Christian volunteers to boost security around Egypt’s churches
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.”