“Life is beautiful with Jesus; he protects us from all harm. Do not worry, do not be afraid, God is there to protect you,” sang a choir of young Copts in the Abbasiya Cathedral only two days before New Year's Eve.
That day, the cathedral was jam-packed. Waiting for Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to give his weekly sermon, the congregants sat in anticipation, some chatting quietly while others hummed along with the music, teary-eyed and noticeably emotional.
The spiritual atmosphere inside the cathedral was a far cry from the heavy security presence just outside. A metal detector was stationed by the two entrances that lead into the cathedral grounds, and a second was placed in front of the entrance to the catherdral building itself. Security personnel walked around with police dogs that growled and sniffed at worshipers as they came in.
Amgad Mourid Fakhry, a devout Coptic lawyer who has always been a dedicated attendee of the Pope’s weekly sermons, says it has not always been like this.
“This atmosphere of terror wasn’t always there, it used to be much more relaxed,” says Fakhry. “But of course Al-Qaeda has made several threats against the Copts and they (security forces) have to do this. But do they think they are scaring us? Not at all. I even make sure to sit as close to the Pope as possible.”
In St. Mary’s Church in Zeitoun, church-goers also had to walk through a metal detector as they entered, and cars were not allowed to park anywhere near the church.
“It's a bit weird to go through such heavy security while entering a spiritual place,” says Raga Bolous, a worshiper at St. Mary's. “But taking precautions is always good.”
In Old Cairo, the Rasmy family was preparing for the Christmas festivities. Madonna, their four-year-old daughter, was going around the house, singing the words of the hymn she was due to perform with the church chorale on New Year's Eve. Her uncle, Ashraf Rasmy, a servant of the churches of Old Cairo, explained that Al-Qaeda’s threats are empty ones.
“Why would they travel all these thousands of kilometers just to attack Egypt,” he said with comfort. “We trust in God, we trust the Egyptian security forces, and, as Christians, we are not scared of martyrdom. But nothing is going to happen.”
It did happen just two days later. Only 15 minutes into the new year, a bomb exploded in front of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, killing 22 and injuring 97. It was the end of what had been an unhappy year for Egypt’s Copts.
On Coptic Christmas Eve, 2010, gunmen killed six Copts as they were leaving services in Naga Hamadi. The year also ended with clashes in the Greater Cairo district of Omraneya, which erupted after officials decided to halt the construction of a church building. The clashes ended with the death of two Copts and the arrest of dozens. 2010 was marred by heavy sectarian tension following the alleged kidnapping of a priest's wife who wanted to convert to Islam, and accusations by Muslim clerics that churches are being used to hide weapons stockpiles.
The New Year's Eve attack spread panic throughout the community. A Coptic Facebook page asked Egypt’s Copts to wear black on the 6 and 7 January in expression of their grief for the victims of Alexandria. Another Facebook page, dedicated to the martyrs of the Saints Church, listed the names of four more churches which are allegedly on Al Qaeda's target list.
“We don’t understand what’s going on,” said a young, anxious Copt, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Will they really attack these churches, or did they list them so that we can focus on securing them while they go and attack the others?”
The fact that Egypt’s Christians are mourning instead of celebrating may be poignant but not unusual, as sectarian clashes become increasingly common in Egypt.
“It comes out in different ways: a love story between a Muslim and a Christian turns out into a sectarian clash; a problem between two businessmen – one Christian and one Muslim – turns into a sectarian clash; a problem with building a church turns into a sectarian clash,” says Sameh Fawzi, a political analyst and human rights activist. “It’s all a result of a drop in the level of tolerance in our society in the last five years.”
Fawzi adds, however, that sectarian tension goes back far in Egypt’s history. In 1911, the Coptic Congress of Assiut was held following the assassination of Botrous Ghali Pasha, then Egypt's Coptic prime minister. The congress asked that, among other things, Sunday be a holiday, discrimination in education and employment opportunities end and that Copts should have proper representation in the consultative assembly. None of these requests were met.
In 1934, the building code for houses of worship was implemented, making it difficult to get church construction permits. Now, almost 80 years later, it has yet to be changed, causing sectarian tensions which led, for example, to the bitter clashes of Omraneya.
In 1972, following the burning of a church in Khanka, President Anwar El-Sadat created a parliamentary committee headed by Gamal El Otefey, set up in the hope of finding a solution to the sectarian problem. The committee's unique and comprehensive report was discussed in parliament, but, once again, resulted in nothing. The report has been gathering dust since.
“The government is very slow and bureaucratic in responding to this crisis,” insists Fawzi. “This is not right because we are dealing with a very serious and complicated problem. They need to be dynamic and they need to be sensitive in their response.”
While some have dubbed this latest crisis as a wake-up call, Fawzi is not easily convinced. Following the attack in Alexandria, the Egyptian media was filled with the heavily-scripted talk about “national unity,” and “Egypt safety – the same chatter used to cover every problem that erupts between Muslims and Christians, but nothing more, he said.
“They are doing a great job in responding to this latest tragedy,” says Fawzi. “But…the problem is much bigger than this tragedy. We need to confirm national unity by fighting terrorism and fanaticism.”
Some analysts believe that it is not necessarily the Copts who are the target, as different groups threaten the country and region as a whole. By causing sectarian tension in Egypt, these analysts say, theses groups intend to drive the country down the same path as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan. While Fawzi agrees that this may be the case, he still believes that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Egyptian people.
“The issue is, are we ready to change ourselves or not?" says Fawzy. “We need a quick, serious and effective solution.”
Mathius Mankarious, the servant of the Mary Morcos Church in Ezbet El Nakhl in Cairo agrees with Fawzy. According to him, we need a new media strategy that promotes tolerance and acceptance of others, and, more importantly, an educational system that encourages integration and cooperation between members of the two faiths. But instead, he says Egypt has systemic fanaticism that is blessed and encouraged by the country’s various institutions.
“It (the media and institutions) makes people think that the Christians are infidels and that they are doing us a favor if they let us live with them, and that if they hurt us they will go to heaven,” says Mankarious. “I may sound bitter but we Copts have been through hell and it is time to give us back some hope. We have faith, but our hope of a better future is slowly disappearing.”