On Sunday, while flocks of Egyptian Coptic Christians were observing Holy Mass in their cathedral an explosion stole the lives of 25 church-goers and left scores more wounded.
The bombing of St. Peter’s church inside the Coptic Cathedral complex in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo was the deadliest attack on its indigenous Christian minority since 2011. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but based on historical experience the culprit remains the same.
Egypt’s Christian population numbers to about 9 million adherents, or about 10% of the population. They have existed since the earliest days of Christianity, established by Mark the Evangelist – one of Jesus’ disciples.
Yet in they have endured a bloody existence, targeted by radical Islamist elements in their country. Sunday’s attack was the latest in a long history of persecution, both violent and political.
It brought about memories of the 2011 bombing in Alexandria, where 21 Christians died in an attack claimed by al-Qaeda linked militants. The incident happened after a New Year’s Eve Mass, an event popular among believers.
Clashes occurred in the aftermath, as Egyptian police were dispatched to disperse angry Christians protesting the attack – as well as the lack of government protection that should have prevented it.
The bombing of the Alexandria church happened almost a year after three Egyptian Muslims carried out a machine gun attack on a Coptic church in the city of Nag Hammadi. Six adherents were killed and the attack also sparked riots among Egyptian Christians and Muslims – underlining the sectarian divide in the nation.
And a year before the Nag Hammadi tragedy, two Christians were killed at a place of worship during Easter of 2009. The shooting was perpetrated by four Muslim men.
Though 2011 was the year when Christian persecution was the most pronounced. The aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak also saw religious freedom thrown out the window.
The most notable was the Maspero massacre in October, when 24 Coptic Christians were killed as they demonstrated against anti-Christian television broadcasting. Scores of Egyptian Christians protested in front of Maspero television network in Cairo, when they were violently dispersed by a combined force of Egyptian police and Islamist mobs.
The event followed the arson of a Coptic church in Aswan province by a Muslim mob. The event, recorded by the international aid agency Barnabas Fund, saw the walls, domes and other property of the church demolished violently.
The Assyrian International News Agency reported of prior calls from local Muslims, backed by radical Salafists, to demolish the said church after it was deemed “illegal” by the locals.
The priest of the parish, Fr. Makarios Boulos, claimed that the local Muslim community demanded the removal of the church cross and of any signs that it was a church, preferring to call it a “hospitality home” instead.
Those protests were despite the fact that Fr. Boulos did obtain a permit from the local government to build a church which would bear crosses and proper signage. The fact that a church needed permission to exist is a testament to state-sponsored restrictions.
The demonstration in front of the Maspero television building was a response to the anti-Christian messaging that was deemed to have sparked the backlash against the church in Aswan.
Most telling of all, those killed in that massacre were either shot by armed security forces or crushed under armoured personnel carriers – evidence that the violence was backed by government forces.
The persecution of Christians in Egypt became so dire that it compelled Pope Francis last year to issue a call asking for help for Coptic Christians. The call was in light of the video footage of 21 Copts being executed by ISIS-linked militants in Libya.
Early this year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi visited Coptic churches around Egypt – apologizing to Coptic Christians for government failure in securing their churches and other structures in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.
It is understood that over 60 churches, convents and Christian bookshops were ravaged in a spate of anti-Christian violence during that time. While the military began rebuilding these structures in February, and while the assurances of the Egyptian head-of-state is a positive development, Sunday’s attack only proves that there was more work needed to be done.