Middle East Christians bemoan plight of Egypt’s Copts

Sunday 16/04/2017
Ripple effects. Palestinian Christian and Muslim clergymen hold candles and wave Palestinian and Egyptian flags during a gathering in Bethlehem on April 10. (AFP)

Beirut - The twin attacks that ripped through worshippers cel­ebrating Palm Sunday in Coptic churches in Egypt shocked the Arab world, sparking outrage and condemna­tions, especially in countries with significant Christian minorities.

In Lebanon, the only Arab coun­try headed by a Christian president, the bombings of churches in Tanta and Alexandria were denounced as attempts to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims.

“What is targeted is coexistence. They want us as Christians to fear our Muslim neighbours who live with us in the same building in the same city,” said Antoine Courban, a professor of philosophy of science at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

“The aim is to dislocate our di­verse and pluralistic societies who have been living together for ages in a constitutional and national con­text… but they will not succeed.”

Courban argued that non-Mus­lims, be they Christian or Yazidi, are a weak bracket in Arab societies in which the collective religious iden­tity is of great importance, taking precedence over national belong­ing. “What happened in Egypt is evidence that priority in our socie­ties is for religious identity instead of the national identity,” Courban said.

He cautioned against the increas­ing speech of intimidation, hatred and religious extremism. “It should be literally uprooted in order to be able to live together, otherwise we are heading to suicide,” Courban said.

“Whether in Egypt, Syria or Iraq, it is the human being and the indi­vidual freedom (of worship) which are targeted. The aim is to make non-Muslims fear the Muslims who are their partners in the nation,” Courban added.

More than 40 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the church assaults, the latest claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) against Egypt’s Copts. The jihadist group has stepped up attacks and threats against Copts, who comprise about 10% of Egypt’s population and are the biggest Christian minority in the Middle East. In February, scores of Christian families and students fled Egypt’s North Sinai province after a series of targeted killings.

In Jordan, the incidents echoed loudly among the Christian com­munity whose members described them as “vile” and “unbelievable.”

“Who would do such a thing to a community celebrating a religious holiday?” asked Marwan Abbassi, 61, a Christian shop owner. “Only evil would kill in the places where people find solace and peace. We understand that nowhere is safe but we will never give up.”

“They can never break us apart. Here in Jordan we condemn what they did and we stand with our brothers and sisters in Egypt and support them all the way,” Abbassi added.

Jordanians flooded social media with angry comments. Some blast­ed the attacks as “cowardly” and others vowed support for the fami­lies of victims.

“It is outrageous. Attacking a house of worship is a crime against humanity,” said Norma Shawareb, a Christian housewife. “We com­pletely understand that what they did has nothing to do with (Islamic) religion and they just want to kill peaceful people without any re­gards to human beings and places of worship; we pray to God to pro­tect our Jordan from killers.”

Iraqi Christians feel great solidar­ity, having been persecuted by ISIS.

“There is no explanation for bombing Egyptian Copts in the midst of Eid. It is a conspiracy against all of us to push us to leave the region,” said Samar Boutros,” a Christian resident of Baghdad.

Boutros refrained from attend­ing mass on Palm Sunday, fearing a similar assault on churches in Iraq. “ISIS can order [its] members in any country to carry out such cowardly attacks,” she said.

The Reverend Martin Hermez, an Iraqi priest, blamed the persecu­tion of minorities in the region on the proliferation of takfiri ideology, which deems non-Muslims as apos­tates.

“What happened in Egypt lately and in Iraq earlier is politically mo­tivated. Naïve and weak people are being brainwashed and exploited with the aim of emptying the re­gion from Christians through ag­gression,” Hermez said.

Christians in the Palestinian ter­ritories said they do not feel threat­ened by similar attacks but share fears that if Palestinian society does not fight extremism through inclu­sive education emphasising respect for other religions, things might change.

“As a Palestinian Christian I never felt that I am a minority because in Palestine, Christians practise their religion freely but in Egypt Copts are oppressed and treated very badly by others,” said Dalia Rinawi, who runs a beauty salon in Ramal­lah.

She said the bombings were not attempts to scare Copts but a straight-forward, violent message: “If you do not leave Egypt, we will bomb you anywhere.”

For Palestinian Christian Yusef Daher, they were attempts to “wipe out” Christians.

“There are no demands. They want to kill as much as possible. This is execution,” he said.