- - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

CAIRO — Pope Francis is long gone from Egypt, but his April trip intensified a growing unease among Coptic Christians about President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s embrace of their 10 million-strong community.

During the pontiff’s visit, Mr. el-Sissi told Francis that the Egyptian government “is committed to treating all nationals equally on grounds of citizenship and constitutional and legal rights.”

But the Islamic State and other terrorist groups within Egypt have not been so even-minded. Grisly suicide bombings at churches, shootings and other violence have claimed 70 Copt lives since Christmas and put new fear into a Christian minority community that traces its origins back to the decade after Jesus died.

“A security team of caliphate soldiers set up an ambush for dozens of Christians as they headed to the church of St. Samuel,” the Islamic State claimed late last month after one incident in which 29 Copts were killed and another 25 wounded when their bus was ambushed on a trip to volunteer at a monastery near the city of Minya.

The situation is untenable, say Coptic leaders. “We are in dire need of preventive measures,” said Bishop Makarios of Minya, a town about 150 miles south of the capital. “Each month we suffer an attack that is no less horrifying than the event that preceded it.”

After a period of rising official discrimination under the previous Islamist government, Mr. el-Sissi has reached out to the Copts, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, allowing them to build more churches and pursuing other measures to boost equality for the community in education and employment.

But his moves have also rankled some Islamic groups. One time, he granted equal standing for Christians to take paid leave for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem — giving that religious journey the same legal protections as Muslims to make the hajj to Mecca.

“The crusaders are now in control because of this coup made by el-Sissi,” declared Sheikh Wagdy Ghoneim, using a pejorative for Christians, on the Mekameleen channel, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood satellite station that Egyptian authorities claim has received funding from Qatar, which now faces diplomatic ostracism from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. “Now Muslims have become almost a minority in Egypt.”

Sheikh Ghoneim is an extremist. But even many moderate Muslims fear Mr. el-Sissi is stoking religious tensions by touting the Coptic community as a core element of his political power base.

“I had no problem with Pope Francis’ visit here,” said Ahmed El Wakil, a fourth-year theology student at Al Azhar University, where the pope delivered an address during his visit. “But the situation between the Christians and Muslims has worsened because of the regime’s use of the Copts to strengthen its position and support.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, has repeatedly affirmed unequivocal loyalty to the president. That alliance has led some Copts to fear that their countrymen might assume they support Mr. el-Sissi’s government, which has struggled to revive the Egyptian economy and faces sharp criticism from international groups over its record on human rights and political freedoms.

Before the bus assault last month, Egyptian authorities detained more than 40 activists from three secular political parties who had begun organizing a presidential campaign next year for Khaled Ali, a leftist lawyer aiming to challenge Mr. el-Sissi.

“The leadership is strangling and suppressing the democratic climate, and the result is that political Islam has become more attractive, more fanatic and more powerful,” said Mavie Maher, a 31-year-old Coptic movie director.

Failed crackdown

Others noted that the plight of Christians under attack illustrates how Mr. el-Sissi’s crackdown on radical Islamic groups has failed to make anyone safer.

“The arsenal of laws established under the pretext of combating terrorism, including the recently declared state of emergency, did nothing to stop incitement against Christians or prevent these attacks,” said Mounir Megahed, a Muslim leader of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, a group working for separation between mosque and state.

Mr. Megahed, the former head of Egypt’s nuclear energy authority and a key figure in ousting Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, questions the utility of throwing secular activists, writers and politicians behind bars while Salafi Islamists preach hellfire and damnation for Christians.

“Clerics who threaten Christians who don’t convert to the Muslim faith receive government salaries and have access to media platforms,” said Mr. Megahed. “Meanwhile the state follows a security policy based on excluding social actors from civil organizations, political parties and young people and democratically organizing.”

Survivors of the bloody Islamic State assault on the monastery visitors in Minya said their assailants told women to swear they would fast on Ramadan and accept the Muslim faith even after killing their male relatives.

“After spraying us with gunfire and taking our jewelry, they told the women and children to recite Koran verses,” said Hanan Adel, a 28-year-old survivor of the attack.

Ms. Adel and others in Egypt’s beleaguered Christian community say they are losing confidence in the government’s capacity to shield them from the Islamic State.

When Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Social Welfare Minister Ghada Wali visited the Minya victims in the hospital, outraged family members confronted them.

“We are dying because of your policies. Your pathway is bringing terrorism,” Michael Ibrahim shouted as the prime minister entered the recovery ward where Mr. Ibrahim’s 17-year-old cousin, Marina Ayad, was being treated for gunshot wounds. “What is the point of you coming here to see my family members who have been shot?”

Mr. el-Sissi appears mindful of the criticism. He has vowed to step up an effort to strike at Islamic State bases in the North Sinai near the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in neighboring Libya, where jihadi groups have threatened and killed Coptic Egyptian migrant laborers.

The Egyptian air force said in a statement Tuesday that 12 “extremely dangerous” militants had been killed in a North Sinai terrorist stronghold of the local Islamic State affiliate, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The military claims to kill hundreds of militants in the area each year, although it rarely offers proof, and journalists and nonresidents are banned from the area. Hundreds of security forces have been killed.

“Extremist attacks aim to raise the chaos in the country,” the president told a recent conference in Cairo. “What I am saying stems from my desire to protect my own religion [Islam] that has become smeared by these sectarian attacks. This violence is playing a major role in breaking its image before the entire world.”


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