A day of celebration for Christians in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria turned to tragedy Sunday as two deadly suicide bombings killed at least 49 people and injured dozens more.
“I came back and the area was covered in smoke. The stores around the church were all destroyed,” Fadi Sami told CNN. Sami had been attending services at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, where the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was leading prayers. Sami had already left when the second bomb at St. Mark’s was detonated. “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.”
Within hours of the explosions, the radical terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks stating, “The Crusaders and their apostate followers must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large, and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God is willing.”
The Egyptian government immediately condemned the attacks and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instituted multiple response measures declaring a three-day mourning period, forming a supreme council to counter terrorism, and instituting a three-month “state of emergency.”
The spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Abu Zeid, tweeted, “As we grieve the tragic & heartbreaking loss of Egyptian lives, it is still a failed attempt against our unity.”
As we grieve the tragic & heartbreaking loss of Egyptian lives, it is still a failed attempt against our unity. #united_on_PalmSunday
— Egypt MFA Spokesman (@MfaEgypt) April 9, 2017
However, this seeming show of solidarity from the Egyptian government is far more complicated than it seems.
THE EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT’S HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND CHRISTIAN MARGINALIZATION
“Christians in Egypt always feel they are second-class citizens,” Ishak Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian from the non-governmental Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the BBC in a recent interview. “In some parts of the country, especially in the south, their houses have been set on fire and they have been beaten up by some Muslim neighbours. The regime [of President al-Sisi] is not pro-freedom of speech. So, [the state of emergency] might only impose more restrictions and incriminate people who have nothing to do with the whole thing.”
This would not be out of character for al-Sisi who first came to power by overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and then killed 1,150 protestors over the following weeks. According to advocacy group Human Rights Watch, “since March 2015, when al-Sisi appointed Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar, a veteran of the ministry’s abusive National Security Agency, as interior minister, police and National Security agents have forcibly detained hundreds of suspects for periods lasting from days to months. Police and National Security agents routinely use torture, often against dissidents and during enforced disappearances, to make suspects confess or divulge information, or to punish them. National Security agents have also carried out likely extrajudicial killings on several occasions.”
What a state of emergency means under the al-Sisi administration is more of the same, allowing the government to arrest people without warrants and search homes at any time. In theory, this is designed to repress acts of terror, but Coptic Christians say they continue to be ignored.
“Christians in Sinai were forced to flee after militant threats there, although the peninsula has been living under a state of emergency for years,” Ibrahim said. “The state of emergency didn’t protect them.”
MUSLIM CITIZENS REACH OUT TO THOSE ATTACKED
One of the few moments of hope in the current tragedy has been the response of some Egyptian Muslims who have set up blood donation centers in mosques for those injured in the attacks. Loudspeakers in the city were used to encourage people to come give blood as local hospital supplies ran low.
The response echoes an ongoing show of support between the Muslim and Coptic Christian communities. In 2011 during the Cairo riots, Christians circled Muslims protesting and praying in the streets, holding hands to keep them safe. Similarly, the Muslim community has surrounded Coptic churches after previous attacks as parishioners mourn and pray.
Despite this, Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to live in fear. David Saeed was sitting in the last row of St. Mark’s when the bomb went off. Later Saeed, holding the blood soaked shirt of a friend killed in the blast, said, “I was shocked. But I’m not angry because…we’re used to it [this kind of violence] here in Egypt,” Saeed said.
“Every church in Egypt just prepares for this,” he added. “Everyone knows that some time you will get bombed, you will be killed.”