Dozens of worshippers were killed or wounded when bombs were detonated at two Egyptian churches earlier today. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency quickly claimed credit for the attacks, saying that a “covert cell” had struck churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.
The first bomb was detonated at Saint George church in Tanta and the second at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Pope Tawadros II, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church, was reportedly in attendance at Saint Mark’s either shortly before or after the jihadists struck.
Initial casualty reports say that at least 37 people were killed and approximately 100 others injured, according to the Associated Press (AP). Most of the casualties were reported at the Saint George church.
The Islamic State’s men bombed another Coptic church in Cairo on Dec. 11, 2016. At least 25 people died as a result.
The Islamic State has repeatedly threatened Coptic Christians in Egypt and Libya.
In late March, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Sinai (or Sinai province) released a video (“The Light of Sharia”) advertising its implementation of harsh sharia law in the areas under its control. The production opened with a man’s arm being positioned for amputation, presumably because he committed some minor offense, such as theft. The jihadists boasted of the fact that they were cracking down on cigarettes and alcohol, both of which are prohibited in the so-called caliphate’s lands.
In “The Light of Sharia,” Wilayah Sinai blasted the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled for a short period of time in Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The Egyptian military subsequently deposed Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists used the video to criticize Morsi’s friendly relations with Pope Tawadros II and the Copts. For example, one short scene in the video features the two sharing warm words. A screen shot is included below:
The Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had a history of targeting Christian churches.
On Oct. 31, 2010, the ISI massacred dozens of Christians during a hostage situation at the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. The jihadists claimed that Copts had kidnapped Muslim women and forced them to convert to Christianity, thereby portraying the operation as a form of revenge. However, the ISI’s claims were not substantiated.
“Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism,” according to a statement that was released shortly after the killings. “This den has been frequently used by the Christians of Iraq to fight Islam and support those who are fighting it. With the grace of God, the group was able to hold captive all those in the den and take over all its entrances.”
Adam Gadahn, who was part of al Qaeda’s media arm at the time and subsequently killed in a drone strike, complained in correspondence that the ISI’s attack in Baghdad had complicated his efforts to woo Christians away from their belief.
In a letter written in Jan. 2011, Gadahn argued that Catholics were upset with the Vatican after a series of scandals. He planned to capitalize on this discontent by issuing a call to Islam directed at Catholics. Gadahn also claimed that the ISI’s stated reason for the bombing was nonsensical, as the church in Baghdad is Catholic, yet they claimed Copts in Egypt had wronged Muslims. The Catholics and Copts are different Christian factions, Gadahn wrote, and have no historical ties. Gadahn argued that al Qaeda’s senior leadership should “declare the cutoff of its organizational ties with” the ISI for a number of reasons. However, Bin Laden and Zawahiri didn’t take this advice. It wasn’t until early 2014, after the ISI spread into Syria and disobeyed Zawahiri’s orders, that al Qaeda’s general command disowned the group. And other al Qaeda-linked parties have justified or plotted against Christian targets in the past.
The attacks against Christian churches kept coming.
On New Years Day 2011, jihadists detonated a bomb outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. More than 20 Christians were killed and roughly 100 others wounded.
The Islamic State has also targeted Copts in Libya. In Feb. 2015, the Islamic State’s arm released a video depicting the mass execution of 21 Christians, saying the slaughter was carried out to “avenge the kidnapping of Muslim women by the Egyptian Coptic Church.” It was the same reason given for the massacre in Baghdad several years prior.
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It’s important to understand the enemy. With rare exceptions, these attacks seem to target, not Christians per se, but Coptic Christians (and note that there are other branches of Christianity in Egypt).
The “justification” (in name only) in these attacks cites “polytheism”. No serious Muslim would call Christianity (or Judaism) polytheistic, since Mohammed explicitly recognized them as “People of the Book”. Indeed, he singled out the Coptic Christians of Egypt as such:
“For the four centuries that followed the Arab’s conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church generally flourished and Egypt remained basically Christian. This is due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam, who had an Egyptian wife (the only one of his wives to bear a child), preached especial kindness towards Copts: “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your protégés and kith and kin”. Copts, thus, were allowed to freely practice their religion and were to a large degree autonomous, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called “Gezya”, that qualifies them as “Ahl Zemma” protégés (protected). Individuals who cannot afford to pay this tax were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or losing their civil right to be “protected”, which in some instances meant being killed. ”
Now the question which obviously arises is, which practices have arisen in the Coptic Church since the time of Mohammed which allows radical Islamic terrorists to refer to them as “polytheists” in communiques taking credit for murderous bombings of churches? And the answer may be this (from the link above):
“The worship of Saints is expressly forbidden by the Church; however, asking for their intercessions (e.g. Marian Praise) is central in any Coptic service. Any Coptic Church is named after a Patron Saint. Among all Saints, the Virgin Saint Mary (Theotokos) occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts. Her repeated daily appearances in a small Church in Elzaytoun district of Cairo for over a month in April of 1968 was witnessed by thousands of Egyptians, both Copts and Muslims and was even broadcast on International TV.”
Note that Protestants have also sometimes characterized the “intercession of” (praying to) saints as a polytheistic practice.
Obviously, whether polytheistic or not, there is no justification, religious or otherwise, for these terrorist outrages. But to characterize this as an attack on Christianity as a whole, may be to misunderstand the enemy.