Last month’s ghastly beheading of 20 Coptic Christian migrant workers on a Libyan beach prompted worldwide outrage and retaliatory airstrikes by Egypt’s government.
But out of public sight, the same victims’ families and neighbors now silently face persecution at home, in Egypt.
Following the beheadings, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the construction of a church bearing their name in Al Our village, the hometown of 13 of the victims. This move, like the airstrikes, was meant to reassure the country’s Copts that they were equal citizens in the new Egypt.
Instead, Al Our’s proposed church has become a symbol of the Egypt Sisi claims is no more — an Egypt in which Christians suffer violence for their religion and are treated as second-class citizens.
On March 27, as Al Our Christians gathered in the small local church to commemorate their town’s new martyrs, an angry mob gathered after Friday Muslim prayers. A week earlier, a mob had marched in the village streets chanting “No church on the land,” but this time the bigoted slogans were accompanied by Molotov cocktails and stones thrown at the church and homes of one of the beheading victims and other Christians.
That local Muslims would be so incensed by the prospect of a church in their village points to the extreme culture of intolerance that has come to dominate segments of Egyptian society. These residents are not necessarily members of the Muslim Brotherhood or of other Islamist groups, or even personally all that religious. Permitting Christians to build a church simply is now widely perceived by Muslim villagers in Egypt as an insult to them and to Islam.
But, it is the response of the local authorities that is most disturbing. Rather than prosecuting and bringing to justice those attacking the Al Our Christians, the governor ordered a reconciliation session between the representatives of both communities – that is, a handshake of forgiveness by the aggrieved Christians. Sidestepping the criminal justice system, such sessions have long been a hallmark of the government’s approach to assaults against Coptic Christians and have created a climate of impunity and a culture of encouragement.
While in past similar incidents, any plan to build a church would have been scrapped, this one could not be, as it was promised by the Egyptian president himself. Instead, the governor agreed to the mob’s demand of banishing the proposed church to the village outskirts. The seven men arrested for their role in the attack were released to close the matter and appease the mob.
The Al Our episode comes shortly after an attack on Christians in El Galaa village. There, too, the mob was enflamed by the prospects of a new church, but it was one to replace an older church. After throwing rocks at Christian homes and terrorizing their residents, the mob made its demands known. They had no quarrel with Christians existing or praying; what incensed them was the prospect of a Christian house of worship desecrating their village. Christians could have a building to pray in, but it could not appear to be a church. It had to be devoid of any symbol of Christianity: no dome or cross, no tower or bell, and the entrance was to be located on a side street. Thus are the new rules of Dhimmitude being enforced in Egyptian villages. In El Galaa, the mob prevailed and the church was not built.
President Sisi has courageously spoken of a need for a religious revolution and of the need to change the religious discourse fueling hatred. He has similarly spoken of saving the Egyptian state from collapsing like others in the region. If Sisi is serious about both, then he must turn his words into actions by upholding the rule of law, prosecuting those attacking Christians, and offering police protection for the Christians of Al Our.