PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called on Muslims and Christians in Egypt to set aside their differences and unite against terrorism. He was speaking at the funeral, on Monday, of 24 Christians who were killed in a suicide attack last Sunday on St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, in the Abbasiya district of the capital, as a service was about to begin.
The attack was directed at the al-Bortosia chapel, which was a focus for women and children worshippers. At least 40 people were injured. Angry demonstrators later denounced the Egyptian authorities for failing to provide adequate security around the cathedral.
President Sisi, who ordered three days of national mourning, conveyed “condolences to all the Egyptian people — I will not say our Christian brothers, our condolences to all Egyptians. This attack caused us a great pain, but it will never break us. We will stand firm and, God willing, we will win this war.”
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the bombing. The suicide bomber was named by President Sisi during the funeral as Mahmoud Shafik Mohamed Mostafa, aged 22.
The attack was reminiscent of a church bombing in Alexandria in January 2011 when 23 people were killed (News, 7 January 2011).
The latest act of terrorism was denounced by faith leaders and other world figures. The leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, said: “We are in so much pain over the evil that has surrounded humanity and feelings that God has entrusted in man.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury said in a tweet that Christians in Egypt had “suffered a terrible attack. Let us pray in lament, protest, and in hope for them.”
Archbishop Welby and the other five presidents of Churches Together in England later said that they hoped that “all people of faith in Egypt, Muslims and Christians alike, may be strengthened in their quest for peace and their rejection of the crude and cruel tactics of the terrorists”.
The Prince of Wales offered Pope Tawadros his “most profound sympathy over the unbearably inhuman attack”, going on to say that he could “only begin to imagine the dreadful shock and grief that Copts, and indeed all Egyptians, must be feeling”. Pope Francis, in passing on condolences to Pope Tawadros, said: “We are united in the blood of our martyrs.”
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, described Sunday as “a day on which we witnessed the worst of humanity, when innocent women and children who decided to worship their God in their spiritual home had their lives needlessly and senselessly ended without warning”. The Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Professor Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, called the attack on the cathedral “a great crime against all Egyptians”.
The Egyptian authorities are facing an increasing challenge from jihadists: troops and security forces are the main targets. The Islamists’ campaign of bombings and shootings began in northern Sinai, but has since reached Cairo and other cities.
President Sisi has so far sought to meet the challenge with tighter security measures and restrictions on freedom of expression.
At the funeral of the victims of the attack, he said that the government and parliament needed to introduce still more legislation “to enablethe judiciary to counter terrorism”.
But the effectiveness of the government’s tactics is questionable. The disaffection resulting from the imprisonment of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters, along with the imposition of harsh penalties on government critics, are arguably fuelling support or sympathy for jihadist groups.
The Arabic programming manager of the Christian satellite channel SAT-7, George Makeen, said that sectarian attacks on minorities in Egypt would continue “unless we change the education system. In public schools, for example, 2000 years of Coptic history is not mentioned”, and this, he said, contributed a “barrier of misunderstanding” between Muslims and Christians.