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Phil Johnson

 
Attack in Alexandria

The Art of Dividing a Nation

By Phil Johnson, Ph.D., January 26, 2011

Just after midnight on January 1, 2011, an explosion detonated outside of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, Egypt during the New Year’s mass. The blast killed 21 people and wounded approximately 80 others.  First reports indicated that the device was planted in a car, but according to Egyptian authorities, it was a suicide attack.

Echoes of Danger
The violence shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. Attacks against Christians had recently occurred in Iraq and in Nigeria. According to the Associated Press in Cairo,

“In the weeks before the New Year's Day suicide bombing of an Egyptian church, al-Qaida-linked websites carried a how-to manual on "destroying the cross," complete with videos on how to build a bomb and the locations of churches to target — including the one that was attacked.”

Stratfor Intelligence reports that the attack was the work of jihadists, but most likely from outside of Egypt. Egypt’s two main jihadists groups, Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al-Jihad, active in the 90’s, have since renounced violence and have openly criticized al-Qaeda. But remnants from these two groups along with others may have aligned with al-Qaeda.  Others believe the attack was the work of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda.

President Mubarak would agree, pointing fingers at foreign elements. But investigators on the ground are looking at a local group of hard-liners known as Salafis, who may have been inspired by al-Qaeda.  Just a few days before the attack, several Salafis were arrested for spreading flyers pressing for violence against Christians.

Coming Transitions in Egypt
With violence against Christians striking recently in Iraq, Nigeria and now Egypt, it would be tempting to conclude that there is a coordinated effort to target the Christian population in the Middle East and Africa. That is a debate and a focus for another time. At the moment, what happens in Egypt has deeper implications because Egypt is on the brink of a power transition. President Mubarak is over 80 and in failing health and change for the country is not far off. The likely successor is Mubarak’s son, Gamal. The government and the military are not enthusiastically behind this choice, but if you ask about other options, shoulders begin to shrug.

This pending power-shift creates an ideal time for long-suppressed radical groups in Egypt to take advantage of the pending instability to create unrest in the population and to exploit the perceived friction between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.

Perceptions of Discrimination against Christians
Christians (mostly of the Orthodox variety) make up approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people. With this dynamic, the issue of discrimination is bound to rear its head. Are Christians in Egypt free? Do they have the freedom to live and worship that is equal to their Muslims brothers? When asked, feelings vary on this topic. An Evangelical Christian from Cairo says that of course there is discrimination. It shows up from student rankings in schools to whom gets what job. Other Christians in Egypt indicate that they simply don’t feel safe or protected. They do not believe that the government will protect them from forces (inside or outside of Egypt) that could put themselves and their families at risk.

Visiting the Church of Two Saints just a few days after the terrorist attack revealed that security was very tight – every entrance and every street leading anywhere near the church was secured by Egyptian forces. After gaining government permission to enter the church itself, I, along with two Global Next Interns, Mohamed Ragaie and Ousha Atef were able to speak with several church members – people who were present when the blast went off – people who lost friends and family.

Milad, a man who was in the church service when the bomb detonated, stated that it took security one hour to arrive on the scene after the blast and that ambulances didn’t show up for two hours. Another man we spoke to, Mina, indicated that the time lag was shorter, that security showed up in 30 minutes with medical care arriving in 45 minutes.

With mourners weeping in the background, both men told stories of friends and relatives that were lost. When asked how their Muslim friends had reacted to the tragedy, each person spoke of their Muslim friends who came to them, cried with them and who call them daily to check on them and their families - marking a huge difference between the perception of discrimination, the fear of danger and the security found in friends, Muslim or Christian.

This Egyptian unity showed up in other areas as well as numerous groups called for Muslims to form a kind of human shield around churches for the Christmas mass held on the evening of January 6th. According to the Associated Press,

“Prominent young Egyptian actor Khaled Aboul Naga called on Muslims in his blog not to "stand still while Coptic Egyptians feel unsafe in their worshipping places," and urged people to head to any nearby church to attend Christmas Eve prayers.”

The People of Egypt
In the end, the loudest cry in Egypt isn’t that of terrorist threats or the sound of explosions. It is the sound of a generation who is tired of disunity, who is tired of focusing on differences and who want to remember that we are all people – people who want to hope, to dream and to find purpose.

One haunting story that was shared in the church was that of a young engaged couple together in front of the church on the first day of the year – their entire future in front of them. Then an explosion crafted by hatred sends them both flying in the air. She lands on the steps of the church, grasping the hand of her fiancé. But only his hand.

But in the middle of this profound tragedy, the human ability to be resilient, to reach out to others and to continue to believe was seen in everyone we spoke to in Alexandria. When asked if they would attend Christmas mass on January 6th, everyone indicated that they would surely come, because, they told us, in the end, the idea of security exists only in God’s hands and safety could be found in their church, and in their faith.

 
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