest and carried in a procession in memory of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.

According to his sister, Mariana, Beshoy, 19, excelled at this craft and unusually that year had decided to celebrate Palm Sunday not in his family’s usual church of the Virgin Mary on Seif street, but rather at St Mark’s Cathedral along with his aunts and cousins.

“He was strangely insistent that he wanted to go there,” Mariana, 40, told Al Jazeera.

Mariana along with her father, mother, and other siblings went to their church. During the service, they learned of an attack on St George’s Church in Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta, 95km (60 miles) north of the capital Cairo.

A man wearing concealed explosives managed to pass through a security check outside and detonated himself near the front pews, killing at least 28 people and wounding 77 others.

Palm Sunday attack egypt
Relatives mourn the victims of the Palm Sunday bombings in Alexandria, Egypt [File: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters]

Mariana – knowing that Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, would be attending – had a premonition the mass at St Mark’s could be targeted next and called Beshoy frantically demanding he and the rest of their family get out.

“He refused point-blank to leave saying, ‘I won’t be frightened. If I am to be a martyr let me be a martyr.’ He then switched off his phone,” she recalled.

Mariana panicked and set off for the church in the coastal city of Alexandria – but arrived too late. She witnessed a grisly and chaotic scene of blood-spattered pews and palm branches, then ran around frantically to find her brother.

Mariana’s premonition proved correct. Beshoy and three of her relatives were killed that day in another suicide bombing along with 16 other people. Forty-one other people were wounded. Among the dead were police officers who prevented the attacker from entering.

Tawadros remained in the church and was not hurt. Later that day, an affiliate of the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in Egypt claimed responsibility for both bombings.

April 9 marks five years since the attacks that Human Rights Watch called “the worst day of violence targeting Christians in Egypt’s modern history”.

‘Politically repressive atmosphere’

Mina Thabet, a minority rights researcher in Egypt who went directly to Tanta after the attack to document the incident, recalled a similar scene. “What stayed with me the most was one priest cradling his dead son and weeping,” he told Al Jazeera.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi condemned the attacks and swiftly ordered the military to protect “vital and important infrastructure”, declaring a nationwide state of emergency for three months, which was continuously renewed for four years.

In May 2020, the emergency law was amended to counter the coronavirus outbreak. It gave the president further powers and expanded the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians. It was only lifted in October of last year.

The state of emergency granted security forces sweeping powers to make arrests and target those considered “enemies of the state”, said Hussein Baioumi, an Egypt and Libya researcher for Amnesty International.

This was used to “justify a lot of repressive measures primarily against Islamists, but increasingly, over the years, of other dissidents”, Baioumi said.

At the time of the attacks, Egypt was battling a violent rampage linked to ISIL fighters, especially in the northeastern Sinai region. In February 2017, 250 Christian residents of North Sinai fled their homes after a deadly wave of attacks.

“The Palm Sunday attacks were not an aberration, it was just the latest in a series of incidents targeting Copts who, as the biggest minority in Egypt, bear the brunt of a politically repressive atmosphere that allowed militancy to thrive,” said Thabet.

‘Failure to address main issue’

On January 1, 2011, an explosion at Al-Qudiseen Church in Alexandria killed 23 people and wounded 100 and attacks against Copt Christians continued with regularity, including the infamous Maspero massacre in 2011.

A spate of lesser-known church arsons and kidnappings of Christians in Upper Egypt continued in 2013.

Mariana said her brother insisted on going to St Mark’s that day because he had been deeply affected by a church bombing in December 2016. A suicide bomber killed 29 people and injured 47 others at  El-Botroseya, a chapel next to the cathedral. The majority of victims were women and children.

“He became more withdrawn, quieter and prayed more. He started talking about wanting to be a martyr also for the church,” said Mariana.

Beshoy’s death affected the family badly, but Mariana insisted they return to the church straight away. “I knew Beshoy was with us and we could not let it get to us, clinging more strongly to our faith helped us.”

After several years of heightened security around the church and fear in the community, things are now more “normal”, she said.

Baioumi said despite the decline in attacks and the lifting of the state of emergency, “it’s very difficult to say that there has been accountability or justice has been served.”

“There is still a failure to address the main issue at hand, which is equality when it comes to practising religion – including allowing Christians to build churches when they want,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera