Not much is known about Salah Aziz at this point, except he was a church attendant at the Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba, Egypt. Radical Islamists shot through the locks of the church doors this past Saturday night, setting fire to the church. Everyone inside escaped, with the exception of Aziz. His body was discovered after the flames were extinguished.
The Rev. Mittias Ilias, head priest of the Virgin Mary Church, told Compass Direct News, “We are believers. We believe that whoever dies goes to heaven to be with Christ.” But he is grieved at Aziz’s seemingly senseless death. “Myself and all of us personally, we get upset and feel bad for his family, his wife and children.”
The Assyrian International News Agency reports that sustained attacks instigated by Muslim Salafis (fundamentalist Muslims) against Coptic Christians lasted over 14 hours during the weekend. The violence between Muslims and Christians in Imbaba led to the deaths of at least a dozen people, with more than 200 people injured. Attacks were reportedly triggered by rumors that a Christian convert to Islam had been kidnapped and was being held inside a Cairo church against her will. The rumors infuriated Salafis, setting off a string of violent attacks against churches and Coptic residences.
A report released by Compass Direct states that, “No one contacted by Compass in Imbaba could say definitively how the rumor got started, but by 7:30 p.m., according to one victim of the attack, crowds of Muslims chanting Islamic slogans and shouting Osama bin Laden’s name began marching down the streets.”
'With My Own Eyes I Saw People Killed'
Less than 10% of Egyptians are Christians, and the Coptic minority is struggling to be heard in post-protest Egypt -- an Egypt now dominated by a Muslim majority.
“With my own eyes I saw three people killed and dozens injured,” Mina Adel, a local Christian, told CNN. “There’s no security here. There’s a big problem. People attacked us, and have to protect ourselves.”
Media reports have designated the violence in Egypt as “sectarian clashes,” but some human rights groups are questioning that description.
“It is sectarian in the sense that one group is attacking another,” says International Christian Concern’s Aidan Clay, regional manager for the group’s work in the Middle East. “But the mainstream media is mistaken when calling the violence ‘sectarian strife’ or ‘religious clashes’ in order to be politically correct. By doing so, they are not condemning the perpetrators of the attacks.”
Clay says that the phrases indicate that Christians and Muslims have been attacking each other. “Yet, the opposite is true. Coptic Christians have largely been the victims of violent attacks carried out by ultraconservative Muslim groups like the Salafists.”
'No One to Protect Us'
“There are people who are systematically attacking us and there are no police or military to protect us,” one local church leader told the staff of the humanitarian group Barnabas Fund.
Clay says that attacks against Coptic Christians have escalated since the revolution. Now, believers are finding themselves “vulnerable and defenseless,” in the absence of national security to protect them.
“In addition, Muslim groups like the Salafists are becoming more bold, because the law is not being applied and criminals are not being brought to justice,” Clay adds. “As a result, Coptic Christians are losing faith in their military and the transitional government.”
The Bishop of Giza, Anba Theodosius, told Assyrian International News Agency that, "These [attacks] are planned. [Christians] have no law or security, we are in a jungle. We are in a state of chaos. One rumor burns the whole area. Everyday we have a catastrophe."
Egypt Designated a Country of Particular Concern
Indeed, since the democracy protests, Coptic Christians have faced numerous threats to their safety. “Islamist militant groups have taken advantage of their new freedoms to impose a radical agenda,” Clay states. Clay recounts an episode In March when a church in Sol, 30 km outside of Cairo, “was destroyed after rumors were spread over a romantic relationship between a Muslim and Christian.”
He reports that, “Days later, a group of Coptic protestors were confronted in Mokattam and a number of Christians were killed by a Muslim mob. Later in March, a Coptic Christian’s ear was cut off because Salafists accused him of renting an apartment to prostitutes.”
Attacks like these have led the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom to designate Egypt a “country of particular concern” for the first time ever in their annual report, released on April 28, 2011. “CPCs are nations whose conduct marks them as the world’s worst religious freedom violators and human rights abusers," states USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo. “In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities.”
The Way Ahead
Concerned individuals can get involved in helping persecuted Coptic Christians. Groups such as InternationalChristianConcern are working to aid and protect victims of persecution in Egypt. The ReligiousLibertyPartnership is a coalition of organizations who work to aid victims of persecution throughout the world.
What needs to happen to ensure the safety of the Coptic Christian minority? “Before elections take place in September, which could possibly lead to a Muslim Brotherhood majority in parliament, the transitional government must step in and reform some of Egypt’s repressive laws and policies related to religious freedom,” Clay says. “This is not being done, which was most evident when the constitution was amended a couple months back. The council in charge refused to address Article 2, which states that Islamic law is the ultimate authority over the country. The article is contrary to the democratic will of the people who initiated the revolution and will only give more power for Islamists to use in the government.”
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.netor email [email protected]