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Egypt Church Attack in Context
4 January 2011

Following the suicide attack on a church in Alexandria, Egypt, just after midnight on 1 January that left 21 people dead and an estimated 97 people injured, the obvious question is, who was behind the attack? The less obvious question is whether this is an indication of a new phase in al-Qa'eda's strategy to increase attacks on Christians around the world? This comes down to speculation about whether the attack was domestically or internationally motivated.

 Supporting the thesis of an internationally motivated attack, al-Mujahidin, associated with al-Qa'eda, claimed responsibility for the attack. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak also promised in a televised address that terrorists would not destabilise Egypt or divide Christians and Muslims, claiming that the attack carried evidence of the involvement of 'foreign fingers'. Although easy to divert attention away from domestic challenges in claiming these attacks as the work of al-Qa'eda, the reality is that those following Egyptian politics will immediately place a question mark on president Mubarak's attempt to imply Christian and Muslim unity. Additionally, for any attack of this magnitude to be executed, domestic support is a prerequisite. The unfortunate truth is that since the defeat of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya the relationship with the Christian community remained a sensitive topic.

Despite being the oldest Christian community in the region (and broader Middle East) the country is still confronted with sporadic clashes between Muslims and Christians. The following summarise some of the most newsworthy incidents:

On 14 April 2006, a Muslim workman, whom authorities later described as 'unbalanced', attacked three churches in Alexandria, killing a 78-year-old Coptic Christian. One person was later killed in clashes between Copts and Muslims that followed.

In May 2007 following an attack on the Deir Abu Fana monastery near Minya (southern Egypt) a number of protests across the country ensued. The violence erupted when local Muslims claimed that expansion work on the monastery was being carried out illegally on state-owned land. Three Christians at the monastery were injured; three monks were kidnapped but later released, while a Muslim man was also killed in the crossfire. According to reports, background to this incident can be traced back to 1977 when villagers burnt the church down before completion. It is also used as an example of government reluctance in granting churches restoring permits, considering that the community waited 28 years for a permit to complete building the church.

More than 70 attacks against Copts were recorded in 2008. These violations included attacks on churches and monasteries such as that of the Virgin Mary in Dronka and Abu Fana in Qasr Hur. Even Christians praying within their homes were occasionally assaulted.

On 29 May 2008, four Copts were killed in a jewellery heist in Cairo. According to police an alleged cell of Islamists were responsible for the attack.

On 18 April 2009, Muslim gunmen killed two Coptic Christians and wounded a third as they left the church after an Easter service in Hagaza village, near the town of Qena (southern Egypt).

On 21 June 2009, a number of Copts were assaulted in the village of Ezbet Boushra-East (Southern Egypt) where a number of homes were destroyed on suspicion that mass was being secretly celebrated at a priest's home.

Following reports of sexual abuse of a Muslim girl (aged 12) by the 21 year-old Guirgis Baroumi (who was subsequently detained) on 18 November 2009, Muslims started to attack Christians in Farshoot, as well as the neighboring villages of Kom Ahmar, Shakiki and Ezbet Waziri on 21 November 2009. The mob looted, vandalized and burned property. Many Copts believed that Muslims used the alleged rape incident as a pretext to initiate violence against them.

On 6 January 2010, six Copts and a policeman were killed and another nine Copts injured when gunmen opened fire on shoppers in Nagaa Hammadi in southern Egypt on their Christmas Eve. During subsequent riots, (in the aftermath of this attack) Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims and security forces.

13 March 2010: Twenty-four people were injured in clashes between Christians and Muslims in the province of Mersa Matrouh when fighting broke out as Muslim residents began to hurl stones at Christian construction workers they thought were building a church. An estimated 400 people were involved in the fighting, resulting in the arrest of twenty Muslims and Christians.

Instead of international events impacting on domestic relations, in the case of Egypt, domestic religious relations had an impact on developments in Iraq. Considering that those responsible for the church attack in Iraq on 2 November - resulting in the death of 58 people - justified their attack in that according to them female Muslims were being held against their will in Coptic Christian monasteries in Egypt. Thus referring to Wafaa Constantine and Camilla Shehata, the wives of two Egyptian Coptic priests, who allegedly converted to Islam in an attempt to get away from their abusive husbands. When their intentions were discovered, police handed them over to the Church and their whereabouts since are unknown. Both tried to seek a divorce through Church channels, but hit a dead-end because the Coptic Orthodox Church forbids divorce - a rule enforced even more strictly against the wives of priests. Though Egyptian religious authorities say the women never succeeded in converting, the controversy in both cases escalated with protests by Egyptian Christians, who accused Muslims of abducting the women and forcing them to convert.  

The attack in Iraq was followed by a statement on an Islamist website that called for attacks on Egypt`s churches, approximately two weeks before the Egypt church attack. Listed among them the Alexandria`s Church of the Two Saints that was targeted in the attack.

But is it possible that what many would consider to be a domestic dispute could result in two attacks that ended in the death of an estimated 79 people in Egypt and Iraq? Considering that both countries host Christian communities considered to be the oldest in the Middle East and Africa without links to the United States or Western policies in the Middle East (one of the primary reasons behind a number of terrorist attacks around the world). Do these attacks predict an increase in sectarian violence? Although too early to present a definitive answer, the recent suicide attack in Egypt showed a dramatic escalation in the type of attack in comparison to the above listed incidents e.g. the use of firearms, as well as the number of casualties it resulted in. Furthermore, the list of attacks on Christians reflects a negative development in that on Christmas Day 2010, six people died in attacks on two Christian churches in northeast Nigeria while six people were injured when an explosive device detonated in a Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines.  

Although the attacks in Egypt and Nigeria listed above might manifest conflict based on religious divides, closer investigation reflects other social issues. In the case of Egypt, social divide serves as a factor in sectarian tension. Living in their own neighbourhoods and villages, a social line of separation developed between the Christian and the broader Egyptian societies. When the local community is economically comfortable, communal tension is minimal, but when there is widespread poverty and misguided local leadership, inter communal trouble can be expected. Therefore the role economic differences play in contributing to social divide and inter-communal conflict is emphasised. The unfortunate reality is that community leaders and leaders of organizations constantly use these differences under a religious guise to justify violence against the 'other'.

Despite evidence of an increase in religiously motivated social confrontation and even open conflict, only those behind these divides will benefit from sectarian-based violence.

Anneli Botha, senior researcher,  International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS, Pretoria

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