Egypt: State of Emergency Following Attacks on Coptic Churches

A three-month long state of emergency has been announced by the President of Egypt, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, following attacks by Islamic State (IS) on Coptic churches on Palm Sunday. 47 people have died and 100 people have been injured as a result of the bombings. Following the attacks, al-Sisi called the National Defence Council to session and issued 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.’ The president’s cabinet has supported his decision by issuing a statement claiming the security measures would ‘do what is necessary to confront the threats of terrorism and its financing.’ The state of emergency came into effect at 1:00pm local time on Palm Sunday, but must be approved by parliament within seven days to remain in effect. As parliament is in favour of al-Sisi, this approval is likely.

The Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, was thought to be a target of the bombing in Alexandria. ‘It feels so scary at the moment, the picture is very grim. If the Coptic Pope [Tawadros II, the head of the Egyptian Christian community who narrowly escaped the blast in Alexandria] has been targeted, how can Christians feel safe? The message sent out to Christians is that you are vulnerable wherever and whenever,’ said Ishak Ibrahim who works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The bombs entered the churches in spite of security measures, such as metal detectors. This has caused even more concern in the Coptic Christian community. Coptic Pope Tawadros later said, ‘These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.’

Many Copts see the Coptic Church’s stance as supporting the al-Sisi regime, resulting in it becoming a target for IS attacks. The church has also issued statements following sectarian violence that do not accurately portray its constituents’ anger.

Ahmad Rafiuddin

Image courtesy of Ahmad Rafiuddin, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The attacks on Palm Sunday were largely put down to governmental failure as there were security forces on the scene to protect worshippers on this holy day. It is important to remember that three policemen lost their lives attempting to prevent the suicide bomber from walking into St Marks Cathedral in Alexandria. A member of parliament, Haitham al Hariri said, ‘There was a police constable who hugged the person holding the explosive belt to stop him entering the church, at the same time we cannot ignore the fatal mistakes by the security authorities that let this many attacks happen in a short time.’ In the church in Tanta, the bomb was placed under a pew after not being detected by a metal detector.

The state of emergency, once approved by parliament, will allow for arrest and search of homes without warrants. There are concerns that the state of emergency will impinge on individual’s rights. The Sini has been under a state of emergency, but the Christian community there did not see the benefits of its protection. Further, al-Sisi is not in favour of free speech. There are concerns that this could lead to false incrimination. Christians in Egypt, particularly southern Egypt, have been targeted historically and discriminated against in the modern day because of their religion. The state of emergency will restrict large numbers of people from gathering, allow the government to close media sources, use military force within the state, seize private property, and monitor cellular and internet communication. The President has claimed that the security forces will guard ‘vital infrastructure,’ as he plans to take on jihadists who have caused hundreds of deaths within the state.

Following one of the funerals for the victims, held in Alexandria, it was reported that police killed as many as seven IS militants who had planned further attacks. The Interior Ministry claimed that they were killed in Assiut, a southern province of Egypt, when they open fired on security forces. Although the funeral took place under guard by security forces, it was still felt the government had not done enough to protect its Christian citizens on one of the most important Christian holidays, Palm Sunday. Reportedly, a group of young people outside the church were shouting ‘Down with any president as long as Egyptian blood is cheap’ and ‘Down with military rule.’ Another citizen, Samira Adly, was quoted saying ‘Everyone is falling short… the government, the people… nothing is good.’

Pope Francis will visit Cairo on 28 and 29 April despite the attacks. The Deputy Secretary of State for the Vatican, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, has said he has ‘no doubt’ that the Pope will still participate in the outing. Further, he claimed, ‘What happened caused disorder and tremendous suffering, but it cannot stop the pope’s mission of peace.’ The Pope himself expressed his ‘deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.’ News of the attack broke as the Pope was in St Peter’s Square leading Palm Sunday celebrations. The Pope further asked God ‘to convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons.’

Egypt’s Christian minority, a mere 10 per cent of the population, has faced an increasing number of attacks in recent years. IS has claimed that it will increase the number of attacks on the Christian population in Egypt. Following the two bombings, there is concern further attacks will occur. Attacks on Copts increased after Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in 2013. There was a previous attack in February of this year, and an attack in December of 2016, which led more than 250 Copts to flee the Sinai Peninsula. Following February’s attack, IS claimed it would ‘liberate’ the Cairo, Egypt’s capital city, and proceeded to threaten the rest of Egypt’s Christian population.