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On the morning of May 26, Mohsen Morkous, a 60-year-old Egyptian-American Christian from the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, was traveling with his two sons, a grandson, and dozens of others to a religious retreat. Their bus convoy was ambushed by Islamic State (also known as ISIS) jihadists in Egypt’s rural Minya Province. The men and boys were separated from the women, forced off the bus, and commanded to recite the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. When they refused, 28 of them, including Morkous and seven family members, were shot in the head at point-blank range.
Despite Morkous being an American citizen, the attack was a one-day news story in the United States. In part that may be because it was overshadowed by the ISIS attacks in Manchester and London, which occurred around the same time. But there is also the disturbing possibility that attacks on Coptic Christians have become so commonplace in Egypt over recent months that they are losing the interest of Western audiences.
It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the slaughter of these pilgrims in Egypt and the slaughter of Christians by ISIS in general. Nor should one ignore how such attacks might affect U.S. national interests in the Middle East. Egyptian Copts, numbering about nine million, form the region’s largest Christian population and largest non-Muslim population of any kind. If Islamist extremists are allowed to proceed with the systematic destruction of the Coptic community—as they did with the Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq—the region will be fundamentally altered and Egypt and its neighbors will be destabilized for decades to come.
Two years ago, Copts became the icon of ISIS’ genocide against Middle Eastern Christians when the terror group released a graphic video of 21 Copts being ritually beheaded on a Libyan beach. Just before their throats were slit by the black-clad jihadists, the Coptic captives could be heard in the audio, in an apparent ISIS editorial slipup, whispering the Christian “Our Father” prayer in Arabic. Some of their relatives whom I met hailed them as heroes for refusing to recite the shahada and dying with a Christian prayer on their lips. Across the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—revered by Christians as the site of the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the Coptic Orthodox Church has put up a large banner bearing a still from the ISIS video of these Coptic martyrs.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later, when ISIS began losing territory in Iraq and Syria, that the group returned it sights to the Copts, this time in their Egyptian homeland. On Sunday morning, December 11, 2016, ISIS bombed a church within the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral compound in Cairo, killing 25. With that attack, ISIS announced that its threat was no longer confined to the Libyan border or the long-term jihadist redoubt in Sinai.
Two months later, ISIS formally announced its presence in Egypt in a video specifically addressing the Christians. Showing footage of the December 11 church carnage, a voiceover narration said, “You are a target at the top of our priorities, our favorite prey.” The explanation given is a bigoted mix of religion and politics: the Copts “are among the crusaders who fight the Muslims,” and they supported Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who “bombed mosques and renovated churches.” It explained: “The mujahideen and the monotheists had to target the Christians of Egypt, and make their lives miserable everywhere, thus ushering them into the cycle of conflict, for they are among the crusaders who fight the Muslims.”
Yet the Copts were never crusaders, nor are they foreign to Egypt. They claim a cultural heritage that predates the seventh-century Arab invasion, dating their conversion to Christianity to St. Mark the Evangelist, author of the Bible’s oldest gospel. Because of theological differences and their location, the Copts have long been isolated from the West. In the twelfth century, invading Christian crusaders found them alien and attacked them along with Muslims.
Nonetheless, ISIS’ Egyptian franchise, led by local extremists, aims to attract the country’s Sunni population not by playing up the country’s economic grievances or Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but by portraying the Copts as a fifth column of so-called infidels in their midst. Despite the fact that the Copts do not have militias of their own, ISIS propaganda from last March accused them of receiving “huge” amounts of cash and weapons, and aspiring to take control over rich areas in Egypt in order to create their independent Christian state, “which is similar to the Jewish Zionist state.”
Targeting the Copts is part of ISIS’ tactical plan to divide the Egyptian population. But it also serves ISIS’ theocratic goal. In the video mentioned above, the narrator stresses that the Copts stand in the way of a sharia state, justifying ISIS’ desire to eradicate them with one of the Koran’s most militant passages: “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them, take them, detain them, and ambush them everywhere.”
The ensuing persecution has been devastating. In March, eight Copts in north Sinai were brutally assassinated, which triggered a mass exodus of hundreds of others for resettlement further south. Palm Sunday on April 9, 2017, saw two church services, in Alexandria and Tantra, blown up by suicide bombers, killing 45 Copts. On April 18, an attack against the ancient monastery of St. Catherine in south Sinai killed a guard. And then in May, hours before Ramadan began, ISIS laid in wait on a dirt road in Minya to massacre pilgrims heading to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor.
Although the Copts are supposed to be equal under Egyptian law, in practice they are often treated like second-class citizens. They are widely disparaged and discriminated against in the official textbooks, state-controlled media, and government-supported mosques, as well as in the administration of justice and access to important government jobs. This in turn fosters a culture of violence against them. An example last year involved Coptic schoolchildren who taped a 30-second cell phone video of themselves mocking ISIS. After angry mobs rioted at their homes, they and their teacher were arrested and sentenced up to five years in prison for blasphemy.
Given this widespread demonization of Egypt’s Copts, it is not surprising that many in the country’s Sunni majority view them as threatening outsiders. In 2011, an angry mob plundered and burned a Coptic village church after finding in it an ancient Coptic liturgical script and mistaking it for a document of sorcery. A few years ago, I invited a prominent Coptic Orthodox bishop to Washington to give a lecture about the group’s cultural origins. In response, the Egyptian state-controlled media falsely accused him of plotting to replace Arabic with the long dead Coptic tongue as Egypt’s official language and published a hysterical barrage of over 200 death threats against him.
The state continues to enforce laws originating in the Ottoman era that restrict the building and repair of churches. In recent decades, most of the anti-Copt pogroms seemed to focus on this issue and resulted in church attacks. The persecution ratcheted upward during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, when, two years before the formation of ISIS, a New Year’s church service in Alexandria was bombed by suspected extremists, killing 23. No one was ever held responsible. After the 2013 military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, mobs scapegoated the Copts and destroyed scores of ancient churches.
After the 2013 military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, mobs scapegoated the Copts and destroyed scores of ancient churches.
Security forces themselves sometimes become the persecutors. Police have been known to shoot down Coptic monks and their helpers from church and monastery roofs as they make repairs, as they did in 2010 at St. Mary’s Church in Giza and in 2011 at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun. Security forces have even used their tanks to run over Copts peacefully protesting church burnings. In 2013, police officers joined a mob in throwing tear gas and rocks at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. Even under Sisi, who has spoken strongly in defense of the Copts, such incidents typically occur with impunity, with Copts forced into so-called reconciliation sessions that end in a handshake rather than legal justice.
The targeting of local churches hits the community hard. The typical aftermath of such an attack sees long funeral processions with dozens of caskets, carried to the same church, all at the same time, accompanied by entire congregations shrieking in grief. As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros has observed in The Washington Post, many Copts, including the entire population of the village of Bayadeyah, are now desperate to immigrate abroad. This desperation intensifies with each attack.
ISIS’ Egyptian presence is raising the stakes to a new level. The group’s strategy, in a country already primed to curb Christian worship, is to show that it can eradicate the entire Coptic presence. The jihadists are at pains to not harm Muslims in the process, undertaking surgical strikes at Coptic churches and even issuing a warning in ISIS’ Al Naba newspaper, published on the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, for Muslims to stay away from Christian gathering places such as churches and monasteries.
A Pew poll from March indicates that 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims want sharia governance. How many would support ISIS’ version is unknown. An October 2014 poll by the Washington Office for Near East Policy reveals that, shortly after ISIS announced the establishment of its caliphate, the group had the approval of three percent of Egyptians, a small fraction but one that amounts to 1.5 million adults.
Effective counterterrorism is critical but it alone cannot stop ISIS’s inroads. In a show of solidarity with the beleaguered Copts, Pope Francis went to Egypt’s Sunni center for learning, Al-Azhar University, to have an interfaith dialogue with Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. He gave an impassioned appeal for educational reform in Egypt that “corresponds to the nature of man as an open and relational being,” and that is based in wisdom:
Wisdom seeks the other, overcoming temptations to rigidity and closed-mindedness; it is open and in motion, at once humble and inquisitive ... from the past, it learns that evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence, in a spiral that ends by imprisoning everyone.
Sisi has also strenuously denounced Islamist extremism, spoken in defense of the Copts, and even had the government rebuild some of their destroyed churches. On December 28, he too went to Al-Azhar to deliver a courageous speech that called for a “religious revolution.” Citing what he called the “ideology” popular among scholars and clerics, he lamented, “it has reached the point that it is hostile to the entire world,” and, in an apparent reference to blasphemy code proponents, that “challenging [their religious ideas and texts] has become very difficult.”
Yet Sisi has been slow to act. He has no apparent plan or strategy to moderate the country’s discriminatory laws, which make Coptic churches cultural flashpoints and deny Christians justice in the face of sectarian violence. Although his government controls the endowments that fund Al-Azhar, he has not ordered comprehensive educational reform there or pushed for the teaching of Coptic history and culture more generally. In contrast to Morocco, Egypt’s religious establishment has not de-linked apostasy from worldly punishment.
ISIS has already cleansed northern Sinai of its small Christian population. As it attempts to terrorize millions of Copts away from the rest of Egypt through suicide and other attacks, massive refugee flows into Israel, Jordan, and across the Mediterranean into Europe could follow. The Egyptian military could be forced to fight an asymmetrical war against ISIS and other extremists in Alexandria, Cairo, Giza, Minya, and other areas with Copts, damaging the largest Arab country’s already struggling economy and fragile social fabric. Eventually the polarization within the Muslim community could even lead to open civil war along ideological lines. There should be no confusion: the fate of the Copts is now the main measure of the effectiveness of Sisi’s anti-ISIS policies. The world needs to be playing close attention.