Christian volunteers to boost security around Egypt’s churches

Sunday 23/07/2017
Major challenge. Security forces stand outside the Tanta Coptic church that was bombed last April. (Reuters)

Cairo- Egyptian officials are re­cruiting Christian volun­teers to increase security around churches in the country following attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) targeting Coptic Christians.
The move, observers said, was an indication of the size of the challenge of securing the coun­try’s churches but it has polarised Egypt’s Christian community and raised suspicions that protecting churches from attack was not a pri­ority for the government.
“Protecting the churches is the job of the security agencies, not of Christian civilians,” Christian ac­tivist Kamal Zakhir said. “A move such as this will lead to more evil than good.”
The plan includes the Egyptian Interior Ministry training Chris­tian civilians to provide security around churches, including on how to conduct searches and liaise with local security authorities. Egypt’s churches often post volunteer se­curity guards alongside armed po­lice officers on holy days and cel­ebrations.
The Christian volunteers would not be given firearms but would screen those entering the church to ensure they were not carrying weapons or explosives. The plan was unveiled by Bishop Marcos of the Shoubra al-Khema Diocese in Cairo and a former spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Bishop Marcos said Christian volunteers were receiving security training. Given that security volun­teers would already be part of the local congregation, they would be best equipped to recognise suspi­cious figures entering the church.
Opponents said, however, that — apart from opening the door to accusations from Egypt’s power­ful Islamist movements that the churches are starting to have their own “armed militias” to defend them — the plan would pit church volunteers against attackers.
“It is as if the government is tell­ing us that we have to confront the radicals who attack our churches ourselves,” Zakhir said.
Egypt’s Christians, approximate­ly 10% of the Egyptian population, have been caught in the country’s fight against terrorism. ISIS, in par­ticular, has sought to target Chris­tians to spread sectarian strife.
ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks on Egyptian church­es in Cairo, Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta, as well as on a bus carrying Christian worshippers in May.
Coptic Christians in Egypt’s res­tive Sinai Peninsula, where an entrenched ISIS is facing off with Egyptian troops backed by Bedouin fighters, fled their homes following repeated ISIS attacks and threats.
The strategy appeared to pay off when a man, hiding a knife in a bag, tried to enter a church in Al­exandria. Another man in civilian clothes, apparently a security vol­unteer, prevented the person from going into the church and alerted security officers.
The attacker used the knife to slash at the guard’s neck before being overpowered by churchgo­ers and other volunteer security guards.
Given the increased threats fac­ing Egypt’s churches, not just in terms of coordinated attacks by ISIS but also low-level knife attacks inspired by the terrorist group, many are welcoming any measure that provides greater security and safety.
“The Christians are full of fear because of repeated attacks against their churches,” said Naguib Ga­briel, a lawyer for the Coptic Ortho­dox Church. “The authorities are doing whatever they can to secure the churches but the presence of additional support from Christian volunteers will help a lot in this re­gard.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church has instructed Christian worshippers to cancel church visits and avoid leaving churches in groups. Father Polis Halim, the official spokesman of the church, said the instructions were issued because of “current se­curity conditions.”
The church cancelled seminars, gatherings and events scheduled in July at churches. It is not clear whether usual activities at Egypt’s 2,900 churches will return in Au­gust with trained Christian volun­teers boosting security efforts.
“Christian volunteers, especially those familiar with those who at­tend to the churches for masses, will help a lot in preventing stran­gers from entering the churches,” said security expert Khaled Oka­sha. “This does not mean that the state is shirking its responsibility for protecting the churches. Church protection is the job of everybody in this country.”