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Christian minorities in Egypt prepare for Christmas with 'resilience'

Sun 24 Dec 2017
By Press Association

Egypt's Christian minorities are preparing for Christmas with "resilience" after a year of unprecedented violence, the UK's most senior Coptic bishop has said.

Thousands of extra police and security personnel have been ordered to be on guard over the holiday as part of an ongoing effort to crack down on terrorist attacks, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced last week.

Some 230,000 officers will now protect about 3,000 churches across the country as Christians come together to celebrate the annual festivities.

Archbishop Angaelos of London (pictured above, holding a black staff) said despite becoming accustomed to violent attacks, Christians' commitment to worship has had the "opposite effect" to that intended by Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

"It was the same effect when we had the churches bombed and attacked in 2013, the same effect as the Libya martyrs when they were killed on everyone's screens in 2015," he said.

"It has had the exact opposite effect, where people still very faithfully go to their churches."

Since December last year, 137 people have died in Egypt as a result of more than 70 separate attacks against the Christian community there, according to the US-based Eshhad Centre For The Protection of Minorities.

Eshhad calculates that attacks on Christians accounted for about 89% of all attacks against religious minorities in Egypt over the past year, 17 of which were committed by Islamic State or its north African affiliate, Wilayat Sinai.

Now, Church leaders will be trained by trauma therapy specialists to help affected members of their congregations cope with grief, Archbishop Angelos said.

The senior cleric's memory of the beheadings of 21 Copts on a northern Libyan beach in early 2015 serves as a chilling reminder of the year his community has just endured.

Last December, 29 people were killed and 49 others injured when a suicide bomber struck at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, at a chapel next to St Mark's Cathedral.

Since then, Egyptian Christians have suffered three more major attacks, including two further suicide bombings during April's Palm Sunday celebrations, and a mass shooting in Minya province in May.

For Archbishop Angaelos, these larger attacks, along with the more typical throng of beatings, rights violations and murders, are part of the character of life that has affected the "vast majority" of Egypt's Christian minority throughout the course of 2017.

He said: "There are those who are very anxious and who have been personally affected by the impact of what is happening."

"But it has affected the vast majority of people who still go to church, who visit the monasteries, and they still carry on their lives daily, knowing they are a greater, in the eyes of some, target."

"So they go with a resilience, but knowing that they are going to potentially face deadly attacks - just for being Christians, just for worshipping."

Churches have responded to the increased threat with a raft of once-alien security measures, including guards, metal detectors and bag checks, along with a renewed emphasis on kashaafa (scouting), in the hope of promoting social cohesion among young attendees.

Increased state security has also become a regular feature of life across all religious divides, where armed police and roadblocks are commonplace at major festivals and public events.

This Christmas, an official from the Egyptian Embassy in London said extra government forces have already been "centred around all state institutions, airports, churches, mosques, metro stations, tourist attractions and resorts, and any place where there is an expectation for large amounts of people in general".

But commentators and human rights organisations have questioned the extent to which Egypt's traditional division of religion and state has been policed with impartiality where the country's minorities are concerned.

For the director of Eshhad, Amira Mikhail, the dramatic increase in deaths is, in part, evidence of a "shift" in power from Islamic State, in which the self-proclaimed Caliphate fighters have sought new targets in north Africa after losing significant territory in the Arabian peninsula.

The general secretary of the Egyptian Bible Association, Ramez Atallah, also sees the attacks as indicative of the organisation's desire to wield power.

"It's Islamic State trying to show its muscle," he said.

"There is a real attempt to discredit the Egyptian government: it's politically motivated, not religiously.

"It is a political attempt to make people cower, make people scared, make people uncertain."

But for Ms Mikhail, the steady trickle of attacks and the inability to prevent them is indicative of wider discrimination against Christians by the largely Muslim administration.

She said: "I think that there is a lot of high tension in the country, and there has been a culture of extremism that has allowed the majority population, regardless of what is motivating them, to attack and spiral those attacks against religious minorities.

"And that is something that has been building up for years.

"Then you have mobbings, you have church attacks, you have even just some kinds of low-level persecution and discrimination against Christians in churches - in schools or in hospitals - people getting second grade treatment.

"You put those factors together, it doesn't surprise me, if I can put it that way, that there are an increased number of killings."

Of Egypt's ten million Christians, the vast majority (90 per cent) belong to the Coptic Orthodox (Egyptian conservative) church, about 10 per cent of the country's total population.

This section of the community traditionally celebrates Christmas on 7th January, creating extra challenges for Egypt's security services who have already been drafted in to oversee celebrations from 24th December, when other denominations mark the occasion at midnight mass.


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