In the latest attack by Islamists in Egypt targeting Christians, gunmen attacked a Coptic Orthodox church and a Christian-owned shop near Cairo at the end of last week.
According to Egypt’s interior ministry, the attack began as one terrorist attempted to break through security guards stationed outside the Mar Mina church in the Helwan suburb of Cairo “in order to throw an explosive device.” This attempt apparently failed.
At one point, two attackers opened fire on the congregants, killing at least 11 people before government forces arrived. The responding security personnel killed one of the attackers and were able to neutralize and detain the other.
Shortly before the attack on Mar Mina, a Christian owned shop some three miles away was also shot at by two unidentified gunmen, who killed two people before fleeing. Egyptian officials stated that the attackers in the two incidents were the same and that the gunmen had driven from the site of the first attack straight to Mar Mina.
Hours after the attacks, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through its propaganda media outlet Amaq. The press release extolled the one terrorist who “attained martyrdom.”
The current string of ISIS attacks on Christian sites in Egypt began in late 2016. In December of that year, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck the women’s section at the main Coptic church in Cairo, killing more than 20 people. Attacks have since been ongoing, including incidents like the double bombing of Saint George church in the city of Tanta and Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria in April of 2017. The attacks inflicted dozens of casualties.
The Egyptian wing of ISIS began its targeting of Christian sites in the country under the organization’s broader program dubbed “war on polytheism” which includes, according to ISIS, Christians and Jews. Since Egypt contains a relatively large Christian community, (accounting for some ten percent of the population) it is not surprising that this war has been carried out with a vengeance in Egyptian urban centers over the past year. What is interesting to note however is that from the outset, ISIS recognized that while attacking Christians may be in line with their religious principles, it was not a particularly popular move amongst Egyptian Muslims broadly. In May, the unnamed “emir” of the ISIS wing of Misr (Egypt) admitted in an interview for the organization’s Rumiyah magazine that church bombings were not approved of by most Muslims in Egypt. The emir ended his comments with urging followers that “targeting these churches with ruin and destruction is a matter that is permitted in the Shari’ah, and it is allowed to use this as a means of attaining closeness to Allah.”
There are clearly those that agree with the emir. Last week, for instance, hundreds of Muslim demonstrators attacked a Coptic church in Giza, south of Cairo. According to local reports, dozens of demonstrators gathered around the church following Friday prayers and stormed the building, destroying much the contents.
Faced with this perpetual series of attacks, the government of Egypt has taken a hardline stance to track down and eliminate terror cells. Egypt's public prosecutor ordered on Sunday the detention of 10 additional terror suspects from cells in various parts of the country. According to the public prosecutor's office, the suspects are accused of “inciting violence against Christian citizens, their properties, and worship houses.” Meanwhile, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has ordered security forces to increase safety measures at sensitive sites, including other Christian sites.
Hopefully, this crackdown will result in an end to the wave of violence against the Egyptian Christian community. Egyptian authorities will have to tread cautiously, however, as an increase in security operations may trigger a backlash in the fight against the ISIS cells ensconced throughout the country.