The devastating bombing at Saints Church in Alexandria last Friday night has left Egypt reeling. In recent days there have been endless rounds of further violence: clashes between Christians and Muslims, clashes between Christians and government security forces. Many Egyptians fear that the attacks have created an irreparable rift between the Copts and the rest of their countrymen. But the repercussions of the attack have spread far beyond Egypt’s borders and have left Christians in the region wondering what lies ahead.
In Iraq, many Christians reflected on the Egypt attack with a sense of grim familiarity. “The current attacks against the Christians in Iraq and in Egypt were clearly preplanned,” says Dhargham Edward, a 33-year old computer engineer in Baghdad. “These attacks are aimed at displacing Christians from Iraq and the entire region.” It’s hard to miss the links between the New Year’s Eve bombing and a vicious attack last Halloween at a church in Baghdad. Gunmen held worshipers hostage for several hours at Our Lady of Salvation church before opening up on them with machine guns, grenades, and suicide belts. That attack left at least 57 people dead, including two priests.
The group that eventually claimed responsibility for the Baghdad attack is the Islamic State of Iraq, a Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group that’s been active in the country for years. But the reason they gave this time was not the usual bluster about ending American occupation or toppling the government in Baghdad. In a statement, the group claimed it had attacked the church because of a situation in Egypt where two Coptic women had been forbidden from converting to Islam. The women, they claimed, were being held by the Coptic Church—which the church has denied. The statement also carried an ominous warning: churches in Egypt are next on the target list.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the Alexandria attack, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said “foreign fingers” were involved. That could just be a convenient statement to deflect blame from government security forces that were unable to prevent the assault. The government-run MENA news agency reported that investigators are examining grim evidence found at the site—two severed human heads—for clues to the identity of the attackers.
If the Islamic State of Iraq did carry out the attack, it wouldn’t be the first time an Iraqi insurgent group has struck outside the country’s borders. In 2005 Iraqi insurgents bombed three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 people and injuring more than 100. For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement condemning the New Years’ Eve bombing and expressing solidarity with the Egyptian people.
The attacks in both Egypt and Iraq have raised pointed questions within the countries’ Christian communities: Why hasn’t the government been able to protect them? And what can they do to protect themselves? “The government has done nothing and the evidence is that we canceled Christmas [celebrations] because we felt it would be dangerous to go to churches,” says Luay Kamil, a 22-year-old Christian in Baghdad. Dozens of Christian groups met in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq at the beginning of December to discuss their options. Their conclusion? Iraqi Christians need a separate province where they can protect themselves. A handful of Kurdish leaders, including President Jalal Talabani, have supported the idea publicly.
That may seem like an extreme option, but it’s also a sign of just how desperate and vulnerable the community is feeling. Some Christians feel that even a separate province may not be enough to protect them. “We realized that it is time to leave,” says Um Wesam, a 40-year-old housewife in Baghdad. “We are thinking of going to the Kurdistan region to plan our departure. We had never thought about leaving Iraq because this is the place of our ancestors. But we have no other choice.”
It’s unlikely that the Copts in Egypt will push for anything that dramatic. At least not yet. But the entire community, and the entire country, is seemingly holding its breath until the Coptic Christmas, on January 6, passes.