Holy Week for Egypt’s Copts will never be the same

For Copts to feel safe in their country, the Egyptian government needs to acknowledge their need for protection.

Funeral of an Egyptian Copts who died in Alexandria''s explosion
People carry coffins during the funeral of Copts who died in the bomb explosion in Alexandria, Monastery of Saint Mina, on April 9 [EPA]

Immediately following the twin bombings in Egypt that killed at least 40 Christians last Palm Sunday, the country’s president Abdel Fattah El Sisi released a statement saying  “the attack … will only harden the determination (of the Egyptian people) to move forward on their trajectory to realise security, stability and comprehensive development.”

But just four months ago, another attack in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral  that killed at least 25 Christians did not bring Egyptians closer to security or stability.

December’s attack was the first time a sectarian incident hit home for me, not only as a Copt but as someone who knew a couple of the victims personally. I arrived in Cairo during a winter break on the day the attack happened. The usual protocol was set in place: the government had declared three days of mourning and vowed to find the culprits.

In the aftermath of this attack discussions on state radio circled around the need for Egyptians to stand united against terrorism – but there was little to unite us on. Many doubted whether the government cared enough to prevent more of such attacks. They didn’t.

Four months later we found ourselves in the same rabbit hole.

Neglect and violence

So rarely has the state thought to properly secure Egypt’s churches on religious holidays that it’s hardly surprising that the attackers on Sunday made it to the two churches. 

There is a disturbing trend of neglect that dominates every government response towards such deadly attacks, and it points to the same recurring reality about the status of Egypt’s Copts, which has for the most part remained unchanged since the late President Anwar Sadat came to power in 1970. 

Egypt’s Copts are said to make up 10 percent of the country’s population. But the Egyptian authorities have repeatedly prevented researchers who carry out surveys from asking citizens about their religion and ethnicity, thwarting efforts to establish a collective understanding of the size and make-up of Egypt’s minorities.

Whether they are more or fewer than 10 percent, Copts still get less than 1 percent representation in parliament. Copts must also fight through a web of bureaucracy to secure permission to build places of worship. Meanwhile, their Muslim counterparts can build and renovate mosques freely, and in some cases, get tax breaks for it. This sets a certain public attitude which leads Copts to believe that their identity as Egyptians is being deliberately eroded by the state.

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In addition to this, Egyptian citizens must carry a national identification card where the religion of the cardholder is clearly indicated. This automatically facilitates discrimination against the Copts and other minorities which are already shut out of the higher echelons of political, state and security apparatuses.

Unless President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi starts viewing Copts as a minority in need of state protection and implements the necessary measures to proactively protect them against attacks, Egypt's Christians will continue to suffer on the margins of society.


Necessity of inclusion

Egypt also has been receiving $1.5bn in aid from the United States annually, most of it in the form of military equipment to Egypt’s army, the 10th largest in the world – but not large enough to protect its own people.

In fact, in October 2011 the military became directly involved in the violence against Egypt’s Christians.

During a peaceful protest against the demolition of a church in Southern Egypt, 27 Copts lost their lives – some disappearing under the wheels of military armoured vehicles – after the military launched a crackdown. As a way of washing their hands of what came to be known as the Maspero massacre, the authorities pointed fingers at mysterious external forces that they claimed were trying to destabilise the country.

This only manufactured more public consent to continue treating Copts the same way. Needless to say, the brutal attacks on Christians and their churches have persisted, whether in the form of bombings or communal violence.  

When we talk about solutions to this problem, the discussion should then start with the idea of inclusion. One story I remember documenting involved a church that was set ablaze in the governorate of Qalyubiya. Four Christians were killed. Days later, local authorities set up a town meeting aimed at reconciliation, but not a single representative from the Coptic church was present. The Coptic clergy had not been informed, I later learned.

Many argue the topic of equal rights for Copts is a foregone conclusion, that nothing can be done to pull Copts out of the social inequality they have come to accept. Unless President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi starts viewing Copts as a minority in need of state protection and implements the necessary measures to proactively protect them against attacks, Egypt’s Christians will continue to suffer on the margins of society.

Adam Makary is an Egyptian-American filmmaker currently receiving his MFA in Film & TV Production at the University of Southern California. He started his career as a print journalist in Egypt, then moved on to work as a field producer for several major news outlets including Al Jazeera English, CNN, ABC and Channel 4 in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.