Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II (photo via the Coptic Orthodox Church Spokesperson's Facebook page).

Copts, Church, and State: Egypt’s Christians Frustrated with Lack of Protection

02/15/2019 . By Candace Lukasik

On December 12, 2018, Emad Kamal Sadek, 49, and his son David Emad, 21, were shot and killed by Rabea Mustafa Khalefa, an Egyptian police officer and guard, in front of the Holiness Revival Church in Minya in Upper Egypt. A quarrel erupted between Emad and Rabea over construction directly in front of the church, and ended with Emad and David shot in the head. Video of the killing went viral, sparking outrage among Copts in Egypt and the diaspora. The murders came one month after an attack on two buses returning from the St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery killed seven pilgrims. It was the second time that such a massacre happened; a nearly identical incident in May 2017 killed 28.

Under the leadership of Coptic Pope Tawadros II, the official message of the Coptic Orthodox Church has been that Copts under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi are living under their best conditions in modern Egyptian history. Tawadros has championed Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi as a “savior” of the Copts, following the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian state has attempted to quell any criticism of its lack of initiative when it comes to protecting Christians by, for example, the recent establishment of the Supreme Committee to Combat Sectarian Violence, and through symbolic gestures such as endorsing the opening of the Church of the Nativity in Egypt’s new administrative capital, the largest cathedral in the Middle East. In the United States, the church’s position tempers the ability of rights groups to pressure policymakers for action, and makes asylum claims for Coptic applicants more difficult.

Yet despite the church’s official statements praising the government for its protection, acts of terrorism and incidents of sectarianism have continued. The church’s official message has widespread effects internally, fueling criticism and subsequently more attacks against Copts because of their affiliation with the state, as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State have both resorted to sectarian rhetoric in listing their grievances against Copts and the Egyptian government. Lax security, a dearth of progress on church construction and permits, and violence against Copts and other minorities have led many in the community to criticize the church’s unwavering loyalty to the Egyptian president. Even inside the church, there has been opposition to the pope’s admiration of and loyalty to Sisi. Bishop Macarius of Minya has been the most vocal clerical critic against the church’s official stance toward Sisi. Following a major January incident in the Minya village of Manshiyet Zaafarana, the diocese released a statement describing how security forces aided angry mobs of Muslim residents seeking to close an unlicensed church and protesting against its presence in the village.

The killing of Copts by policemen in December and security forces’ actions in closing churches disrupts both church and state narratives of violence against Copts resulting from both sectarianism and terrorism. The state has continually portrayed itself as a neutral arbiter between citizens, regardless of religious identity, and as the protector from those extremist elements of Egyptian society that seek to destroy what is naturalized as a peaceful coexistence between Copts and Egyptian Muslims. In Sisi’s interview with 60 Minutes on Coptic Christmas Eve, he noted, “We are dealing with fundamentalists and extremists which caused damage and killed people over these last years. I can’t ask Egyptians to forget their rights or the police and civilians who died.” Since 2014, there has been a crackdown against political dissidents, artists, writers, journalists, and human rights activists, in addition to targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and during this crackdown the state has portrayed itself as protecting members of society from their terrorism, including the Copts. However, when the state itself attacks Copts, as they did at Maspero in October of 2011, church administration is at a loss to discuss and portray that violence.

In February 2018, the Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated February 15 as the commemoration for modern-day martyrs. February 15 coincides with the beheading and martyrdom of 20 Copts and one Ghanaian man on the shores of Libya in 2015 at the hands of the Islamic State. In a new era of violence against the Coptic minority and other vulnerable populations in Egypt, the church chose to commemorate the murder of the 20 outside of Egypt’s boundaries, where the Egyptian state evades accountability and responsibility. On the contrary, Maspero and its martyrs have not been recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church, despite demands by activists for the church to officially recognize their deaths at the hands of Egyptian military vehicles and snipers. To understand why the Maspero massacre and last December’s killing of Emad and David trouble the nature of the church-state relationship in Egypt is also to understand the perpetuation of societal discrimination and violence against Egypt’s Christian minority.

Since Sisi’s inauguration, low-level sectarian violence and terrorist attacks against Christians have continued, despite Sisi’s pledged protection. Rarely do these result in judicial enforcement of legal claims; the state would rather endorse—sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly—so-called customary reconciliation sessions, which leave Christians asking for justice from the very leaders who repeatedly fail to provide it. Yet the church believes, at least publicly, that the cup is always half full, even when there is no water left in the cup. Through the opening of the new cathedral and other grand gestures, the church sees the symbolic progress the state is projecting. These outward signs by the state and its Muslim leaders are meant to display coexistence and emphasize peace.

In a recent interview for MESAT, a Coptic satellite television channel broadcast out of the Cathedral’s Coptic Cultural Center, Tawadros described how Copts are focusing too much on sectarian incidents: “Think of a white board that has a dark circle in the corner. You’re fixated on that dark circle and forget the rest of the board is white!” Under Tawadros’ leadership, the church, for the most part, continues to see the situation of Christians in Egypt as the white part of the board. Violence does not occur daily; crises come and go. Yet, in the attention to large-scale incidents of terrorism and intercommunal violence in Egypt’s rural parts, there is less of a focus on discrimination that happens every day at the hands of the state and throughout Egyptian society. Bloody violence, crying widows, and hagiographic images of victims circulate after each attack, pointing the finger at the “extremist” Islamist perpetrators. These perpetrators are portrayed by church and state alike as outside society, antithetical to national unity and peace. For those Copts in Minya and elsewhere who prayed the Christmas liturgy in houses because the state has refused church permits, for David and Emad, and for others facing discrimination in myriad circumstances, the perpetrators are not the outsiders of society; they are their neighbors and the state itself, the supposed guardian of their interests. When the perpetrator is clean-shaven and wearing an Egyptian police or army uniform, official promises of state protection and neutrality break down.

The Coptic Orthodox Church and other Christian bodies in Egypt have been loath to criticize the government, hoping instead to work within the government’s confines to turn empty gestures into concrete steps. But the church, instead, is losing popular political support; each instance of the state’s failure to protect leads to more discontent. With a pliant parliament and suppressed civil society, there are few places for citizens’ voices to be heard, uniquely positioning the church to be an agent for change. By more forcefully using its acquired position as representative of the Coptic people to the Egyptian government, the Coptic Orthodox Church must actually represent the needs of its adherents, and in turn regain the respect that has been lost among them.