“It is a war against Christians: Egypt’s embattled Copts in the dark mood before the pope’s visit

Rami Yasser Labib was at home when he heard gunshots in the streets. His friend Wael Youssef, the owner of the downstairs grocery store, had been targeted by militants of the Islamic State. “Three bullets have killed in front of his wife and his son in the street,” Labib said.

Youssef has been the first victim of a series of attacks against Coptic Christians by Isis, this year, in the north of the Sinai peninsula, a coastal city of Arish. The attacks have forced hundreds of people to leave in search of safety. Labib fled out of his home of 16 years in fear, taking “only the clothes I was wearing, and nothing more”.

The pope as a sign of solidarity with Egypt’s Coptic Christians in the wake of the church bombings

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Isis has released a video in February, a few weeks after the attack, saying Christians in Egypt were their “favorite prey” and promising to wage sectarian war similar to that in Iraq and in Syria, where a great number of Christians have been displaced.

The video came as the number of deaths in Arish has been mounting: veterinary Baghat Zakhar, worker Adel Shawky, professor of shoe and the shop owner Gamal Gurgis, plumber Kamal Youssef, and the father and the son Saied and Medhat Hakim have been killed.

The video has also claimed responsibility for an attack on a Coptic church in Cairo, in December last year, when 29 people died. Then came twin assaults on 9 April, palm Sunday, in which suicide bombers targeted the Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta, killing at least 45 and injuring more than 100. On Holy Thursday, a 16-year-old boy, Gamal Gabriel, was found with her throat cut in Iaq village. “It is a war against Christians,” his father told World Watch Monitor.

Forensic experts collect evidence at the site of a bomb explosion that hit worshippers gathering to celebrate palm Sunday at Mar Girgis Coptic church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, 75 km north of Cairo. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

This Friday, the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis will not be in this war, the beginning of a two-day trip to Egypt, which is fraught with political and security complexities. Its purpose is to show solidarity with the countries members of the Christian minority and to deliver a message of peace and unity at a critical time for the sectarian relations in Egypt.

Francis and the pope of Coptic Orthodox Tawadros II, visiting the church of saint Peter and Saint Paul, which was bombed in December, to pray for all the victims of these recent years and months, pray for the Christians were killed”, the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, told reporters. About 10% of egypt’s population of 95 million are Christians, but the vast majority are Coptic Orthodox. Catholics represent less than 0.5% of the entire population.

Last week, a Vatican team arrived in Cairo to make preparations for the pope’s safety. Francis has chosen not to use a bulletproof vehicle to travel between the missions. “The pope is going to use a car to get around, but not a vehicle for one,” Burke said.

“The pope’s visit is very important to the Copts of egypt in order to cheer up at this tragic time,” said Fawzy Faheem, whose brother Naseem has become a hero posthumously, after a video showed him prevent a suicide bomber to enter basilica of Saint Mark in Alexandria, on the 9th of April. Pope Tawadros inside the church that the suicide bomber detonated his device at the door. As the Coptic leader was transported to the safety, Naseem Faheem and 16 other people were killed.

Fawzy Faheem said: “When it comes to extremism and terrorism, it is a long-term project for the Egyptian state. Terrorism is an idea, and it must be strategic intellectual struggle with the increased security, which are things that are difficult to reach with the visit of the pope. Yet, the Copts are in need of this moral support.”

Egyptian Coptic Christians pray during a mass led by Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria in Cairo. Photo: Mohamed Hossam/EPA

President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has presented himself as a defender of Egypt, the Christian community. After the Sunday bombing, he declared a state of emergency and declared war against Islamic extremists would be “long and painful”.

But many Copts claim that despite a heavy military presence, in fact, security at the local level is often lax, the surveys are summaries and prosecutions rare. The Egyptian government is not to protect them, they say.

Francis ‘ meeting with Sisi during his 48 hours in Cairo, will be an opportunity for the pope to the issue, the Egyptian president on security for Christians in the cities and towns outside of the capital.

“Of course, I hope that the visit of the pope will have influence, but it is not realistic to expect this,” said student Mina Nabil, who is unable to return to Arish to continue his studies at the university because of the threat of violence.

Pope Tawadros II speaks to the press in Kuwait City on Tuesday. Photo: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty

Some believe Sisi has more to gain than the pontiff of their meeting. “Like all the other dictator, General al-Sissi is hoping for a bit of papal legitimation. The general is, of course, the legal head of state, but an ipo can provide moral legitimation of a way as any other visiting head of state can not,” a Catholic priest and commentator Alexander Lucie-Smith wrote last month.

Egypt’s small democratic opposition, the government may be disappointed by this visit, he said. “People who like to point to the way in which the Vatican usually cosies up to dictators will have more material to work with.”

Over the past four years, Egypt has increased from 25 to 21 in a league table of countries where Christians are persecuted, compiled by the organization Open Doors.

“The situation for Christians is very disturbing, we hear from our partners in Egypt, that Christians are determined to stay strong and not be terrorized by these violent extremists. Despite the brutality, the churches were full on Easter Sunday – although the atmosphere was darker than usual,” said Lisa Pearce, Open Doors, chief executive officer.

Labib and his family now live in Ismailia, along with many other Copts in the Sinai, not knowing if they will ever be able to return to their homes in Arish.

“The buildings that we live in now were designed for the young citizens of Ismailia. They can’t wait for us to leave so they can get apartments,” he said. “My apartment overlooks a huge lake of water from a sewer, but I can’t complain that I didn’t, and I’ve been given as compensation.”

He hopes that the papal visit would increase charitable donations to help the displaced families, but he was skeptical about the chances of a fundamental change. “The pope’s visit will have no influence at local level, it is about an international political message that Egypt is safe. The problems that we are too local, and it’s not going to change anything.”