In the weeks and months following the wave of violence in Egypt that saw the destruction of scores of churches, Christian communities in the country continue to face persecution and the threat of attack.
Another incident of violence came last week when gunmen opened fire on a Coptic Christian wedding, killing four people – including two children – and wounding a dozen more.
A series of violent protests followed the removal of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi from office on July 3, some culminating in acts of persecution and attacks against Coptic Christians and their places of worship.
John Pontifex is the editor-in-chief of the Religious Freedom in the World Report created by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International. Speaking with ZENIT, he explained what this act of violence means for Christians in Egypt:
ZENIT: Last week, a Coptic Christian Church was attacked during a wedding. What does this incident reveal about the current situation in Egypt, especially in the months following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi?
Pontifex: I suppose we had all hoped that after the tragic events of mid-August when so many churches came under attack, the situation would change for the better as the government made good its promises to bring the culprits to justice. However, this desperately sad incident makes clear that the risk to Coptic communities remains as grave as it ever was. After all, al-Sisi mounted what was described as the biggest crackdown on Islamist militants in decades. The government may have made some progress in restoring law and order but what we saw last weekend indicates that security forces are still a long way from eliminating the risk to Christians.
For the Copts themselves, the tragedy that unfolded at the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary serves to heighten a sense of alarm that was already firmly established. And what makes the problem worse is that it still remains unclear who the perpetrators were. The attackers were wearing masks as they sped by on a motorbike and aimed their guns at the crowd of people present for the wedding.
ZENIT: How is this act of violence different from others that we have seen since Morsi was deposed?
Pontifex: It has been said that it was one of the most blatant attacks of its kind; the attack was reported to have been carried out in full view of the crowds. Such acts are always to be seen as gratuitous but what makes it worse is that it turned a truly happy occasion – a wedding – into something appallingly tragic; and while a marriage ceremony is a religious occasion, its social and cultural dimension means that the attack represents an assault not just on a religion but on a people and their place in society.
That it was a wedding, that two young people – aged 8 and 12 were among the victims – that it comes on top of so much suffering already – means that its impact will arguably be disproportionately high. When Neville Kyrke-Smith, the National Director of ACN, was in Egypt at about the time of the ousting of President Morsi at the beginning of July, he was told that more than 200,000 Christians had fled the country since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011. This one incident will I am sure only increase the desire among many Copts to leave the country.
ZENIT: Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi issued a statement condemning this attack. Based on reports being received by ACN, what is the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who supported the ousting of Morsi at this time? Are we seeing efforts toward peaceful dialogue between the two opposing parties?
Pontifex: In the initial aftermath of the mid-August atrocities against Christian communities, Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut in Upper Egypt, made it clear to me that Christians were beginning to use his phrase “punished and scape-goated” for their apparent support for General Al-Sisi and the overthrow of Morsi. It was as if Christians were being told that such is the diminutive status to be accorded to them in Egyptian society, they had absolutely no right whatsoever to play a role in political change of this magnitude. It led to what is seen as an impasse in relations. Efforts at mediation – such as they are – have a long way to go.
What happened outside that Cairo church last Sunday will only reinforce a sense of suspicion, resentment and anger. And also the incident acts as a barometer showing the true strength of feeling among those disenchanted by Morsi’s overthrow. While the militants would think twice about incurring the wrath of al-Sisi’s well-oiled military machine, they would feel they had nothing to lose by taking out their frustration on the largely defenseless Christian community. Hence, the incident is to be seen as a potentially major setback in bringing reconciliation. Many, if not most, will assume that those who carried out the attacks were pro-Morsi supporters, even though we have had this official condemnation of the shooting by the Muslim Brotherhood.