Islamists using attacks against Copts in Egypt's power struggle: Analysts

Tony Gamal Gabriel, Friday 25 Oct 2013

Some analysts believe Islamists are using hate speech and attacks against Coptic Christians in their ongoing fight for power

Mourners attend funeral prayer for victims of the attack on The Virgin Mary Church in Giza (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Guests were waiting outside the church for the arrival of the bride when two gunmen riding a motorcycle drove by and opened fire on them. Four people died in the attack, including two young girls aged eight and twelve. Eighteen others were injured.

The assault Sunday on the Virgin Mary church, in the working class Giza district of Al-Warraq, south of Cairo, was the latest of a string of attacks that has been targeting Egypt’s Christian community.

Many believe those attacks have been fueled by the anti-Christian narrative adopted by Islamist forces who have been protesting Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and largely blaming it on Coptic Christians.

In a joint statement published on 7 August, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), along with several other Egyptian NGOs, has “strongly condemned the rhetoric employed by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies which includes clear incitement to violence and religious hatred in order to achieve political gains, regardless of the grave repercussions of such rhetoric for peace in Egypt.”

During the summer, at the Brotherhood’s Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in, east of Cairo, the loud speakers on a daily basis would blast accusations made by some protesters against the Coptic Church and its leader, Pope Tawadros II. They blamed the Coptic Christian community for Morsi’s overthrow at the hands of the military

The pope gave his blessing to Morsi’s ouster by appearing on television alongside with army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi when he announced Morsi’s removal. Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb and other political leaders were also present to give the move popular legitimacy.

“You want to try to stop God’s destiny,” a leading figure of the Islamist ultra-conservative group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Assem Abdel Maged, asked on 24 July from Rabaa’s stage. “Give it a try, Tawadros; give it a try, scouts of the Church. Sisi is calling on people to take the streets. Who answered his call? The churches, the communists,” Abdel Maged said.

According to Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the New-York based Century Foundation, there are no evidence proving that the Brotherhood or their Islamist allies are linked to the attacks. “But because of their rhetoric, and because their protests produce violence, they end up taking some blame in the eyes of the public,” Hanna said. The expert added that this rhetoric “creates a permissive environment” in which such attacks against the Christian minority are “encouraged.”

The wave of retaliation against Copts started immediately after Morsi’s ouster on 3 July, with several attacks targeting churches and Coptic properties nationwide. Violent acts were most intense in Upper Egypt.

However, the peak of violence came after two major Islamist sit-ins were forcefully disbanded by security forces in mid-August, leaving hundreds of dead. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “at least 45 churches came under simultaneous attacks in various governorates as soon as procedures to clear the two sit-ins began.” Seven people died in the various assaults, EIPR said. “This is in addition to assaults on numerous schools, civic associations and church-affiliated social services buildings,” the Egyptian NGO said.

“We don’t have proof against any specific group, but it is undeniable that political Islam bears the responsibility of those attacks,” the head of Coptic newspaper Watani, Youssef Sidhom told Ahram Online.

The Islamists’ anti-Christian rhetoric developed amid the mounting opposition against the Brotherhood during their rule. In December 2012, amid mass protests denouncing Morsi’s policies, a Muslim cleric close to the group, Safwat Hegazy, warned the Church against “conspiring and siding with the old regime over Morsi’s ouster.”

“We know that 60 percent of those who are at the Ittihadiya palace are Christians,” Hegazy said, referring to the presidential palace where the protesters had gathered. “I am telling the Church you are our brothers in the nation, but there are red lines. The red line that we have is the legitimacy of Mohamed Morsi. If someone spills it with water, we will spill it with blood.”

The Brotherhood and their allies have been denying any responsibility in the latest attacks targeting Copts. After the Al-Warraq assault, a leading member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Amr Darrag, said via Facebook that he “strongly condemned the aggression on the church” and demanded “a quick investigation to reveal the identity of the perpetrators.”

But the Brotherhood have long been accused of developing a double discourse. One narrative destined to the organization’s followers is extremely hostile towards Copts, Mariz Tadros said, a researcher and author of “Copts at the Crossroads - The Challenge of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt.” “This narrative describes Copts as being part of the crusade against Islam, as traitors led by Pope Tawadros II who is against Islam,” Tadros told Ahram Online. She added that there is also another narrative destined for public consumption, “which states that Copts are part of the nation and full citizens.”

Today, in their ongoing struggle against the country’s new authorities, the Brotherhood is taking the pretext of the attacks on churches to blame the interim government for not being able to restore security and protect Christians from the attacks. "We are saddened to see that, far from fulfilling their duty of care, the military-backed authorities continue to turn a blind eye to deliberate acts of arson, vandalism and murder. This is a duty of care that every Egyptian has a right to expect regardless of creed or class," said the Brotherhood Monday on its English website ‘Ikhwanweb.’

However, on the ground, Tadros said, the Brotherhood is telling Copts “you deserve it, you chose to rise against Morsi.”

On 14 August, in response to the torching of the churches, the Helwan branch of the Freedom and Justice Party said via Facebook that “The Pope takes part in the ouster of the first elected Islamist president (…) the pope encourages Copts to take part in the 30 June protests to topple the Islamist president (…) After all that people ask why the churches are being torched?” The message was concluded with “for each action there is a reaction.”

Hatem Abou Zeid, media spokesman for Al-Assala Salafist Party, part of the pro-Brotherhood National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, told Ahram Online that “the Islamist current was the ready defendant,” that could be blamed for anything.

“Islamists were accused of being responsible for the Al-Qiddissin church attack,” Abou Zeid said, referring to the violent attack on the Alexandrian church in January 2011 that left least 21 dead and 79 wounded. “After the revolution it turned out the Interior Ministry was responsible for the operation,” he added.

As for the anti-Christian rhetoric, Abou Zeid said that “those are words that are being said in a specific context, which could have come from anyone.” “When you see your friends being killed, when you see his blood on the streets, do you think you will remain calm or will you get angry? You will say things that are incorrect,” Abou Zeid added.

Apart from retaliation, experts believe the aim of the attacks could be to divide the ranks of the anti-Islamist camp. Islamists are “pressuring new social groups and pushing them into a conflict with the state,” said Mina Thabet, founding member of the Maspero Youth Union, a Christian youth group.

“As the frequency and the intensity of the attacks are increasing, they hope Copts will turn against the ruling power,” said Tadros. She also said that many Copts are already asking themselves “why is that, even when we have informed the government about threats of assault we received, it did not move. It becomes a narrative of the security being complicit in the acts of assaults instigated by the Brotherhood.”

Indeed, after Al-Warraq incident, the Maspero Youth Union said the government bared the responsibility of the attack. "The killing and threatening of Copts in front of the church is the responsibility of the cabinet and of Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi," read their statement issued via Facebook on Monday. The coalition also demanded that charges be filed against interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim and local security officials for "failing to do their job and protect the church."

“Islamist think Copts will resort to international communities and Coptic communities abroad and say they are oppressed and ask them to pressure the Egyptian authorities,” Youssef Sidhom said. “But the Church and Copts will not follow this path.” 

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