, CAIRO, Jan 5 – Police in Egypt are boosting security around churches as Coptic Christians prepare to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Sunday after a year of deadly jihadist attacks targeting the ancient community.
More than 100 Christians have been killed in the spate of violence, including a shooting at a church south of Cairo just last week claimed by the Islamic State group.
Since the military ousted divisive Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, security forces have sought to quell attacks led by the Egypt branch of IS which has increasingly targeted Christians.
While the jihadists have also taken aim at other civilians, including more than 300 Muslim worshippers massacred at a mosque last November, they have focused on the ancient Coptic community.
“This year we will not stop supporting the state and the president and play our national role, but we hope officials will find a way to reduce the attacks,” said Bishop Makarios of the southern Minya province.
In December 2016, an IS suicide bomber killed almost 30 worshippers at a church in Cairo located in the Saint Mark’s Cathedral complex, the seat of the Coptic papacy.
In the Sinai Peninsula, where IS is based, hundreds of Christians were forced to flee in January and December after a wave of assassinations.
IS suicide bombers killed more than 40 people in twin church bombings in April and shot dead almost 30 Christians a month later as they headed to a monastery.
The year ended with an IS jihadist killing nine people in an attack on a church in a south Cairo suburb.
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 93 million people, have long complained of discrimination and intermittent sectarian attacks.
They had also complained historically of official discrimination.
After Morsi’s ouster, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi resigned and won a presidential election the following year, and has reached out to the Copts.
– Long awaited church law –
Sisi has attended Coptic religious ceremonies and called for a reform of religious Islamic discourse to weed out extremism.
He may attend the Christmas mass on Saturday, as he did last year.
The mass will be held in a cathedral in a new administrative capital Egypt is building east of Cairo.
Sisi’s government had, at the end of 2016, adopted a long anticipated law to regularise the construction and restoration of churches, something that had been a flashpoint in sectarian clashes.
Unlike the construction of mosques, churches needed seldom-approved security clearances, and rumours that a church would be built sometimes led to attacks on Christians in the conservative rural south of the country.
In December, hundreds of Muslims attacked a church south of Cairo that had been operating without a permit for more than a dozen years.
But a year after the new law, a rights group report says there are still no specific and clear rules on how to implement it.
After jihadist attacks, “the second most important issue is the tensions and violence related to holding Coptic rituals,” said Ishak Ibrahim, who wrote the report for the Egyptian Personal Rights Initiative.
Closures of unlicensed churches and buildings used for religious purposes even increased last year, he said.
“When the Copts asked for permission, the official bodies refused,” he said.
But a few days ahead of Coptic Christmas celebrations, the government announced it would facilitate requests and expedite the regularisation of unauthorised churches.