The horror in Libya could have come from a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell: 21 knife-wielding figures hacking the heads off 21 young men in orange jumpsuits along the shoreline, blood staining the surf red. But this was no imagined scene — it was the mass execution of Egyptian Copts who had been kidnapped by Islamic State terrorists.
The killers may have aimed to exploit sectarian hostilities — as they have in Iraq and Syria — and splinter Egyptian society. Paradoxically, however, this blatantly anti-Christian attack may finally lead to the easing of Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt.
This week, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Sisi responded to the beheadings with acts that unequivocally recognized the Copts as "innocent victims" and true sons of Egypt. He declared a week of national mourning, dispatched envoys to appeal to the United Nations and ordered air force bombers to "deliver swift justice in retribution."
Sisi's visit to St. Mark's Cathedral to offer condolences to Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, was another welcome gesture of solidarity.
Whatever the strategic value of Sisi's moves, his display of respect is precisely what Copts have been yearning for.
The Copts, whose name is derived from the Greek word for Egypt, trace their faith to St. Mark, the Gospel writer, thus predating Islam in Egypt by 600 years. Nevertheless, Egypt's state policies and practices have long treated the Christian minority as second-class citizens, if not a foreign fifth column.
Persecution of the Copts intensified in the final years of Hosni Mubarak's presidency, then escalated after the "Arab Spring" revolution. When the Muslim Brotherhood gained control of the government in 2012, tens of thousands of Copts sought refuge abroad.
A 2011 episode in Cairo's Maspero district became an iconic example of anti-Copt persecution. People protesting a string of church arsons were ruthlessly dispersed by the military. More than two-dozen were killed and hundreds wounded after being shot at or run over by police in tanks, according to forensic reports. Afterward, the government exonerated the security forces, arresting instead two-dozen Copts and a sympathetic Muslim, who were jailed for months. The prime minister blamed the violence on "invisible hands," insinuating some American and Israeli influence. The investigation of the incident was eventually closed for lack of evidence.
Other lethal attacks that garnered international attention include the 2010 drive-by shooting that killed seven worshipers at the Orthodox Christmas Mass in the town of Nag Hamadi; the 2011 bombing of Alexandria's Two Saints Church during a New Year's service that killed at least 21; and the 2013 mob attack at St. Mark's Cathedral during a funeral for five Copts slain in reprisal for alleged blasphemy. But most assaults occur outside the major cities, away from the public eye.
Incited by state-supported media and imams, mobs attack Copts and their churches for any number of perceived wrongs — blasphemy against Islam, interfaith romance. But frequently the trigger is a law carried over from Ottoman rule that sharply restricts where and how Christian churches can be built or repaired. More than just some vestigial rule, the law has been brutally enforced as a way to subordinate Copts. On one day in 2011, armed forces directed heavy machine-gun fire at two Coptic monasteries, ostensibly to address zoning problems. A few months before, police shot at Copts repairing the roof of St. Mary Church in Giza, killing four, and then arrested 200 keeping vigil inside.
This persecution has been compounded by flawed or nonexistent justice. Even if perpetrators are charged, courts resolve matters not with a legal judgment but with "reconciliation sessions" in which the victimized Copt is forced to shake hands with his Muslim aggressor.
Anti-Copt hate crimes are still reported daily. But the last major attack was in mid-August 2013, after the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. That military coup was supported by socialists, women's rights groups, students, intellectuals, businesspeople, secularists and the military, but it was Copts who were the scapegoats and bore the brunt of Islamist anger. Scores of churches were demolished by mobs over three days of attacks.
President Sisi, a pious Muslim, should ensure that his recent steps lead to a new chapter of religious freedom and cultural tolerance in Egypt. He can start by seeing that those who assault Copts and their property are tried and punished; journalists and religious leaders who incite such violence are taken off government payrolls and held responsible; and churches and mosques are given equal treatment under state zoning and construction regulations.
The encroachment of extremist militias on the country's western border poses a threat to Egypt's Muslims and Christians alike. It's in the interest of both to stand equal and united.
This column was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.