Last week in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II delivered an unprecedented condemnation of the escalating religious attacks there against Coptic Christians: "The church has been a national symbol for 2,000 years," he told a television interviewer. "It has not been subjected to anything like this even during the darkest ages. . . . There has been no positive and clear action from the state, but there is a God. The church does not ask for anyone's protection, only from God."
Tawadros's appeal was prompted by an unprecedented attack on Cairo's St. Mark Cathedral two days earlier.
A week ago last Sunday, Copts filing out of an evening funeral service at the Cathedral were set upon by a 200-strong Muslim mob that hurled firebombs, live ammunition, tear gas, and rocks at them while they were still trapped inside the Cathedral compound. This reportedly resulted in one Copt, Mahrous Hanna Ibrahim, being killed from a gunshot and in dozens of others being wounded. One Muslim also died after reportedly falling from a ladder, which he had climbed in order to destroy the Cathedral's security camera. The duration of the assault was five hours.
Police were slow to arrive on the scene and when they finally did, they either failed to act or joined in the attack on the Christians at the Cathedral. A reporter with the American-based Morning Star News reported seeing one police officer sitting in his car who "fired a tear-gas grenade into the cathedral compound" where the Christian mourners were pinned down.
Another eyewitness account, this one from a British journalist, confirmed police participation, describing a scene where "the security forces positioned outside the cathedral launched volley after volley of tear gas into the compound." He noted, "Some of the thousands of onlookers gathered in the road cheered as the canisters rocketed towards Christians perched on the walls overlooking the main street."
Underscoring state complicity, according to this account, "One young man, his right hand clasped around a shiny steel handgun, clambered on top of a petrol station alongside the cathedral and blasted a single round at those trapped inside. He was helped down by a friend who was also carrying a handgun, before they both jogged off through a nearby line of riot police who had been watching the young man take aim."
The besieged funeral was for four Copts who themselves had been murdered on Friday in a pogrom on their neighborhood in the northeast Cairo district of Khusous after a rumor circulated that some Christian children had gratified a cross on the wall of a mosque, or it may have been in response to some other rumor, no one is certain.
After Friday Muslim prayers, a call through a mosque microphone urged Muslims to "purge the area of the 'unclean' Christians." It was reported: "The Muslims marched against the Mar-Girgis (St. George) church, while the Copts surrounded their church and placed iron barriers around it for protection. The Muslims shot at the Copts who fired back." With chants of "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is the Greatest), the rioters destroyed a nursery school at St. George's, and attacked a Baptist church building, which wasn't damaged, and then moved on to looting and burning Coptic-owned houses and shops.
Here too, security forces failed to protect the Copts and stop the violence. In recognition of this long-standing pattern of Muslim attacks on Coptic communities and police indifference, in a release entitled "Egypt's Coptic Christians must be protected from sectarian violence," Amnesty International reported that already in 2013, even before the events of last weekend, Coptic Christian activists reported at least five other attacks on churches or affiliated buildings, taking place in the Governorates of Aswan, Beni Suef, Cairo, and Fayoum.
Copts suffer for their religion in other ways as well. Some eight Copts, including some children, have been imprisoned for insulting Islam - a situation that in part prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to call for the end of these "blasphemy-like" charges. Then there is Nadia Mohammad Ali and her seven children who were recently sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for the Islamist crime of reconverting to Christianity. Underage girls have been abducted and forced into marriages in which they are forced to convert to Islam. The new constitution restricts religious freedom, and the judiciary has repeatedly failed to bring justice in cases where Copts have been aggrieved by Muslim violence, allowing them to be murdered, injured, and robbed of their property with impunity. Such persecution is not new for the Copts, but its manifestations are intensifying in the Arab Spring.
The head of the U.K. Coptic Orthodox Church, Bishop Angaelos, confirms this assessment: "We have seen escalating and increasing attacks on Christians, Christian communities, churches and now the Patriarchate during this past period of expected improvement, and so questions must be asked. What are the authorities waiting for? . . . With these incidents being dealt with in this way, we see a growth of expectation of impunity and thus encouragement by some to continue breaking the law while assured that they will not be held accountable."
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi called for an investigation of Sunday's violence, saying he considered the assault on the cathedral "an attack against myself." His actions will speak louder than his words. The U.S. government should be making this amply clear.