Christian Copts in ISIL's Crosshairs
"I was at the altar when I heard the explosion. I fell to the ground."
"I kept looking at the human remains, but I didn't recognize who was who because their faces were so damaged, even though I knew them."
Victor Foad, church steward, Tanta, Egypt
"When the police officer tried to stop him [suicide bomber] by force, he exploded the explosive belt, killing the police officer and himself."
Kameel Sadiq Sawiras, secretary general, church council, Alexandria, Egypt
|ahramonline Al Ahram|
"I believe the goal of the first attack in Mar Girgis Church in Tanta was to be a diversion from the main target of the attack which is St.Mark's Church in Alexandria where Pope Tawadros II himself was leading the Palm Sunday service."Egypt's Christian Copts are the most ancient of Christian groups and the largest in the Middle East, comprising ten to fifteen percent of Egypt's 92-million population. They have been a target of hatred and resentment from among fundamentalist Muslims and particularly so as Islamism has proliferated in the past decades in the Middle East. Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has stated his intention to give the community full protection, a relief from their more vulnerable status under his predecessor Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"These attacks can be a message to show how the group is expanding in Egypt with different targets from Cairo to Sinai and Alexandria to Tanta."
Ali Bakr, researcher in terrorist organisations, Al-Ahram strategic centre
In the two Palm Sunday attacks that took place in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and at St.Mark's Cathedral in coastal Alexandria, a total of 44 people were killed, including four police officers at the cathedral. "There were bodies and body parts everywhere, outside and inside the gate. I saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag", explained Fadi Sami who had been inside the cathedral when a guard stopped a suicide bomber at the gate who then exploded his vest, killing both, along with three other police guards.
In these deadly attacks, 126 innocent worshippers were wounded. In the aftermath of the worst such attacks against Copts in years, President El-Sisi ordered military special forces to assist police in securing vital state facilities all over the country, declaring a three-month state of emergency. Egypt's local affiliate of Islamic State, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, had claimed both church attacks and has threatened more to come. The ISIL-linked group has attacked Christians in North Sinai, resulting in families fleeing to other governorates for safety.
"Everything is destroyed inside the church", stated parishioner Peter Kamel. "I ran to the church to find my lifelong friend shattered to pieces by the bomb", Mona Faiez, 61, who lives close to the church explained, of what greeted her eyes when she ran to the church after hearing the detonation. The church deacon, Soliman Shaker, was killed, and this was her lifelong friend. "What kind of human could do this and why?" she cried.
The entrance to the church had a weapons and explosives detector installed. So the issue of security in most peoples' minds was set aside, conscious of the danger they lived as Christians in a majority Muslim country where attacks are known to occur, albeit not of the savage intensity and death count of these two. The explosion that took 27 lives at St. George's was followed several hours later by the second suicide bomber succeeding in his martyrdom at St.Mark's Cathedral where another 16 were left dead.
Blood stains pews inside the St. George Church after a suicide bombing, in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt, Sunday, April 9, 2017 AP
Pope Tawadros II, who had led Palm Sunday services at the cathedral, was no longer there at the time of the attack. Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb the renowned head cleric of Egypt's Al-Azhar centre of Sunni Islam, recognized as the world's leading authority and clerical educational academy of ancient lineage and global respect, condemned the attacks, characterizing them as "despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents".
Yet this is also the respected Islamic authority who has refused to condemn Islamic State and their jihadist ethos, pointing out that the only way Al Azhar could condemn a hypothetical Muslim (for the purpose of debate over condemning Islamic State) would be if the fundamental principles of Islam, such as the shahada (There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his messenger), and Islamic scriptures were rejected by them, could that person (or entity in the case of Islamic State) be condemned.
This is where Egypt's President El-Sisi and the Al Azhar institute's globally influential scholar-cleric part company; the Egyptian President condemns all violent jihad and deplores the Islamist fundamentalism that has led to violence in the Middle East and abroad, attempting to persuade Al Azhar and its principals to adapt Islam to a softer and more pluralistic egalitarianism accepting of other religions -- to no avail.