Cairo announces new body to tackle sectarian violence

The committee will have open communication with cabinet ministers and the heads of state security agencies, making direct recommendations and reports to Sisi.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Egyptian security forces stand guard at a Coptic Christian church in the Waraa neighbourhood in Cairo. (AP)
Continuing threat. Egyptian security forces stand guard at a Coptic Christian church in the Waraa neighbourhood in Cairo. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt’s Christian community, the largest minority in the predominantly Muslim state, welcomed an announcement by Egyptian by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to form a panel to address sectarian violence.

Sisi announced the establishment of the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents on December 30, part of efforts to address rising sectarian violence.

“The new move proves that the government will finally apply the law in cases of sectarian violence,” said the Reverend Polis Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Traditional methods of dealing with the violence produced no results for decades in the past.”

Sectarian violence is common in parts of Egypt, especially in southern and central provinces. Egypt’s Christian community, which makes up around 10% of Egypt’s population, has complained that Egyptian authorities failed to deal with sectarian violence as an endemic issue.

Clashes between Muslim and Christian neighbours have been reported over many issues, particularly attacks on churches. For decades, Egypt did not ease the construction of churches and many Christians turned their homes into unofficial churches, which angered Muslim neighbours.

Christians have been increasingly targeted by Islamic extremists based on their perceived support for Sisi. Some incidents have seen Christian families and property targeted by Islamic State fighters in the Sinai Peninsula. Others have been physical attacks, including stabbings.

“In most cases, those responsible for attacks against the Christians were not brought to justice in the absence of a real state desire to stem violence against the Christians,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a Christian affairs specialist at NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “This frustrated the Christians and made them feel angry.”

The new committee will be headed by Sisi’s security and counterterrorism adviser, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. Other members will include a senior army general and representatives of military intelligence, general intelligence and the National Security Agency, Egypt’s internal intelligence agency.

The committee is to develop a “general strategy” to prevent and confront sectarian attacks. The committee will also have open communication with cabinet ministers and the heads of state security agencies, making direct recommendations and reports to Sisi.

This is the latest move by Sisi’s administration to tackle attacks on Christians and comes as Egypt’s Coptic community prepares to celebrate Christmas on January 7.

In August 2016, the Egyptian parliament approved a law that allows Christians to construct churches. On December 31, a panel looking into Christian church licensing requests approved 80 requests, bringing the total number of churches licensed since the formation of the panel in 2016 to 588.

Egypt’s Christians have asked the panel to speed up the approval process, especially. Requests for the licensing of 3,730 churches and church buildings are awaiting action.

A Muslim extremist was executed December 31 for the January 2017 killing of a Christian liquor shop owner in Alexandria. Adel Suleiman, a fundamentalist street vendor in his early 50s, was the first Muslim executed for attacking a Christian.

Most of those involved in attacks in the past escaped punishment, with researchers attributing this to the failure of the authorities to apply the law.

Authorities used to force Muslims and Christians involved in sectarian incidents to reconcile and cases would often not reach the courts. In 2011, al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Egyptian Family House, a body that aims to find solutions to sectarian strife, also away from the courts.

The Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, experts said, will, for the first time, treat attacks against Christians as a criminal offence that must be referred to the courts.

“The failure of the state to apply the law in these cases in the past sent the wrong message and contributed to increasing the attacks,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of a counterterrorism body advising the Egyptian president. “The authorities have realised that fighting sectarian violence is inseparable from the fight against terrorism, which is why attacks against the Christians will not go unpunished from now on.”

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