Some of my best childhood memories are of Thursday evenings spent at the Coptic Club in Khartoum, Sudan. Most patrons there were members of the Coptic community but everyone was welcome. Immigrant Copts from Egypt have been in Sudan for over a century and currently number over half a million. As is the case in Egypt, their contributions to civic life in Sudan are inordinately consequential to their numbers.
Today in Egypt, two Coptic Churches were attacked, one in Tanta and the other in Alexandria, killing forty-three people and injuring one hundred and twenty. Daesh has claimed responsibility through its “Amaq” media wing. The Churches were at mass for Palm Sunday, a day in the Christian calendar that commemorates the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem days before his crucifixion. The attacks have been condemned by Pope Francis, the head of the Church of Alexandria Pope Tawadros II and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Al Tayyeb.
A harrowing video of the Church in Tanta shows the choir composed of elderly priests singing before the video blanks out while screams and shouts for help continue to filter through the audio. Even with the tragically diverse examples of how atrocities are committed in these times, attacking a Church at worship counts as one of the very worst. I cannot help imagining what it would have been like to be one of those people, finding solace and fulfilment in worship only to be assaulted by the horror of death, pain and helpless terror.
The Church of Alexandria is one of the oldest bodies of Christian churches. It has been congregating for more than one thousand nine-hundred years. It has outlasted invasions and attempts at conversion. It has over twenty-five million members across north Africa and in diaspora across the world. Its church bells will ring long after Daesh is no more than an ugly footnote in history. But right now, Copts are facing the worst persecution they have faced in centuries.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak political opposition to the Egyptian military establishment has repeatedly taken the form of violence against Coptic Egyptians. Following several massacres of Morsi supporters by security forces in 2013, rioting crowds burnt down Coptic churches across Egypt accusing the community of supporting General Sisi. In December 2016 a bombing at the Botroseya Church in Cairo killed twenty-nine people and injured forty-seven.
And today, worse.
I don’t know when the point will arrive when we will admit that the global “war on terror” has failed. Since Afghanistan was invaded in 2001 the number, recruits and striking ability of terrorist organizations has exponentially increased. They now control swathes of territory not just in Afghanistan but across the middle east, North Africa, Pakistan and Somalia. Wars are supposed to defeat threats, not grow them. At this point it is undeniable that the entire world is less safe than it was sixteen years ago.
Why? Because where we have engaged in endless arguments about ideology and radicalization, actual people and actual governments have continued to breed this monster. When democracy was thwarted in Egypt, many cheered Sisi on, accusing the Morsi government of corruption, persecuting the opposition and a campaign of “Islamization”. What Sisi has done makes the Morsi government look saintly in comparison. Extremist violence has not dwindled but grown in Egypt since 2013.
Someone arms the entity known as Daesh. Someone was buying their oil and smuggling it across four different borders. Assad’s scorched earth tactics supported by Russia were pushing more and more Sunnis towards extremist groups. Many of the “moderate rebels” trained and armed in Jordan by the CIA under the Obama administration were later reported to have defected to Al Qaeda linked groups. Daesh itself is an export from across the border in Iraq, born from Al Qaeda in Iraq-which did not exist before the 2003 invasion.Instead of addressing the actual events and policies that directly contribute to the rise of terror groups we remain locked in interminable arguments about religion. And amongst all the things that remain unaddressed the most crucial is the role of autocratic tyrants.
By crushing opposition and exacting conformity through violence you create neither peace nor harmony. Rage and dissent, finding no modes of peaceful expression will eventually erupt in violence. Either the iron fist stays for ever or, if removed suddenly, it reveals the festering sickness of societies brutalized, traumatized and taught that violence is the sole means of control.
This is what Saddam, Mubarak, Assad and Sisi have done. This is what the Gulf monarchies do, embellishing their ugly underbelly of oppression and murder with the hollow facade of riches bought with the petrodollar. Want to know why terrorists don’t seem to be so active when a dictator is in charge? Because there is one terrorist so powerful and brutal that no other dares intrude on his territory-the state. Remove that overlord without an after plan of minimal intelligence-as was done in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya-and there’s hell to pay.
Dictatorships and monarchies are run like the Mob, always have been and always will be.
Muslim leadership has failed. Through violence and oppression it has bred extremism. It does not hold extremism at bay-as so many Western commentators who condone autocracy in the Muslim world insist-it gives birth to it.
Erdogan can send in troops and hold a chunk of Syrian territory to keep the Kurdish threat at bay. Saudi Arabia can build a coalition to destroy Yemen and enforce a blockade that is starving a third of the nation’s population to death in its paranoid quest against Shia Muslims. Iran and Hezbollah can throw their entire weight behind Assad’s butchery of his own people.
Yet none of them can do nothing about Daesh, Al Qaeda and all the other serial killers and rapists masquerading as holy warriors.
To fight minority persecution is necessary. It is not just a duty from a humanistic perspective but a religious duty as well. The Quran states:
“For had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down.” (22:40)
Religious persecution is a faithless monstrosity. Let us try to be the means through which such evil is repelled. Let us also recognize that we cannot do so without supporting people who wish to change the malignant political paradigms that do not allow the transparency and political action needed to combat all forms of terrorism including minority persecution.
May the victims of the Church attacks rest in peace. In conclusion what seems most apropos is the closing sentence of the Coptic prayers for the departed:
“Accept these souls, Lord, in their human imperfection and grant them the Christian perfection that is pleasing to you. Give them a seat at your table and with your saints let them rejoice in you forever.”