Egypt’s Christians hit by Palm Sunday attacks

Bereft: A relative of one of the victims reacts after a church explosion in Tanta. © PA

Dozens died after two blasts targeted Egypt’s Christian minority yesterday. Christians face persecution and violence across the Middle East. Is this the most under-reported story of the era?

Palm Sunday is one of the most joyous days in the Christian calendar, marking the triumphant return of Jesus to Jerusalem. Children wave palm leaves — an ancient symbol of victory — and families gather for the festivities.

But yesterday, in Egypt, those celebrations were cut brutally short as the country’s Coptic Christian minority came under attack.

First, a church in the town of Tanta was hit by a bomb placed near the altar, killing 27 people.

Then, in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, a terrorist attacked St Mark’s Cathedral, where a church has stood since the year 62 AD. The suicide bomber was denied entry but blew himself up outside the church, claiming the lives of 17 more. Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church was inside, but escaped unharmed.

Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was seemingly designed to have maximum impact. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has declared a three-month state of emergency in response.

Coptic Christians make up around 10% of Egypt’s population. During the turmoil that has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring, they have faced growing persecution. And in 2013, when the military overthrew the president Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, hardcore Islamists blamed Christians for supporting the overthrow and escalated the sectarian violence.

But even before 2013, Copts were treated like second-class citizens in Egypt. Building new churches is almost impossible. They are discriminated against by Islamic laws on inheritance and blasphemy. The number of Copts in positions of power remains miniscule.

In Muslim states, Christianity is in a perilous condition. In northern Nigeria many are enslaved by the IS-affiliated Boko Haram. Churches have been attacked in Pakistan, Kenya and Iraq. Many are fleeing or have already fled.

Is this the most under-reported tragedy of the age?

Suffering in silence

Definitely, say some. It is a strange thing that so many journalists, activists and politicians in the West who care deeply about the concerns of minorities in their own countries pay so little attention to the plight of the Christian minority in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is the duty of rich Christian countries to do everything to highlight the predicament of their less fortunate brothers and sisters. At the moment, they are failing.

Calm down, reply others. It is still possible to live peacefully as a Christian in some majority Muslim countries. And we must not forget that the strife in the Middle East has claimed the lives of far more Muslims than Christians. One instance of persecution does not have the right to greater coverage than any other.

You Decide

  1. Does the suffering of Christians in the Middle East receive enough coverage?
  2. Should Western countries give preference to Christians when taking in refugees from the Middle East?

Activities

  1. Design a poster highlighting the plight of Christians in Egypt.
  2. Imagine that you are a teenager in Egypt, Christian or Muslim. Write 500 words explaining your thoughts in the wake of this attack.

Some People Say...

“In a century’s time there will be no Christians left in the Middle East.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
So far at least 44 people have been killed and over 100 have been injured. Another 25 people were killed in an attack on a Coptic Cathedral in Cairo in December 2016.
What do we not know?
How many Christians are being killed for their faith in the Middle East. Sometimes it is claimed to be as high as 100,000 a year, but this is based on spurious statistics. In 2013, a professor from the International Society for Human Rights estimated that it was around 7,000–8,000, but this was before the rise of IS.
What do people believe?
Last year, the European Parliament backed a resolution which said that IS was committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis. Some say that Christian refugees should get preference in Western countries. Others claim that is unfair discrimination.

Word Watch

Alexandria
So-named because it was founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria sits at the mouth of the River Nile and is Egypt’s major port.
Arab Spring
A series of revolutions which overthrew dictators across the Middle East in 2011, including in Egypt.
Muslim Brotherhood
In September 2013, after President Morsi was toppled, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood. The new government declared it a terrorist group after the bombing of a security directorate in Mansoura, although the Brotherhood later condemned violence.
Positions of power
The current government has only one Coptic minister, and not a single Copt serves as a governor, university president, or university dean.
Boko Haram
Meaning roughly ‘Western education is forbidden’, Boko Haram, which refers to itself as Islamic State West Africa Province, was founded in 2002. It is at the centre of a violent conflict in northern Nigeria which has displaced 2.3m people.
Pakistan
Last year 85 people died when two suicide bombers targeted the Anglican All Saints Church in Peshawar, near Pakistan’s Afghan border.

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