Pope Francis will be going to Egypt at Eastertide, but for the Christians of that country it will still be one long Good Friday. The Copts – as most of the country’s Christians are known – are still reeling from the mass murder of nearly 50 of their number by suicide bombers during Palm Sunday liturgies. They know that more is to come: they have been designated by the so-called Islamic State terrorists as “our favourite prey”.
The term is a revealing one. Those who misguidedly present terrorists as victims of social exclusion or poverty ignore the murderers’ own vision of themselves as a superior species who carnivorously kill the vulnerable. This was not an attack by the poor against the rich or an underclass against its rulers, but rather the opposite. There are some very wealthy Copts but the majority are poor and defenceless.
A belief in the superiority of Muslims, meanwhile, is drummed into Egyptian schoolchildren from their earliest years through the state education system. This is reinforced by unequal laws (the president can only ever be a Muslim, for example) and practice (Copts were long excluded from senior positions in the police, army and even academia).
When I lived in Egypt, back in 1998, Copts made frequent complaints about a ban on new churches or even the repair of existing ones – a prohibition which didn’t seem to apply to mosques. Attacks on Copts in the course of disputes (as opposed to terrorism) would go virtually unpunished. In one appalling example, in al-Kosheh in 1999, 21 Copts and one Muslim were killed; only the killer of the Muslim was ever convicted.
Terrorism from Islamists often resulted in state repression, but also concessions, so Islamists gradually became more and more powerful. Not only did the mosques broadcast the call to prayer over huge loudspeakers, but even the sermons from the mosques would blare into every home.
The Islamists’ expanding role culminated in their victory at the ballot box in 2012, with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi triumphing over the Jesuit-educated Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi deprived Copts of any serious government posts and released some of Egypt’s most notorious terrorists from jail.
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