A deadly blast ripped through the women’s section of the St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church on Sunday, December 11, almost instantly killing 25 people and wounding nearly 50 others. Specifically aimed at Egypt’s minority Christian population, the attack was later claimed by the Islamic State, which stated its intent to target “unbelievers in Egypt, wherever they are.”
While Egypt is no stranger to sectarian and extremist violence, the attack struck a devastating chord for its brutality, its symbolic weight, and its portent for future trends. The bombing was the deadliest attack of 2016 in Egypt; it disproportionately targeted women and children, who comprised 22 of the 27 fatalities (two victims succumbed to their injuries a week or more after the bombing).
It was also one of the deadliest sectarian incidents in Egypt in recent years, alongside the New Year’s 2011 bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria that killed 23 and the brutal repression of protests over a church burning in Aswan that left 28 dead in the Maspero demonstrations in October of that year. The most recent attack struck at the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, targeting a church in the complex around St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Pope. This was the first large-scale sectarian attack in Egypt by the Islamic State, which had avoided explicit sectarian targets and rhetoric until the July killing of a priest and later a Sufi sheikh, both in North Sinai.
The significance of this attack merits a thorough examination of the events, causes, and responses that surround it. To provide such an examination, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has developed this special briefing, a joint product of TIMEP’s Eshhad and Egypt Security Watch projects, through a series of discussions and collaborative writing among the experts leading these initiatives. This report details the developments that occurred around the attack, provides an analysis of the causes and implications for sectarianism and extremist violence in the country, and concludes with a set of immediate and long-term recommendations to prevent similar tragedies in the future.