Latest ISIS Attack in Egypt Leaves Christians Feeling Out of Place at Home

“Girgis and I used to go to the monastery together. It was a getaway, and we enjoyed serving the priests and volunteering our time. We would rent a small truck, or a motorcycle, and we would go once every week, or every ten days,” Eid Ishak says, as he recalled the trips he and his cousin made to the Saint Samuel Monastery, located close to Egypt’s Minya province. 

On Friday May 26, masked gunmen ambushed a bus heading to the Saint Samuel Monastery and killed at least 30 people. Among those killed were Ishak’s cousins, Girgis Mahrous, 25, and his brother Kirollos Mahrous, 20. The victims—men, women, and children— were told to recite Islamic prayers or they would be killed, and had gold, personal belongings, and money stolen, according to eyewitnesses.

A day later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the violence, marking their fourth in a series of attacks targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christians over the past six months.  

“Girgis had a wedding coming up and Kirollos was going to medical school,” Mina Adel, their relative and neighbor in the Maghagha district tells MENASource. “Their father has barely had anything to eat or drink since the incident.”

Adel describes the mood in Maghagha following the massacre as one filled with sorrow, fear, and endless funerals.

Last April, ISIS carried out two suicide bombings on churches in Tanta and Alexandria, killing at least 47 people. In early May, the group issued a statement, warning Egypt’s Muslims to avoid Christian gatherings.

“We’re sure this won’t be the last attack,” Adel says. “We’re in the face of the fire. We’re living in a state of torture.”

He added that he overheard residents of their town making sectarian comments directly after the incident. “In the midst of our grief and mourning, we hear people saying that they are happy with what’s happening, making comments such as ‘we hope this happens to all of you.’”

While sectarianism in Egypt is nothing new, increased ISIS-led violence against Christians in Egypt has intensified to its worst degree over the past months. The repeated attacks in a short period of time have has left many Egyptian Christians questioning the ability of the country’s security forces to protect them. “The police and the government came. But they were too late,” Ishak said.  According to some reports, authorities took two to three hours to arrive at the scene of the attack. “One can’t help but wonder what could have happened if they had come earlier. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost so many people” he added.

He and others have been skeptical of the handling of ISIS’s attacks on Christians. Adel told MENASource that Maghagha’s Coptic community staged protests following the latest attack.  While victims of the attack accuse authorities of a slow response, the government announced  airstrikes on what the military called “terrorist strongholds” in Libya as retaliation. An ISIS network exists in Libya, and the group executed 21 Coptic Egyptian migrant workers in 2015, but it is widely believed that the airstrikes have little to do with the perpetrators of the Minya attack.

Ali Bakr, a security expert at the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, told MENASource that the airstrikes on Libya come “in the context of protecting Egypt’s national security,” and will, in the long-run, reduce militancy in Egypt. “Terrorism in Egypt has external sources, including Libya, which is a base for terrorist training camps. Also, a lot of weaponry is smuggled into Egypt through its border with Libya.”   

He adds, “Bombing these groups in Libya means we will be cutting one source of terrorism in Egypt.”

Grievances among the community also extend beyond the violent attacks targeting Egypt’s Copts. Addressing sectarianism within state institutions, Adel says, “If there is a fight between a Christian and a Muslim, they will side with the Muslim regardless.” He adds, “Even with small things, like while waiting for our turns in line in bureaucratic buildings or looking for work, we experience discrimination.”

Institutional sectarianism is entrenched within the Egyptian state, as Christians are kept from high positions in the military, the police force, judiciary, and none are allowed in the intelligence services. This discrimination, while not codified, is common. Girgis himself was informally rejected from the police academy when a police officer told him that his openly Christian name would be a problem, Adel recounts.

Mina El-Qess, the general coordinator of the Maspero Youth Coalition, a revolutionary youth movement created after October 2011 when military forces killed at least 20 Coptic Christians protesters in front Cairo’s Maspero radio and television headquarters, points to the commonality of these anecdotes.

“Coptic doctors aren’t hired in the gynecology departments [in universities],” El-Qess, who is a doctor, told MENASource. “And Christians are never appointed as presidents of universities. There are 27 universities in Egypt, and there is not one Christian president. This is not because none are qualified enough.”

El-Qess continues, “This [discrimination] exists everywhere, in school, in sports clubs, on the street, and it takes different shapes.” 

Mina Thabet, a human rights researcher focusing on minorities in Egypt, believes a comprehensive strategy is necessary if the government is to prevent these kinds of attacks again in the future. “The main problem here is one of ideology.” Thabet explains that while it may be important to counter terrorism with security campaigns, it is also necessary to counter it on a societal level by fostering a counter ideology—one that opposes extremist thought and preaches democratic worldviews.

“Countering terrorism also occurs on a societal level, and this cannot happen in a society where everything is closed down and peaceful activists are arrested,” Thabet says, referring to the arrest of political activists, including former presidential candidate and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, in early May.

Thabet also says that, aside from ISIS terrorism, sectarianism has also been on the rise since 2011—more so after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi in in June 2013. He added that this strand of sectarianism is more widespread in Upper Egypt with scores of churches torched over the past few years, especially in Minya.

El-Qess thinks the state should confront discrimination with the law. He suggests abolishing laws that punish blasphemy and creating an “environment for open dialogue.” He adds, “The irony is that children have actually been put on trial for making fun of ISIS and forced to flee the country because of this law criminalizing blasphemy.” In 2015, an Egyptian court sentenced a group of Coptic students to five years in prison on charges of “contempt of religion.” They were sentenced for filming a video in which they mocked the terrorist group.

He adds that the Maspero Youth Coalition is not “an exception to the environment of complete closure of public space or any form political participation,” or to the state’s crackdown on civil society activists. The movement, which seeks to put pressure on officials as a means of change, cannot protest or hold any sort of on-the-ground mobilization without risking arrest.  Instead, after the latest attack, the most they could do was to document itsaftermath and follow-up with and support the victims. “We’re doing the best we can in a closed environment,” El-Qess says.

For Ishak and Adel in Minya, future prospects are bleak. They both hope to seek asylum abroad on grounds of religious persecution. But Adel knows this is not an easy path, adding, “When the state is always talking about how tolerant and united it is, and you openly say otherwise, you’ll be exposing yourself to the risk of violence.”

“People want to leave now. All this talk of national belonging doesn’t work anymore,” he says.

Ishak agrees. “I’ll leave if there chance to do so, even if it means I’ll leave behind property. I’ll leave if that’s what it takes to pray to God in safety,” he says. “But I doubt I will find someone to help me travel.”

For now, Ishak is dealing with the loss of his cousins. “We have been going [to the Monastery] together for the past 22 years. Now I won’t be able to go because there is no protection.”

Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.

Image: Mourners react at the Sacred Family Church for the funeral of Coptic Christians who were killed on Friday in Minya, Egypt, May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany