By Khaled Diab
The bombing of St Peter's Church in Cairo exposes the growing vulnerability of Egypt's Christian minority and the increasing mainstreaming of extremist Islamist discourse.
21 December 2016
It is a haunting image. A grieving Egyptian woman in a headscarf wipes tears from her eyes. But this woman is not a Muslim. She is a nun and she is standing amid the debris of the pews which were blown up during the grotesque bombing of St Peter's Church (el-Boutrosiya, in Arabic), which adjoins St Mark's Cathedral, the seat of Egypt's Coptic church.
The only thing which distinguishes this woman from her Muslim sisters is the cross on her breast and the fact that she kneels to pray in a slightly different way. But this seems reason enough to kill 25 people and injure scores more whose “crime” was to be in a church performing mass.
What makes this slaughter even more obscene is that it occurred on the day millions of Muslims were celebrating the birth of their prophet, Muhammad, a time when families give out special “Halawet el-Moulid” to their neighbours, regardless of their religion. Instead of offering them festive sweets, ordinary Muslims found themselves consoling their Christian neighbours.
Outside the site of the blast, angry Copts were joined by Muslim sympathisers, whom together vented their collective outrage at the possible security lapse which led to this atrocity. Some of the slogans were telling of the vulnerability Copts feel in Egypt, with chants asking whether Coptic lives were cheap.
Others made clear their sentiments that Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi should not be invited to Christmas celebrations, which the Egyptian president has made a habit of attending since he took office.
“The people demand the fall of the regime,” some shouted, reflecting just how far the Coptic community has drifted from the initial euphoria many expressed when Sisi removed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.
Whether this fury will galvanise mass protests seems unlikely at present. “People are angry about Sisi but they can't see an alternative,” says Wael Eskandar, an independent, pro-revolutionary journalist based in Cairo. But Egypt is a place where one must never say never.
The chants outside the church echoed a revolutionary slogan used during the 25 January 2011 uprising. In the build up to the revolution, a church in Alexandria was also bombed, in the early hours of new year's day, as worshippers were leaving midnight mass, causing a similar death toll to the latest attack.
Then as now, the worst of Egypt also brought out its best. An act whose goal was to kill Christians and drive a wedge between mainstream society and a vulnerable minority actually brought many closer together.
Outraged at the atrocity committed against their Christian brethren, Muslims of conscience stood in solidarity with Copts, at rallies, protests and clashes with security forces. On the eve of Coptic Christmas in January 2011, Christians attending mass were joined by Muslims, many of whom formed human shields around churches.
“We either live together or we die together,” was the slogan thought up for the vigils by Egyptian artist Mohamed El-Sawy.
At a memorial service for the fallen, President Sisi revealed the identity of the suicide bomber he alleged perpetrated the massacre. A day or so later the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility.
While many in Egypt have condemned the bombing, it's also not surprising that it happened in the first place.
For years ultra-conservative preachers and conspiracy theorists – from members of the Azharite religious establishment, through TV personalities sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafis – have stoked the flames of sectarianism in Egyp. Many of them do not see Christians as marginalised. On the contrary, some are convinced that Copts are master puppeteers pulling the state's strings. There have been even those who have gone as far as to allege that there is a secret project to “Christianise” Egypt.
The military coup that followed mass protests against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 further encouraged sectarianism. In its immediate aftermath, dozens of churches were attacked, as some Brotherhood sympathisers saw Christians as complicit in the military takeover of the government.
Such outlandish conspiracy theories about Christians have gained credibility, as rigid religious ultra-conservatism entered the mainstream, and encouraged portrayals of Christians as agents of the West and even “foreigners”.
The government, too, has played both a passive and active role in worsening the plight of Christians. Passive in its long-time insistence that, in the name of “national unity“, sectarianism did not exist in Egypt, the land of the crescent and the cross. Passive in its failure to protect Copts and to investigate crimes committed against them.
Active in its pandering to the basest extremist prejudices, while claiming to defend Christians. “I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them,” wrote the prominent Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah, echoing Emile Zola, following the new year's attack in 2011.
Active in the state's institutionalised discrimination against Christians. Active in its incidents of direct persecution of Christians, such as the Maspero massacre in October 2011.
Sadly, the precarious situation of Egyptian Christians may well worsen as the economy tanks further, the state pushes on with its crackdown on all forms of dissent, Islamophobia continues its ascent in the West and violent extremism ravages the region.
But I hope that the spirit of the crescent alongside the cross prevails – for the sake of Christians, for the sake of Egypt and for the sake of humanity.
Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.
This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 December 2016.