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‘Emergency not enough to protect Copts’

Egypt’s Coptic Church curtails Easter

A Christian pilgrim kneels during the washing of the feet ceremony, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 13. (AP)

MINYA, Egypt, April 13, (Agencies): The Egyptian government needs to do more to protect the country’s Coptic Christians from a “wave of persecution” following bombings that killed dozens during the church’s most solemn week of the year, a senior bishop said.

Bishop Macarius, head of the Coptic diocese in Minya, south of Cairo, was skeptical that a state of emergency imposed after the Islamist attacks on Palm Sunday was adequate security and said the church wanted further guarantees.

Copts make up about 10 percent of the 92-million population of mostly Muslim Egypt and are the region’s largest Christian denomination, with a nearly 2,000-year-old history in the country. The Coptic church in Egypt will mark Easter in a subdued fashion, Macarius said, with the usual prayers and religious observances but none of the celebrations and visits from dignitaries that would normally enliven the day.

“We can consider ourselves in a wave of persecution, but the church has gone through a lot in 20 centuries,” the bearded Macarius told Reuters in an interview. “There are waves of persecution. It reaches to the highest point like a pyramid and then it goes down again,” the bishop said on Wednesday. “We are at a very high point.” The bombings that killed 45 in Alexandria and Tanta last Sunday followed a series of sectarian attacks against the Copts and came days before Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to Egypt on April 28-29.

The attacks, claimed by Islamic State, represent a challenge to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has pledged to protect the Copts as part of his campaign against extremism. Sisi visited Coptic Pope Tawadros in Cairo on Thursday to express his condolences. Although Copts have suffered attacks before from their Muslim neighbours, who have burnt their homes and churches in rural areas, the community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State has spread through Iraq and Syria and started targetting Christians.

After the Palm Sunday attacks, Sisi’s government introduced a threemonth state of emergency which gives it sweeping powers to act against what it calls enemies of the state. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the step was essential to combatting what he called terrorist groups bent on undermining the country. With a picture of Sisi hanging on the wall behind him, Macarius said the problem could not be tackled with a crackdown alone. “Security solutions never succeeded alone. No state in the world should be a police state, either here or elsewhere,” the bishop said. “Emergency all the time makes people nervous.” Sisi needs advisers who could brief him better on the religious, cultural and security aspects of the crisis, said Macarius, wearing an embroidered black cap.

The state also needed to find those who endorsed the ideology of the suicide bomber, he said, and authorities should devote more effort to monitoring social media. Not far from where Macarius was speaking, Emad Aziz, 56, sat in his clothes shop counting the cost of the latest assault. Egyptians usually buy new clothes to mark holidays such as Easter. Not this year, however. “People are sad, and people buy new clothes when they are happy. The situation is really bad,”

Aziz, a Christian, told Reuters. “Why would any Egyptian do this to his country? Is this loyalty to the country? Many people don’t want Egypt to get better.” He agreed a state of emergency was “not a solution” to the situation of Copts in Egypt — where an economic crisis has severely eroded the living standards of millions. Egypt’s Coptic Church announced on Wednesday that it would cut back Easter celebrations to a simple mass after twin bombings killed 45 worshippers last weekend. “Given the current circumstances and our solidarity with the families of the dead, we are going to limit our celebrations to Easter mass,” a statement said.

The traditional handing out of sweets to children by Coptic Pope Tawadros II before the start of Easter mass on Sunday will also be cancelled. “There will be no decorations in churches and the rooms normally reserved for the reception of worshippers wishing to exchange season’s greetings will remain closed,” an official at the Coptic patriarchate told AFP. The Islamic State jihadist group said it was behind the bombings at churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, and threatened further attacks against Egypt’s Christian minority.

The government ordered a threemonth state of emergency which was unanimously approved by parliament on Tuesday. Sunday’s first bombing at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta, north of Cairo, killed 28 people. The second struck outside Saint Mark’s church in Alexandria, killing 17 people after a suicide bomber was prevented from entering the building. Pope Tawadros II had led a Palm Sunday service in the church shortly before. On Wednesday, the interior ministry named the attacker behind the Alexandria bombing as Mahmud Hassan Mubarak Abdullah. It said he was born in 1986 in the southern province of Qena and had lived in the province of Suez on the Red Sea. Security forces were “pursuing efforts” to identify the attacker behind the Tanta bombing, it said.

The violence comes ahead of Catholic Pope Francis’s first visit to Egypt, which a Vatican official said will go ahead as planned on April 28 and 29 despite the attacks. El-Sisi has stressed the need to join efforts to “firmly” counter terrorism and its supporters, after it came to pose a threat to the entire world. El-Sisi made the call during a meeting with member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Sun Chunlan in Cairo on Thursday, Presidential Spokesman Alaa Youssef said.

Meanwhile, the president underlined the necessity of seeking solutions to the existing crises in the region, in a way that maintains the unity and sovereignty of the countries afflicted with conflicts. The Egyptian leader also lauded the continuous progress of bilateral relations in all fields, reaching a level of an “overall strategic partnership,” Youssef said. El-Sisi also on Thursday said state bodies are intensifying efforts to bring to justice, as soon as possible, perpetrators of the heinous attacks that hit two churches earlier this week leaving scores killed or wounded.

Today, el-Sisi visited the Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya district of Cairo where he offered condolences to Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria over the victims of the suicide attacks that hit a church in the central Delta city of Tanta, and another in Alexandria on Sunday. El-Sisi said the state is determined to carry on with the fight against terrorism, and emphasized his confidence that the Egyptian people are well aware of those supporting terror. On his part, Pope Tawadros II said terrorism would never have toll on national unity which is the only way that guarantees security and stability of the country. The Interior Ministry Wednesday night said that it had identified the attacker of the St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. Efforts continue to find the perpetrator of the Coptic Church of Mar Girgis (also Known as St George) in Tanta.

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