Hours before Egypt’s Coptic Christian communities gathered for their traditional Christmas Eve services on Jan. 6, masked gunmen killed two policemen guarding a church in Upper Egypt’s Minya city.
The attack came amid the government’s tightened security precautions, initiated to protect all Christian churches during the Coptic Christmas holidays, celebrated according to the old Julian calendar on January 6 and 7.
Shot down in front of St. Mark’s Catholic Coptic Church, near Al-Habashy square in central Minya, the policemen were identified as Eid Faheem Sadek, 59, a Coptic Christian; and Sergeant Mohamed Abu Zeid, 35.
Minya’s local police force abandoned their guard duties after the early morning killings, to hold a protest at Minya University Hospital, where their colleagues’ bodies were taken. But according to Anba Makarious, the Orthodox Archbishop of Minya quoted on the Coptic Watani newspaper website, the police returned to their protective duties that afternoon, to provide security for the large crowds attending the Christmas Eve celebrations in the city.
In a joint statement issued by Minya’s Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical churches, local Christians announced that their Christmas celebrations would be restricted to religious services only, in respect to the families of both the two policemen and 20 Coptic Christians recently kidnapped in Libya. Although 13 were wrongly reportted as freed, their fate remains unknown.
President attends Cathedral mass
Significantly, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi chose the evening of the Minya attack to become the first Egyptian President to attend a Christmas Eve mass in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo. During his surprise visit, he extended holiday greetings to Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and all of Egypt’s Coptic citizens.
“It was necessary to attend and wish you well,” he said in a short speech, greeted by rousing applause from the worshippers. “We are Egyptians, and we have to be only Egyptians. We will build our country together. We will truly accept and love each other.”
Televised on state television, President al-Sisi’s symbolic visit, standing alongside the spiritual leader of Egypt’s 10 million or more Coptic citizens, contrasted with the reluctance of previous presidents to associate publicly with their Christian minorities.
Many of Egypt’s outspoken Muslim clerics have for decades fostered sectarian mistrust, urging their followers to avoid extending Christmas or Easter greetings to their Christian neighbors and forbidding them to enter a church.
Despite President Sisi’s supportive stance toward the Coptic minority, his government has yet to address the judicial prejudices and restrictions that make them second-class citizens among Egypt’s 90 percent Muslim population. Christians continue to be subjected to criminal prosecution for alleged blasphemy against Islam, and legal procedures to build churches remain convoluted and often blocked by Muslim street protests.
Sectarian tensions require constant protection
“All our churches in Egypt are under heavy police protection,” Fr. Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Church, told World Watch Monitor from Cairo the day after the Minya attack.
According to Al-Ahram newspaper, Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif declared that the Minya attacks were not religiously motivated. “It has nothing to do with any of the holidays of our Coptic brothers,” Latif said. “It is instead aimed at the security forces, to try to undermine their resolve.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although Minya police official Hisham Nasr blamed the killings on the Muslim Brotherhood, designated a “terrorist organization” by the Egyptian government in late 2013. “Initial investigations showed that members of the terrorist Brotherhood group are involved,” Nasr told the Anadolu Agency.
Over the past 18 months, jihadist groups in Egypt have launched frequent, deadly attacks against Egyptian security forces, killing hundreds of police and soldiers in retaliation for the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi. Coptic Christians and their churches have also faced multiple attacks, and the Christians have been blamed by Islamists for their mass support of the anti-Morsi movement.
A majority of the heavy reprisal attacks against Coptic Christians in August 2013, torching and destroying dozens of churches and Coptic properties, took place in Minya province, where sectarian violence has been endemic for several decades.