A Coptic Christian speaks out after the attack

December 16, 2016 | Published first in Philos Project blog, The Region

On the morning of Dec. 11, I woke up to the news that a suicide bomber had blown himself up inside St. Peter’s Church, which is part of the greater St. Mark’s Cathedral complex in Cairo, Egypt. To those in the West who saw the reports, the attack and slaughter of those 24 churchgoers was a distant tragedy. To me and to other Copts, no matter where in the world we live, it’s personal.

Anyone who witnessed the Sunday prayers in American Coptic churches that day felt the shock, fear and sadness ripple throughout the congregation. This attack on the Coptic Church serves as a reminder that the instability in Egypt is still very real–with very real human consequences.

The apostle Saint Mark founded the Coptic Church in Egypt during the first century A.D. The current church leader, Pope Tawadros II, resides in Cairo. The Coptic Church has worked hard to preserve its ancient traditions, and Coptic Christians are characterized by their intense dedication to fasting and prayer. Today, Copts–roughly 10 percent of the Egyptian population–are the largest minority of Christians in the Middle East.

It never used to bother me that most Americans had no idea who we were. It seemed silly to expect people to know every religion that existed in the world and, from the comfort of my home in the United States, I bought into the reasoning that there was no compelling reason to.

Now there is.

Attacks on Copts have become more and more commonplace. During New Year’s Eve prayers in 2011, a bomber killed more than 20 churchgoers and injured dozens more in al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria, Egypt. In February 2015, the Islamic State beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. In the Minya region of Egypt in May 2015, a 70-year-old Coptic Orthodox grandmother was forcibly removed from her home and paraded naked throughout the streets because of a rumor about her son having an affair with a Muslim woman.

Then there’s the widespread, smaller-scale persecution that goes largely undocumented–in the form of denied job opportunities, cheated grades, legal hurdles or the inability of a church to be renovated without government permission. These types of discrimination are part of daily life for Copts; onlookers rarely take notice, because they have grown accustomed to it.

Today, many Copts are afraid to voice their opinions. Clergy members and church leaders–Pope Tawadros II included–discourage activism, fearing that the attention will result in only more bloodshed. The consequence of speaking out against the injustices is more suffering and violence. Pope Tawadros II’s cautiousness signals his overall unwillingness to actively engage in Egyptian politics, a contrast to his predecessor Pope Shenouda.

Many Copts have placed their hope in the relatively new regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The question is whether or not this trust is misplaced.

Egypt faced a crossroads coming out of the 2011 revolutions. After a one-year stint with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts viewed the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 as an opportunity for positive change. From the onset of his presidency, el-Sisi asserted his dedication to protecting all Egyptians. During his Suez Canal address in August 2015, he said, “The secret to the greatness of the Egyptian people and to their strength lies in the fact that they are united as one entity, standing together hand in hand. Grand Imam and the Pope standing together to express the everlasting unity of the Egyptian people.”

Despite his good intentions, el-Sisi is powerless to undo an engrained history of prejudice and a persistent culture of denial. His words are meaningless against the actions of the Islamist extremists, whose hearts are hateful and whose minds are radicalized. Although the president’s condemnation of the attacks on Copts is necessary, it will take far more than conciliatory words to ensure these attacks become less frequent. Egypt needs new institutions that defend the rights of citizens, better education, law enforcement that protects all people, and more opportunities for Copts to fully participate within society. Even under the best circumstances, this is a massive, long-term mission.

Egyptians are proud people. We are proud of our culture, history and nationality. No Egyptians want to feel as if they are being forced out of their homes. No Egyptian wants to feel unwelcome in his or her country. The recent attack on the Coptic Christian Church is a sober reminder that even during the joy of Advent, not everyone enjoys the right to worship safely. It is a reminder that the urgent work in Egypt to protect the Coptic people is just beginning.