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Bombing at Egyptian church kills 21, sparks protests

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (BP)–Christian protestors threw bottles and rocks at riot police in Alexandria, Egypt, Jan. 3, two days after a bombing killed 21 people leaving a New Year’s Eve service at the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation.

Subsequent attacks on Muslims and a nearby mosque also revealed the deep frustration of Egyptian Christians who complain the government allows attacks to be carried out against the country’s historic Christian community by Muslims who want Egypt to be completely Muslim.

“You want me to leave Egypt. I will not leave Egypt. Egypt is Coptic and will remain Coptic,” one woman in her mid-40s, wrapped in a white sheet stained with blood from the victims, shouted Jan. 1 in front of the church, according to the Associated Press. “I have seen discrimination all my life. In college, at work. I am not going to take it any longer. Enough.”

A two-year study documented 52 anti-Christian incidents between 2008 and 2010 in which none of the perpetrators were punished, human rights activist Hossam Bahgat told the AP.

Rather than investigating and arresting those responsible for the attacks, police arrest random people and then force both sides to accept “reconciliation,” Bahgat told the AP. “It’s an invitation for these events to recur and the victims are left feeling victimized twice, first by those who did it and second by the government.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report 2010, released Nov. 17, echoed Bahgat’s charges. While Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice, the government in fact restricts religious freedom in favor of Islam, which is the official state religion, and fails to prosecute perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians, the report said.

Christians face “personal and collective discrimination, especially in government employment” and the government also sometimes arrests, detains and harasses converts from Islam to Christianity, the report charged. Government authorities often refuse to provide converts with new identity documents indicating their chosen faith. The government’s refusal to prosecute crimes against Christians contributes to a climate of impunity that encourages further assaults.

Violence and discrimination against Egyptian Christians — who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of about 80 million people — is a constant and ongoing problem. In November, hundreds of Christians rioted in Cairo after police violently stopped construction of a church building. A Jan. 6, 2010, drive-by shooting on Coptic Christmas Eve killed six Christians and a Muslim guard. In 2009, the government destroyed 250,000 pigs, devastating the livelihood of a large community of Christians in Cairo, in a move the government claimed would prevent swine flu.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. government panel, said the Egyptian government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression and discrimination against Christians or, many times, to punish those responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.

“This attack all too clearly demonstrates the ongoing problem of unchecked violence against Christians in Egypt,” Leo said in a Jan. 4 press statement. “At present, there is no real deterrent for those who target Egyptian citizens because of their religious identity. Until there is justice and accountability, the Christian minority, and other minorities in Egypt, will remain vulnerable to extremists and terrorists.”

The Jan. 1 explosion in Alexandria ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, Compass Direct News reported. Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Authorities have suggested the carnage might have been the work of a lone suicide bomber.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) threatened “all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers,” Compass Direct reported. The threat was made in response to rumors that Coptic officials had detained two women who wanted to divorce their clergy husbands and convert to Islam. Those rumors were amplified by anti-Christian messages in Alexandria mosque services, which often were followed by street protests against Christians.

Extremist Islam is promoting an anti-Christian sentiment among rank-and-file Egyptians, said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of a Coptic newspaper. “The infiltration of political Islam into our education, our schools, into the hearts and minds of school teachers and into our school books and is extremely dangerous because it produces innocent children who are infected by the version of Islam that does not accept the other and preaches non-acceptance of Christians,” Sidhom told the AP.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly. The full text of the U.S. State Department report is available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148817.htm.

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