Why Attacks On Christians In Egypt Are Likely To Continue

Egyptian women praying in a convent in southern Egypt
Egyptian women praying in a convent in southern Egypt
Ishaq Ibrahim


CAIRO It's delusional to believe that simply announcing the names of the perpetrators of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church attack, or that they've been sentenced, will prevent a repeat of the massacre.

It's delusional to think campaigns in the media, or an official funeral, will contain the anger that is rising in the hearts of Coptic Christians and other Egyptians.

It's delusional to count on time in the hope that people will forget the tragedy and move on as if it never happened.

Such steps are not unimportant in starting the process of dealing with extremism and fighting terrorism. But on their own, they are insufficient. They must accompany measures that deal with the imbalance that exists among citizens and their relationship to the state.

This massacre takes us back to the 1980s and 90s, when Coptic Christians and their property were the regular targets of Islamist groups, especially in Upper Egypt, where the collection of Jizya (taxes) and violence based on religious identity were widespread. There were dozens of attacks on Copts, including the invasion of churches and open fire on worshippers. The state only began to take action against such acts when terrorists targeted police and tourists such as during the Luxor attack, which prompted the resignation of the interior minister.

Sectarian tension and violence continued in the years that followed. The targeting of churches declined up until the massacre at All Saints Church at the beginning of 2011, in which 25 people died. In November 2013, assailants opened fire on a group of Copts in front of St. Mary Church in Waraq.

The nature of these attacks has become more frightening as the perpetrators have become more confident. In most previous incidents, churches were targeted from the outside. But the perpetrator of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church attack breached security and blew himself up inside the church.

This raises questions about the role of security forces tasked with guarding Egypt's churches: Are they present to help worshippers or harass them? Are the personnel placed in front of churches trained to deal with issues of access or are they merely a show of force? Have there been any reviews of their performance after the attacks? Has anyone been held accountable for the breaches?

An attack on St. Marks Cathedral in Abbaseya in April 2013 took place in the presence of security forces. Mohamed Morsi, who was president at the time, was accused of complacency over the manner in which he dealt with an attack on the main residence of the Pope, with all the symbolism that this holds. It was assumed that the incident was followed by the tightening of security on the cathedral, especially after the burning of churches that followed Morsi's ouster in August 2013. If this were the case, how was it possible for such an attack to take place on Sunday at a church right next to the cathedral that is physically within its perimeter?

Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbaseya — Photo: Ashashyou

The seeming ease with which St. Peter and St. Paul Church was targeted is an indication of the capability of terrorists in Egypt today. This attack conveys the message to Coptic Christians that the state is incapable of protecting them, particularly after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The group has also targeted Copts in Arish and Sinai, including killing two Coptic Orthodox priests. The shifting of attacks to the capital now is a frightening development.

A number of Islamists and their supporters blamed Coptic Christians for Morsi's ouster. This is a deception that was initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power. The Brotherhood capitalized on religious polarization by stoking tensions and promoting itself as the exclusive representative of Islam. Coptic Christians paid a high price for this deception — dozens of churches and properties of Coptic Christians were torched while the state stood by and failed to protect citizens and their property.

There is also a serious lack of political will to resolve sectarian tension and discrimination today, amid increases in extremism, intolerance and violence. Is it reasonable that six years after the All Saints Church bombing in Alexandria, we still don't know who the perpetrators are?

After the bombing, former interior minister Habib al-Adly announced that a Palestinian terrorist organization was responsible. After the revolution, the families of the victims inquired about the state of the investigation, only to discover that the Interior Ministry hadn't submitted any findings to the general prosecution, prompting the families to file a case against the ministry. In September 2016, a court ruled that the ministry should present the findings of its investigation to State Security Prosecution, citing abuse of authority and negligence.

This incident is one of a number of cases in which investigations have not been concluded. The message this sends citizens is that the state is not serious about revealing the truth about sectarian violence or holding perpetrators to account.

To be fair, the issue is not about the role of security alone. Political institutions also perpetuate sectarian tensions by supporting customary reconciliation solutions in instances of violence, which violate both the constitution and the law. These institutions bow to the pressures of Islamists by not allowing Copts to pray together, or by forcibly displacing Coptic families under the pretext of calming tensions.

At the same time, whether we admit this to ourselves or not, there is a considerable sector of the population that has adopted extreme religious attitudes, who believe that Coptic Christians are not equal citizens and do not deserve the same rights as the majority of the population. This influence is reinforced by the state and a religious discourse that rejects pluralism.

Extremist currents have gained new supporters in the current economic and social climate. While it is important to find and convict those who planned and carried out the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, it is not enough to prevent further attacks in the future. The state should undertake quick measures to review church security plans and to amend discriminatory laws that give extremists the chance to propagate their ideas.

In the longer term, there are also roles for educational, cultural and youth organizations to play in promoting principles of co-existence, pluralism and human rights. Only then can we say that the state and society has fully understood the scale of this threat and the seriousness with which it should be addressed.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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